As children are preparing to return to school, I was reminded of my own school years, in a totally different reality. Compared with today’s kids who are practically born knowing how to scroll or double click on a screen, and who can copy-paste and have their spelling automatically corrected, my own first year in school seems surreal. It was the early sixties in Greece: it was another age.
My siblings and I attended a local primary school in the suburb of Athens where we lived. The first grade teacher, Kyría Anna (Mrs Anna) appeared ancient in our eyes: she was a short and dumpy woman, dressed in black, with snowy white curls and a high voice (she probably was well past the current retirement age). We children, boys and girls, wore blue knee-length overalls over our clothes, below which our skinny legs and scabby knees could be seen. They were adorned with a white detachable Peter Pan collar, which could in theory be washed more often that the rest of our clothes.
See below my sister and me on the first day of the school year, with our new overalls, ghastly haircuts, and even ghastlier Scholl sandals complete with socks!
Every day before class we assembled in the school courtyard, a bleak concrete square enclosed within a wall. We lined up in pairs holding hands, shorter kids at the front. Because I was very tall for my age, my choice of partner was limited: I either had to hold hands with K. —a tall and fat boy who was afflicted with a disease of the eyes which meant he had to wear very thick dark glasses—or with P., who was unfortunately quite bald because he suffered from alopecia. P. happily was a good friend of mine—we used to ride our bikes home together because he lived quite near our house. So I always tried to get P., but it was not always possible, because he was the most popular of the two.
After roll call we proceeded to our classroom, and sat on wooden desks much scored by previous pupils’ penknives and ballpoint pens. In first grade we had to write on small slates with pieces of chalk. To my total mortification, I stuck out like a sore thumb, because my mother must have been the nerdiest mum in the universe: she sewed little bags out of waterproof material for me and my siblings, which she attached to the slate via a piece of string and a thumbtack. Into this bag each morning she placed a dampened sponge, so that we could erase the slate as needed. Meanwhile everyone else, needless to say, just spat on the slate and wiped it clean with their sleeve.
During the break we filed out into the courtyard where my tomboyish side came in handy, since I was lethal at marbles against the boys, and won many a coveted glass marble with coloured swirls in the centre. Otherwise we girls played hopscotch on chalked squares and the boys kicked a ball around. There was a tiny shop which sold koulouria (circular breadsticks with sesame seeds) for the princely sum of 1 drachma—and for another 50 cents, you could get a thin triangle of kaseri cheese. We were given 1 or 2 drachmas on Saturdays (yes, we had school on a Saturday)—otherwise, it was an apple from home.
Our book from which we learnt the alphabet was very old-fashioned, featuring a boy and a girl who go from their village to the city where they discover electricity! They press a switch and a light goes on! We had no book for arithmetic, Kyría Anna just wrote some simple sums on the blackboard.
Kyría Anna was extremely calm and mild tempered: I don’t remember her ever punishing anybody. Some of the male teachers in the more advanced classes, however, did administer slaps on the palm with a wooden ruler, or pulled boys’ sideburns. One, Kyrios Andreas, had a key chain which he’d whirl around and use it to hit boys on their bare legs. And our music teacher, Kyrios Gasparis, once memorably pulled a wonky leg off his chair and threw it at a boy who was being disruptive. Girls were almost never punished; and they often took refuge in tears, which got them off the hook.
It is proof of how small Athenian society was at the time that I still know a few of those children from first grade!