As one gets older and more experienced in life, there are times that you look back, especially in your childhood, and remember the things that gave you great joy and happiness – a toy you received on Christmas morning or the time your Dad took you to your first ballgame. You know the memories – dancing fairies, sugarplums, and all that.
But, as a Greek-American adult, there is one thing that you try to repress in your mind and lock away, never to be unleashed to the world. A thing so awful and horrendous that just a quick glimpse of it from your memory will make you retch and have convulsions. A thing that is truly sinister and if used as a torture technique on the terrorists around the world, I guaranty would yield volumes of intelligence information.
Yes, I am speaking of the Greek school pema (ποιημα) (pemata – poems) that we, as Greek-American children, were forced to recite before family, friends, teachers, priests, and the community at large at the Greek Independence Day or October 28th Oxi Day celebrations. Even to write about it today, brings chills to my weary bones. Hannibal Lecter… Freddie Krugar… Leatherface – ahhh, mere child’s play. Fengaraki mou lambro… aghhhhhhhhh! Pure evil! I still can’t look at a full moon without sweating and I’m not talking werewolves.
What is it with the Greeks and their poetry? I know this is how the Ancient Greeks passed down stories and taught the language to their children, but if I ever get my hands on that poet that wrote, Fengaraki mou lambro, I’ll make sure he never writes another stanza!
Do you remember how it was? I certainly do! I was eight years old. I’m in Greek school class trying not to make eye contact with my teacher, who I know was brought up from the depths of Hades, spewing fire and brimstone out of his mouth, just to torment me. But he zeros in and hands me the dreaded pema. It’s like handing a death sentence to a convict. Life is over. And what is worse, I only had two weeks left to my life and I still had to memorize it.
At the start of the two weeks, I thought, “I have plenty of time”. But soon, I realized I have only a couple of days before the execution! To make things worse, there is that one annoying girl in class who not only memorizes her poem, but mine too and continually recites it over and over and over to me. Why doesn’t she just pure salt and vinegar on my paper cut and get it over with – ouch! (I think she now works at Guantanamo Bay for the CIA – or she should). And, the problem is, no matter how hard I tried… nothing. I can’t remember any lines because I’m too busy watching Spider-man.
Of course, Mom is asking if I memorized the poem – which I had to lie. Dad just says not to embarrass the family – oh boy, wait how embarrassing this will be. My older sister is laughing at me because she has been there, done it. No sympathy from her.
The day finally arrives. This is the 1960s, so I had the mandatory crew cut, suit with the flood pants, and a skinny tie. One saving grace, my parents never bought me a foustanella to wear, like my poor, retched cousins had to wear. No pompoms on my shoes! I think that was my Dad’s doing – thanks Dad.
One at a time each student is called to go to the hangman’s noose (the microphone). I have some time. I keep running the poem through my head but I’m still messing it up. I even read the paper and can’t get it right. I was positive that this wasn’t even written in Greek but some other foreign language and it was a set-up to embarrass me, and everyone was in on it. Then the microphone squeaks and I hear my name. It’s like going through a car accident… slow motion. You are aware of everything around you but you have no control on what is happening.
As if by magic, my legs stand up and next thing I know I’m at the mike. I look around. The priest is sitting at the desk next to me. He looks like he’d rather be watching paint dry. My Greek school teacher from Hell is behind me waiting for me to mess up – he has a sinister smile. My parents are sitting in the front row, beaming with pride – poor Dad. My sister is next to them laughing and making funny faces. And then there was the silence. Dad has a look of concern. Everyone is staring. What seemed to me as about an hour was probably more like 30 seconds.
The priest clears his throat. I wake up and to my astonishment the words come out flowing like a cool mountain spring. Every syllable, every word is spoken clearly and concise and near the end, my voice rises in pitch and I give a hearty Zito I Ellas! I get a standing ovation, the thunder of the applause is deafening – or that’s how I would have liked to remember it. More like, I mumbled through it quickly and everyone gave the required unenthusiastic applause and I sat down. It was over that quick.
But in the end, the Governor sent the reprieve and I lived. I survived the dreaded pema, my parents were proud, and my sister even congratulated me.
Years later, my daughters have gone through this Greek rite of passage (but I made them get dressed in the traditional costumes – oh, well). I pestered them about memorizing their poems and telling them not to embarrass the family. Their grandparents continually coached them. I videotaped them so I could let their future husbands see them as they truly were (it’s called payback – kids). As for the Greek school teachers, I have come to realize that they are not so bad. Maybe they are still from the depths of Hades, but they have a hard job teaching our children our Greek language and culture and they do a great job.
So next time your kid is standing in front of the mike struggling to recite Fengaraki mou lambro, remember your experience with the executioner and give your kid a little sympathy. And when they are finished, stand up and give them the loudest round of applause. They will remember it for a lifetime!
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