Before Wikipedia, Smartboards, cell phones, the Internet and Google, there was pen and paper, print books, ink-smeared newspapers and a chalkboard in every classroom. This is where I learned to read and write in Ancient Greek.
Fifty years later, I don't remember much of my Ancient Greek but I vividly remember the classroom and the school where we all learned how to speak, read and write Greek half the day and the other half how to read, speak and write proper English. Located in the South Bronx, this Greek-American parochial school dealt out knowledge and character with a healthy dose of discipline. It is why our Greek roots are so deep. Our teachers worked hard to make sure that regardless of the passage of the years, the richness of that soil fed our soul so it would remain fruitful and faithful to the cause of keeping our heritage alive for generations to come.
It is why I call myself a Greek American, Greek first. It is why I have pictures of my immigrant parents always in view and it is why this particular month instills a tremendous sense of pride in me. I can't help it. Growing up Greek here was growing up even more Greek than if I were living in Greece. Immigrant parents everywhere wanted to make absolutely sure that their young sons and daughters knew the meaning of having a Greek heritage.
March is an especially important month for Greeks everywhere.
In March of 1821, a war of Greek Independence began with a simple but defiant gesture of the raising of a revolutionary flag over the Monastery of Agia Lavra near Patras in the Peloponnese, my mother's birthplace. It was the beginning of the war against 400 years of occupation by the Ottoman Empire. The uprising also coincided with the celebration of the Annunciation to the Theotokos, when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her that she would give birth to the son of God. Greece was eventually freed in 1829.
In Greece, March 25 is a national holiday. In the United States it's a day of pride and reflection for millions of Greek Americans. In major cities with high concentrations of Greek Americans, parades mark the War of Independence.
I know those parades well. As a young student, I marched in the parade on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Every year for 8 years, my mom dressed me and my brother in a fustanella, the traditional skirt-like outfit worn by Greek soldiers. We had a tough time walking through our neighborhood wearing what looked like a dress and every year I would dread the day. But it wasn't until later on that I realized what an honor it was to wear that skirt. As a kid it was the worst offense any mom would put a young boy through. As an adult, it meant having participated in a celebration of those roots the adults around me worked so hard to nourish.
I am forever grateful.