Saturday, December 3rd, 2022
Nameday of Glykerios

The Philly Greek-Stake Blog

A Form of Torture

A Form of Torture

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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  1. Christina

    I sincerely dreaded this day…and piano recital days as well

  2. Chrsitina Tselentis Beitet

    We should have been so lucky to have had this….Where I grew up and still live there is no Greek Church (OCC only). So no Greek School… I would have loved to have had the experience. Even my children did not have the opportunity.I did instill in them the love of Greece, it’s culture, music,dance and food. My son a junior at Temple belongs to the Greek Club and practices his Greek all the time..( not perfect, but he does his best). The other kids are stubborn and not so willing to attempt to speak. Hopefully though in time!!!!

  3. John Pogas

    Dreaded pimata. The reason why I dropped out of Greek school. Well, that and a sadistic priest who taught it on Friday afternoons in Northeast Philly.

  4. stephanie

    How funny! This brings back memories! :-)



  6. Sophia

    I just laughed my a** off. Six years of torturous Greek School in Chicago, plus a bazillion years of Sunday school. I thought my mother was Satan. But you know what? Now, I am really grateful that I have bilingual language skills. The memory of the pimata, I could do without. :-)

  7. Annie Sigalos

    Thank You Harry for once again writing another spot-on commentary about growing up as a Greek-American. Between the” pema” and the” pandofla” your articles have sent me into fits of laughter coupled with my own fond (and sometimes not) memories.
    Looking forward to more…….

  8. Harry

    I’m glad I can stir up those old memories and thanks for the comments. I do read all of them.

  9. Pete Dagios

    Bravo Harry!!!
    I actually laughed out loud reliving this dreaded memory. My favorite was reciting a 24 verse poem flawlessly in front of Kurio Klimi (before he was ordained) only to be out-shined by a kid 1/2 my age reciting:
    Min mylate, Min mylate, O popous kimate
    ….to a thuderous applause and stealing my glory!!
    Thanks for the memory!!!

  10. Zeffie

    Oh Harry, if only my girls’ poimata were as easy as “feggaraki mou lambro” I am reliving the anxiety each time they get on that BIG stage!!

  11. Andreas T.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the post.
    My daughter is a first generation Greek American. She did the Greek school thing at St. George’s in Lynn, MA, and with her girlfriends there, they were always complaining.
    The teachers were tough, but then again, we Greeks really spoil our kids, and for some strange reason they don’t give their Greek teachers (or Greek school) half the respect they give their US teachers (another story).
    I only let her do the childish peemata the first 2-3 years. Then one year I decided that instead of her reciting one of the silly poems for the 28 October to recite a poem from Odysseas Elytes. The teacher was shocked (I had already prepared the priest) and everyone really gave her a standing ovation (her classmates even more). This is the poem she recited:
    I am willing to bet that when she has her own children she will send them to Greek school too. Talk to your priests and Greek School teachers. Only you can help fix those problems that have made Greek School and not-so-pleasant experience.

    — Andreas

  12. Irene Karageorge

    Thank you for sharing! I went from laughing out loud (where my entire family heard me) to crying! These memories are priceless! I was one who loved to recit poems and for me it was a very happy time in my youth. But for my children, especially Ikie, it has been torture in its best form! I hope one day he will forgive me and my husband! Again, thank you for sharing!

  13. Vassiliki Lyras

    your prose brought back those memories- so well written! I too, now have my daughters in Greek school and watch them go thru the memorizing and torture. What is so sick about it is that I relish in their misery…..I had to go thru it too! Ha- so payback time! But as I watch them recite on stage my heart swells with pride- these are MY daughters. Let the younger generation hold the torch for Hellenism. Thanks Harry, for making me chuckle and remembering my torturous past of the dreaded Greek school! Ok….I wasn’t going to say it but I have a story to tell about Greek school. It was my last year 6th grade and oh I hated it- I wanted to be playing basketball instead. So…..One day on a Greek school day I decided to run away. I used to take public service to school so my girlfriend Janine and I met at school (Moorestown Friends) and took the bus to Camden transit center. From there we took a bus to Ocean City. Janine’s parents had a summer house there. We walked to the house holding our paper bag lunch and another bag with extra clothes…we must have been a sight. 2 12 year olds walking the streets of Ocean City. We reached her house and actually broke in! I used a hair pin from my hair…quite easy I might add. We made ourselves comfortable and was boiling water for tea to have with lunch when we heard a knock at the door. we ran and hid in the bedroom- it was the cops! They came to take us away! Needless to say we got a free ride to the police station- had the honor of being chauffeured and they put us in a cell! I remember it did not smell too good, We had to call our parents and tell them where we were. Of course me being the smart alek and not wanting the cops to hear what I had to say- I spoke in Greek- so you see going to Greek school did pay off! To end the story our parents came to pick us up and to my horror I was threatened to 3 more years of Greek school!!! Thank goodness Greek school only had till 6th grade. I did get my butt in trouble and was grounded but I will never forget my trip to Ocean City with Janine all because of the dreaded Greek school. BTW, my children do not know this story and I plan to keep it that way till they become adults!!!!!!!!!!

    • Harry

      You’ll keep this away from your children…until they start going on Cosmos Philly website!! lol Funny story…thank God the statute of limitations has run but your Greek school teachers should be proud of you that you were abel to speak in Greek without the police knowing what you were saying.

  14. Vesta Wiltsie

    reading the post and think that the travel you are along decide a very valuable journey toward the health of others. Thank!

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