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Greek School

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Greek School Photo
Los Angeles Greek School in 1923

During the first years in the twentieth century millions of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe came to America seeking refuge and a better life. The belief was that both the immigrant and America would benefit. The Greek immigrant was intent on maintaining his Greek identity and avoiding the machination of American life. And what better way to preserve your identity than by preserving your language?

In the immigrant Greek home, the only language spoken was Greek. As soon as Greek families had settled in sufficient numbers the first order of the day was to establish a Greek Orthodox Church. Next, in conjunction with the Church, the Greek community established a Greek language school so that its children would learn to read and write in Greek and learn about Greek customs and traditions.

May Day outing with the first Greek School teacher, Mr. Mesahakis, circa 1920
Greek School officially began in Los Angeles in September 1920, at the Church of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, known as the “San Julian” Church because it was on San Julian Street. Fifteen students came that first day to be taught Greek by the Rev. Gerontios Coutouzis. Before long, a full time Greek School teacher by the name of Mr. Mesahakis was hired. The classes were held every day from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. after “American” school; reading writing, grammar, Greek history (particularly the War of Independence) as well as classical studies were taught. Many of the students lived close by and walked to Greek School or took the bus; however, those that lived farther came twice a week. Dr. Frank Nicholas’ father had one of his drivers make the rounds to take him and family members there. Some had private tutors in their homes. The largest single school was at “San Julian Church”. In 1923 Mr. Palatianos was hired and is the teacher shown in the Greek School photo of that year. By that time there were over 75 students regularly attending Greek School. Father Ioakim Papachristou taught the younger students.

In addition to learning to read and write Greek, the children learned traditional songs and dances, presented plays and pageants. The big event of the year was March 25, the Greek Independence Day celebration. The children wore traditional Greek costumes. For the boys, it meant the foustanella: the short white tutu with black jacket and long white stockings. The girls wore the Amalia dress: a long taffeta gown with tight fitting bolero jacket and lace at the throat. Naturally, the girls found their costumes more tolerable than the boys did theirs. Each child had a patriotic poem to memorize and recite before an audience of friends and beaming parents. There would be a skit about the bravery of the Greek guerilla fighter throwing off the oppressor, the Ottoman Turk, followed by folk songs and dances and ending with the Greek national anthem…”We knew thee of old…” The families would return home, proud that they were imbuing their children with a sense of their Greek identity.

Showing off May Day finery at a Greek School outing were classmates Bessie Kostantouros Morris, Sophie Psumules Angelos, Beulah Futris Daglas
The children, however, were less enthusiastic about Greek School than their parents. To begin with there was the teacher “O Daskalos”. He was usually from the old country, stern and authoritarian and used to certain respect for his position in Greek village society. The teacher would try to maintain discipline over his American-born students through corporal punishment. The weapon of choice was THE RULER.

The teacher remembered by most of the students in Los Angeles was Mr. Makroyiannis, fondly called “Long John” behind his back. Frank Nicholas recalled, “In the back of the church was the Challenge Creamery and several of us used to play handball against the wall before school would start. ‘Long John’ had a big cow bell that he would ring when it was time to come in, and of course we would all ignore the bell. He would really get mad when we wouldn’t come in.” Kay Brotsis remembered, “There was a time the students locked ‘Long John’ in the closet and then ran out and left him there.”

Humorous memories abound for all Greek School students, remaining vivid even after 70 years. Bessie Morris told of the time Frank Scolinos got stuck in his seat and they had to take the chair apart in order to get him out; the Doumak brothers were really wild and gave the teachers a hard time. Sophie Kezios recalled having to recite in Church the Lord’s Prayer, Pater Imon. “You had to stand up throughout the whole Liturgy, go to the front when it was time to say the Lord’s Prayer and say it all by yourself. We would really shake in our boots.”

Greek School chums from the early 1920s: Katherine Futris Van Hoy, Sophie Psimules Angelos, Beutah Futris Daglas
Many students attended for years, often from first grade through junior and even senior high school. Graduation was held in the church in front of the entire congregation. According to Sophie, ”It was really scary trying to remember the right diphthongs and grammar with everyone watching and listening. Beulah Daglas remembered a time when, as part of her graduation exercise, she was asked by a parishioner how she would get to her parents’ village in Greece from Los Angeles. She was able to do so.

The early Greek School enjoyed a tremendous success. By 1928 over 250 children of the pioneers were enrolled at seven Greek School locations (three in central Los Angeles, one each in Watts, Huntington Park, Long Beach and San Pedro).

Today ethnic is “in”. Americans no longer see themselves as a melting pot but as a “tossed salad”. Each immigrant group is seen as having something unique to contribute to the enhancement of the American experience. The children of more recent immigrants consequently, do not view Greek School as somehow “un-American”.

Editor’s note: Excerpts for this article were taken from Greek Heritage Society interviews taken in the home of Dr. Frank Nicholas in the summer of 1992. Beulah Daglas identified all the students in the 1923 Greek School photograph. Dr. Frank Nicholas, Kay Brotsis, Beulah Daglas, Sophie Kezios and Bessie Morris shared their remembrances and the article appeared in the 1992 Greek Heritage Society Newsletter. Also used are excerpts from an article written by Marian Skarpelos for the same Fall/Winter Greek Heritage Society Newsletter.

 

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