Pete Peterson's 'The Education of an American Dreamer'

Even my name seemed to conspire against me. Mother called me Petie, an innocent diminutive but one that caused confusion. I learned this my first day in junior high school, when the teacher started calling the roll and then stopped to ask, "Petie Peterson. Is that a boy or a girl?" Laughter ran around the room, and after that I insisted that my mother make sure the school system knew my name was Pete. But to her, I would always be Petie. Indeed, after Elaine's death she had hovered protectively over our every activity, forbidding John and me from playing contact sports. When we went into the water at Kearney's one public swimming pool, she insisted on being near us at the pool's edge. Once on the Fourth of July, she read the riot act to my Uncle Bill, my father's brother, after the fuse of a cherry bomb he lit spurted off and hit me in the eye. She even forbade us to climb the cherry tree in the backyard, though its limbs were not more than six feet off the ground. I was labeled a sissy by the other boys in those circumstances, and, I suppose, I was. (John escaped that dubious designation, in part because he was more into sports and also because he was a little devil with an infectiously naughty and, at times, disingenuous personality who charmed everyone he met and, in particular, my mother.)

Even innocent family customs seemed to conspire against my desire to fit in. We received regular packages of herbal teas from Mother's family in Greece. This tea, called tsai, was stored in a trunk in the cool basement to keep it fresh. There were two varieties: one my mother enticed me to drink in the mornings by calling it "brain food" and saying it would make me very smart; the other—chamomile—she drank in the evenings because it helped her go to sleep. One day in school our teacher asked what we drank with breakfast. Most of my classmates said they had milk or Ovaltine with their morning meal, but when my turn came I answered, "Tsai."

"What is tsai?" she asked.

Not knowing to call it tea, I explained that it was tsai, and that I drank it with meli—honey. I said, "It's good and it's sweet and it makes me smart. I drink it every morning so I can be smart all day."

"Does your mother drink it also?"

"No, she drinks the other kind of tsai, the kind that puts you to sleep at night."

"And where does your mother get this tsai?" the teacher continued.

"Out of the suitcase. There's a suitcase downstairs in the dark room and she goes down there and puts the tsai in a jar and keeps it in the cupboard. And then she makes it for me in the morning, and she drinks hers at night so she can go to sleep."

These mysterious doings apparently set off warning bells of stimulants and opiates and strange foreign customs, because before I knew it the teacher asked, "Why don't you have your mother visit and explain it to me, and then we can explain it to the rest of the class." It was another example of our differentness, and I felt embarrassed to be singled out.

Nor did I ever have my own birthday party, though I was permitted to go to a few parties of others. Greek tradition dictated that we celebrate my Name Day—June 29, the day in the church calendar dedicated to Saint Peter—rather than the anniversary of my birth. But Name Days were for adults, not for kids. It was another case of being different and not the American kid I wanted to be.

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