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One Man’s Journey in Greek Education

By on October 19, 2014

Queen Elizabeth visited Canada in 1960, and so did a young man and recent graduate of Columbia University’s Teacher’s College in New York, who was being interviewed for the post of principal of Socrates Canadian School of the Holy Trinity community. The interview took place in an old three-story building on Sherbrooke Street that had stood since 1912 as the rectory of the church and was now being used as the school, the first Greek day school in North America and the only Greek day school in Canada at the time.

Socrates Hellenic Canadian School

Socrates Hellenic Canadian School

“It looked old and narrow and I wondered why I had come here,” says Dr. Constantine Michalakis, now in his eighties, then 38, a veteran of the Greek civil war and a recent doctoral graduate of Columbia, who had been recommended to the community by Archbishop Iakovos.

Conducting the interview in the first floor office of the school was Spiros Kolivas, a former wrestler who had made his fortune running the café atop the city’s Mount Royal and was nicknamed “Khrushchev” for his resemblance to the Russian leader. Around the table sat the fourteen members of the board of trustee, all early immigrants, all self-made men now wealthy through investments in nightclubs, restaurants, food markets, and most of them uneducated.

“And they saw a young man with an education and probably thought, ‘Who can trust you?” recalls Michalakis. “They peppered me with questions. What do you want to do with the school? What do you want to do that for? If you’re so qualified, what are you doing here?

“I wondered that myself,” Michalakis now says, the memory still vivid. “After that first day, I walked out to Sherbrooke Street to grab a cab to my hotel, and it was raining hard and there were no taxis available and nobody had offered me a ride, and I said to myself again, What am I doing here?”

He was called back the next day and his conditions reviewed. He wanted the school used only as a school (the board of trustees used it for meetings) and he wanted the right to hire qualified teachers, not the usual ladies moonlighting as Greek teachers. The board decided to deliberate longer and Michalakis went next door to have a kataifi (Sherbrooke then was full of Greek shops). He was called back to the meeting by Aristotle Mavros, a transplanted Egyptian Greek, who spoke several languages and he remembers “dressed like an ambassador.” The board had made a decision.

“We like you,” Kolivas told Michalakis. “We’ll hire you for $300 a month.”

But Michalakis’ optimism quickly faded as the school year began: “The old immigrants who ran the school did it only for the prestige of the community having a school. Their kids were grown and didn’t attend the school, anyway. The new immigrants whose kids did attend were very poor and struggling to survive.”

That first school day in September, Michalakis arrived by bus from his home in the Park Extension neighborhood (he had brought his family meanwhile from New York) and he was the first that morning in the old building: “There was no custodian, the place was very cold, and I went around switching on the lights.”

Then the teachers arrived, and since there was no faculty lounge, they went directly to their classrooms. Mrs. Wilson, who taught the two first grades, was very old and went up the stairs to her classroom only once and down again the end of the day. The remaining grades ran till sixth and were taught by the school’s eight teachers, including two Greek teachers, Mrs. Apostolidou from Salonika, who towered over the kids, and Mrs. Kontzias, a recent widow. After Michalakis toured the school that first day to see that the kids were seated and the teachers present, he returned to his office (the former first floor office of the board of trustees) and rang the bell by hand to start the first day of classes.

“The ten kids of the sixth grade sat on the other side of the partition that separated my office from their class,” he remembers. “There was no yard for recess, and the kids ate their lunch at their desks.” One little boy brought a daily lunch of a crust of bread dipped in oil. “These people were very poor,” says Michalakis. “Desperately poor.” Of the 260 kids that first year, many were late with the $2-3 a month tuition. “What do you want me to do?” one parent late with his payment told Michalakis. “Feed my family or pay you?”

Michalakis stayed for two years, then moved to Chicago. He left behind a school with a new name, Socrates Hellenic Canadian School, and the hope that a new and proper school be built.

It was, a few years later, in the suburban parish of St. George.

About Dimitri C. Michalakis

Dimitri C. Michalakis is Editor in Chief on NEO Magazine.