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

By the time I reached junior high school, Mother was no longer trying to make me look like a Greek folk dancer. But the Old Country still cast a long and sometimes—I felt—stultifying shadow. Junior high meant it was time to attend Greek School. The classes were held in one of our classrooms at Kearney Junior High after regular school hours. The teachers were Greek Orthodox priests who journeyed the forty or so miles from Grand Island, the closest town with an Orthodox church, to ruin the after-school lives of boys who would much rather have been playing football or basketball or shooting marbles. Their job was to teach us how to speak and write the mother tongue. The process began with subtle indoctrination: The first thing the priest/teacher of the day would do was to set up a small flag with a blue and white Greek flag upon the desk. They wore long beards and black robes, and they taught with unsmiling, rigid discipline. While we struggled to grasp the strange shapes of the twenty-four-letter Greek alphabet and connect them to words and words to comprehension, our non-Greek classmates passing in the hall would cast glances at us in the classroom with eyes that said, "How strange!"

Here again, I was driven to excel. I mastered Greek to the extent that I could write letters to our Greek relatives in their home villages and read the ones that we received. I also recited long Greek poems to my mother at home, at church, and at Name Day parties.

But as time went on, I tried harder and harder to escape. My parents' Greek habits and culture seemed like a vortex dragging me down while I wanted to break free and become more American. When I could I much preferred attending Kearney's Episcopal church, where I served as an acolyte, rather than going on the long drive in summer heat and winter snows to Grand Island for the interminable Greek Orthodox services. These could go on for three excruciating hours in rapid-fire Greek. It was trying during Lent, when the first day's bite of food, near the end of the service, was the communion bread, one small piece representing the body of Christ (oh, how I prayed for the second coming!).

There was no departing from these practices, however, since my parents believed that the Greek church was superior, indeed the source of Christianity. When they crossed themselves, their hands went from forehead to navel to the right chest and then to the left, and they insisted that the Roman Catholics who touched the left side of their chests first were doing it all wrong. As I rebelled against, or at least questioned, these assumptions, my father summoned various visiting Greek priests and bishops to sit down with me and set me straight. They all said the same thing: I should think of the world's religions as a tree in which the roots and the main trunk were all of Greek Orthodox origin. The Catholic and Protestant churches were mere branches.

None of their certainty about the church interfered with equally strong folk beliefs and superstitions. My mother once summoned my godmother to banish a wart from my hand. We assembled at midnight for the exorcism and my godmother, a strange-looking woman whom I barely knew, waved the branch of a particular kind of tree while she muttered incantations, and then applied some kind of homemade ointment to the wart. To my astonishment, it shrank and eventually disappeared.

Life Comes into Focus

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...