Having reached middle age, I often nostalgically look back over the past 52 years and ruminate over the golden years spent going to Greek School.
My primary school years were spent attending Λεπίδα on Sunday mornings and then Friday nights at Box Hill South. His teaching philosophy was simple – really, really simple. Comply fully and demonstrate total reverence to the μάθημα (lesson in class) and your respective teacher (often his wife or daughter) or… you had a choice. As a true libertarian, Λεπίδα gave you ‘the run of the field’. You could choose either the άσπρο ή μαύρο φίδι – the white or black ‘snake’.
The white and black snakes were two 40cm lengths of regulation garden hose that he proudly kept handy on his desk at the front of the class. And so there was never any doubt, the άσπρο and μαύρο φίδι had pride of place and were always on display.
If you were caught talking in class or heaven forbid, came to class without having completed the copious amounts homework set, you had to confront the prospect of being stood up in front of class and having your open hand whipped. Discipline wasn’t despatched with some sort of diffident reluctance but with enthusiasm that bordered on masochistic zeal.
In Grade 4, I was in the same class as my elder sister who was in Form 5. That’s right, Grade 4 to Form 6 were in the same class for Γραμματική (grammar). The step up from Grade 3 to competing with those twice your age and vying for optimal HSC scores was only the start of your challenges. Being in a class of almost 100 students (!), if you fell foul of the system, you were subjected to the same ritual of justice as anyone else. Lepitha was well and truly ahead of his time. Not only was he a libertarian but he was also a committed democrat!
For most students, the mere prospect of confronting the μαύρο φίδι was enough to ensure that not only were they as quiet as a church mouse in class but would also smash-out all homework in its entirety the minute they got home, complete with frilly, generally Doric style borders.
I was a little, let’s say, nonchalant about the whole formality. So much so, I am reminded of that line out of one of my favourite movies, GoodFellas. “But by then, I didn’t care. Everybody cops a beating sometime.”
I would regularly sport a 4-inch scar down the length of my left palm which I would proudly display to kids in English school the following week. Ι can report that the scar would generally heal in time for next Friday night class. Being right handed, it was always my left palm as my right hand was needed to keep up the writing in class.
If the actual physical punishment wasn’t enough along with the embarrassment of being made an example in front of two thirds of the school, you then had to endure the rezili – you fellow students’ ridicule at recess.
For some, the worst thing they could do if they ran astray was to tell their parents. Most had fathers who shared Lepida’s democratic principles. So a subsequent beating would ensue.
My parents were different. Dad would put his palm softly around my head, wink and dismiss the whole affair. After all, 4 inch scars were feathers in your cap, part of any boy’s growing up. Mum would laugh it off saying «O Γιώργος είναι μαθημένος από το ξύλο». For mum, dispatching beatings with the verga was ‘steak and eggs’.
In high school, I attended Tsousi in Flinders Street. The ‘barbaric’ practices of the seventies had subsided, particularly in the face of parental insubordination. By now everyone was wearing multi coloured jeans and listening to Duran Duran and the hard denim days and lines out of Thin Lizzy’s ‘The Boys are Back In Town’ resonated with far less menace. The first signs of gentrification and a SNAG society were well and truly evident.
Tsousi had a much more compliant audience but the temptations for us teenagers were omnipresent. Whilst we never considered venturing around the corner to the local peep shows at the Crazy Horse in Elizabeth St or to the Dendy Cinema in Manchester Lane, by Year 10, we would pluck up the courage and frequent the Timezone pinball parlour in the basement on Flinders St.
Timezone was Donkey Kong, Packman, Galaga and air hockey heaven. We had a system whereby as many were employed as scouts on the lookout for Tsousi’s whereabouts as were engaged in joystick mania.
And whilst Tsousi didn’t engage in caning, whipping or rubber hoses, he was renowned for his own specialty – the anapodi – which was targeted, bless his soul, exclusively to us boys. There was far less science to Tsousi’s despatches and his outbursts were utterly unpredictable. And there was no ‘show cause’, right of reply or judicial process. There was only one opinion that counted… and it wasn’t yours.
In truth, his bark was worse than his bite but his system kept hundreds of students in check. Today, I can partly attribute my bilingual abilities to his method.
Fast forward 35 years and we have been indoctrinated by our rights, privileges and by the concept that every opinion counts. 30 years of material bounty has had a profound effect. Instant gratification is as easy as clicking your fingers, a click on the mouse or swiping right. After all, the customer is always right – right?
As consumers, we are all privilege with a twenty-eight day no obligation return policy guarantee. Citizenship? That gets a bit messy as there are prickly little things called responsibilities to countenance.
In the face of a sustained six month lockdown, many are understandably getting twitchy, restless in fact. Facebook mania is stirring the masses as every conspiracy theory is entertained and amplified. Hunkered down in their respective echo chamber, keyboard warriors are on the march. Today, Saturday is the showdown. The streets of Melbourne are going to overflow with riotous hordes seeking… justice. (?) And fear not, the rebellious gits are to be lead by none other than Sam Newman – the man who has his finger on the pulse of the nation and his ear to the word on the street.
The French Revolution has nothing on this one.
As the numbers recede and our suburban ‘bliss’ becomes our new routine, surely a few more weeks aren’t too much to ask? Yes, I know there are inconvenient incursions but on the other hand 112 of the 576 deaths due to COVID, are (elderly) Melburnians of Greek background. Surely, we can stay the course and see over the ridge ahead.
Liberties? Pah. Where is Mr Tsousi when you need him?