“That stupid kid,” my friend raged as his son cowered in the corner, protecting his carefully coiffed hairstyle from his father’s verbal onslaught. “A detention again! Can you believe it? I slave away every day trying to get enough money to pay his bloody fees and he goes and gets himself a detention.”
“What did he do?” I asked.
“Can you hear vre?” my friend shouted. “Tell θείο what you did.”
“Backchatted to the teacher,” the boy mumbled, reaching into his pockets to extract a fidget spinner.
“Backchatted to the teacher,” my friend repeated syllabically, in a manner reminiscent of the arrested enunciation of the Greek Australians of the 90’s. “And what did you back-chat about?”
“Questioned school policy on uniform,” the boy offered indifferently, betwixt texting a friend with his new iPhone. “The school tie is a form of forced conformity and repression.”
“Ακούς ρε; He questioned school policy, ο μάγκας,” my friend crowed. “Because he doesn’t want to wear the school tie. Do I pay for you to learn, or to become a social fashion activist re? Answer me!”
“Whatever,” the boy shrugged and shuffled off towards his Xbox, nonchalantly.
“Can you see the new generation?” my friend sighed. “Defiant. Uncooperative. Thinks the world owes them a favour. My son, a detention!”
I watched him as he began to scratch away in exasperation at the psychosomatic eczema that blazed its way up his forearm.
The livid red colour matched exactly, the furious flush of his cheeks.
“I seem to remember that you also were the recipient of a detention back in your heyday,” I reminisced. “In fact, if I remember correctly, it was almost an expulsion? You and Jimmy?”
Immediately my friend spun around, a gleam in his eye. “That was different,” he grinned. “That was a righteous revolution! A fight against oppression, a blow against the establishment….It was….”
“What exactly happened?” I asked. “I remember your mum coming around in tears, crying to my mum that you had just thrown away your future but I never was able to get the full story. Next thing I knew, you had gotten into medicine, your parents had bought you a car and were going around telling all the χωριανοί that you were a brain surgeon… I assume everyone lived happily ever after?”
My friend fingered the remote key to his BMW x 5 lovingly. “It all started when my parents enrolled me in the private school,” he reminisced. “Being the only Greek, and of a working class family in a school chock full of the privileged families of the suburb is one thing. Being dropped off to school in your father’s Kingswood, is quite another. Don’t get me wrong. I was proud of my dad and I loved that Kingswood. I especially loved the way that all the Aussie parents would turn their nose up every time that car would backfire, spewing smoke over their Mercedes. But the meaning behind the look was clear. You and your dad who works double shifts at Ford, sits in the dark and skimps on food in order to afford the school fees don’t belong here, whatever marks you get, however clever you are. To even the dumbest kid in the class, all I ever was, was the Wog in the Kingswood.
“Jimmy on the other hand, was different. He was the Wog with the Dough, because θείο Taso managed to keep afloat in the 80’s and stave off the banks who were trying to take his properties. The problem is that Jimmy thought he was just ‘with the Dough’. So when he would invite his Aussie mates around for a pool party and his dad would come out in his singlet and knee high socks in thongs to cook them souvlaki, he didn’t realise that the next day, his so –called ‘mates’ would come to school and scoff: ‘Did you check out Jimmy’s house yesterday? Concrete as far as the eye can see. And those George Michael posters in the bedroom, once a Greek always a Greek if you know what I mean….Wham!'”
“I admit, I always found the presence of those posters in his room disconcerting,” I interjected.
“Yeah,” my friend laughed. “The only picture I was allowed to have in my room was Panagia, staring at me so I would study. But Jimmy didn’t get it. And that’s when in Form 5, he developed a crush on Amber, who quite frankly was repellent in every way: whiny voice, inane conversation, into netball… you know the type. Jimmy was besotted with her. He followed her everywhere, from the footy oval to the locker room and then into the tuckshop. And that’s where the problem began.
“Amber didn’t exactly rebuff Jimmy. She let him follow her around, hold her books and look at her like a lost dog. Amber’s mum though, was the head lady in the tuckshop and when she cottoned on to the fact that Jimmy was chasing her daughter, and flirting with her right before her very eyes, she was furious. No filthy wog was going to go out with her daughter. Next thing you know, Jimmy is no longer at school. Jimmy’s dad comes over and tells my dad that Jimmy has been suspended for stealing a meat pie from the tuckshop. My dad comes into my room and gives me a lecture about pride and the necessity of keeping your αξιοπρέπεια:
‘Δεν έχουμε τίποτα εμείς’, he says, ‘αλλά το τίποτα είναι τουλάχιστον δικό μας. Δεν θα λαχταράς για κάτι που δεν είναι δικό σου. Δεν θα με κάνεις ρεζίλι σαν τον Τζίμη του Τάσου’.
“I tell my dad that I don’t like meat pies. Tears well up in my dad’s eyes and he cries: ‘Δάτς μάι γκουντ μπόυς’.
“Now I know Jimmy hasn’t stolen the pie. I know this because our mothers would make us lunch at home and we never had any pocket money. Sometimes I would earn some extra coin by helping kids with their maths homework and would spend that on Sunny Boys. And it was there one day that I saw Amber’s mum’s face displace itself into a vision of the Apocalypse while she watched Jimmy take hold of Amber’s palm and pretend to read her future, as she giggled. ‘F….n wog!’ she snarled, slamming the freezing Sunny Boy onto the counter and sending it sliding to the ground. It was evident that she had concocted the accusation, in order to implicate Jimmy and remove him from her daughter’s path. And it was evident that this was an injustice that had to be redressed. The only way to do this, was to strike the evil at its source. We had to boycott the tuckshop.
“Do you remember Massive Con, θείο Γιάννη, the butcher’s son? Yeah, he was at our school for two years before he left to set up his first restaurant. Originally, I had appealed to my classmates’ sense of justice. For us wogs, who had neither money, nor the freedom of culinary choice, forgoing the tuckshop was no sacrifice. For the rest of students though, it was a calamity. They flatly refused to go along with my planned withdrawal of patronage, which is why it became necessary for me to compel Massive Con to stand in the middle of the tuckshop doorway, (his bulk took up the entire space anyway) and thump all would-be patrons trying to gain access.
“A day passed and no one entered the tuckshop. On the second day, I could see Amber’s mum from within the tuckshop craning her neck to try to decipher what was going on. On the third day, the Form 5 Co-ordinator, after making some enquiries among students exhibiting acute withdrawal symptoms, barged into my chemistry class and ordered me into her office.
‘What’s going on?’ I asked as she frog-marched me down the corridor.
΄Shut up’, she snapped, hurling me into her office.
“By the Co-ordinator’s desk, I discerned the unsmiling, prune-wrinkled face of Amber’s mum.
΄Have you deliberately set out to ruin and embarrass the school?’ the Co-ordinator suddenly inquired.
‘I don’t understand’, I responded.
‘Don’t play coy with me’, the co-ordinator snarled. ‘Or I’ll have you suspended’.
‘On what basis?’ I asked.
‘You know very well you sly little…’ interjected Amber’s mum, exasperated.
‘I am being interrogated by the tuckshop lady?’ I asked, ignoring her and directing my gaze towards the co-ordinator. ‘Do I need a lawyer?’
‘YOU are creating financial harm to the school!’ the co-ordinator boomed.
‘I’m sorry? Financial harm? How?’ I affected ignorance.
‘Do you realise that no one has purchased any food from the tuckshop for three whole days? And don’t play dumb. We know you are behind it. There are going to be consequences,’ the Co-ordinator dropped the tone of her voice to a steely, gravelly pavement level.
‘Well I think that’s ridiculous. Just because we are exercising our democratic right not to patronise the tuckshop, we are being persecuted? Since when is it compulsory to buy tuckshop food? Show me where this is written in the school rules,’ I challenged her.
“Amber’s mum by this stage had turned the colour of a ripe cranberry. ‘Listen you stupid little..’
‘I’m not going to be subjected to abuse’, I cut her short, referring again to the co-ordinator. ‘Especially not by the lady whose false accusations have resulted in the suspension of our friend. And if you must know, we will continue to boycott tuckshop food until such time as Jimmy returns to school, his name is cleared and an apology is issued’.
‘What?’ co-ordinator and tuckshop mistress screeched in unison. ‘This is about Jimmy? Jimmy is a thief’.
‘Jimmy is not a thief. Jimmy has been unjustly accused on no evidence. We aren’t going to shop at the tuckshop until this is sorted out’, I declared flatly.
‘I’m calling your parents’, the Co-ordinator yelled. ‘You’ve just earned yourself a suspension. And when you come back, you will have detention every Friday for the rest of the year. That is, IF you come back’.
“When I returned home that afternoon, my mother was sobbing in the kitchen, her head buried in her hands. My father was waiting in my bedroom, holding his leather belt. ‘Σε στέλνω στο σχολείο να γίνεις άνθρωπος!’ he panted between landing blows with the belt indiscriminately on my torso. ‘Όχι για να κάνεις τον ήρωα! Κοίτα τα χέρια της μάνας σου βρε! Κοίτα το σπίτι αυτό. Όλα δουλεμένα με τον ιδρώτα μας αλήτη, ε αλήτη’. Pushing me onto the floor in disappointment, he pronounced: ‘Χάνω το χρόνο μου μαζί σου. Δεν θα γίνεις άνθρωπος ποτέ. Σαν τον παππού σου είσαι. Κι αυτός έκανε τον ήρωα. Και τι κατάλαβε; Τον μαζέψανε οι Χίτες και τον σφάξανε. Τα ίδια σκατά είστε και οι δυο’.
“The next day, my mother and father sat motionlessly as the co-ordinator explained to them in the extremely slow, exaggerated tempo one usually employs towards kindergarten children, why I was being suspended and why in her opinion it was best if I did not return next year, as I was not a ‘good fit’ for the school. My father looked at her up and down, nodding as she droned on. Then, he put his hands on the table and, spoke:
‘Listen miss, my son done nuthin wron. Tzimi, he done nothing wron too’.
‘That’s an internal matter Mr Jack, Mr Jacklopl, Mr J…’
‘My name is Mr Giannokopoulos. You etzucated woman? You teatsa? Why you can’t read?’
‘That’s an internal matter. Jimmy’s theft of school property has been dealt with.’
‘Lissen miss’, my father’s voice rose to a crescendo. ‘We no eat your food, never. Your pie is like goat kaka in our mouth. Our wives make food for our tsildren. We no let them eat this rubbis. You steal rubbis? No. You steal goat kaka for eat? No. Jimmy no steal kaka. My son, no eat kaka. You kick him out of school because he no eat kaka? Τον κακό σου τον καιρό. Θα περάσεις από το πτώμα μου πριν το διώξεις το παιδί. You understand μωρή? You step on my dead body first and then you kick him out’. And with that he rose from his seat, smashed his fist on the desk, sending the co-ordinator’s file flying and remained, his eyes bulging out of their sockets, staring at her. Then, dragging my mother and I along with him, he stormed out of the office.
“The next day, Jimmy and I were both back at school and our classmates received us with hushed tones of awe.
‘Jackanopalopalous’, my form teacher commented wryly, barely concealing a smirk. ‘Pop those lunch orders over to the tuckshop will ya?'”
For a long time after, I sat, watching my friend tie his son’s school tie into a half-windsor knot, in silence. Then, he passed it over his son’s head and fastening it around his neck, as the boy sat, his eyes fixated upon the moving pixels on the television screen, oblivious to all but the controls in his hands. Seconds later, without taking his eyes off the screen, the boy gently removed the tie from his neck, undid the knot and proceeded to tie a foppish Eldredge knot, which he left half fastened down his chest.
“Best if you give in on the tie issue,” I advised. “Give you Giannakopoulaioi enough rope and you’ll hang yourselves.”