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Interview with James "Jim" Pantazis

Pantazis, James "Jim"
Fredican, Nicole
Date of Interview: 
relationships with people and places; childhood adventures; overcoming obstacles
Jim Pantazis compares education in Greece to that in the US.
Charlotte Narrative and Conversation Collection
Collection Description: 
Nicole Fredican interviews Charlotteans to collect stories for a class project at UNC Charlotte.
Interview Audio: 
NF (Nicole Fredican): My name is Nicole and I'm interviewing, uh, my uncle. So what country are you from?
JP (James Pantazis): Greece.
NF: So in Greece did you just speak Greek or did you just speak Greek and English?
JP: No, I just spoke Greek.
NF: So, uh, when you came, went, when you went to an elementary school in Greece, did you have any type of reading or spelling tests in Greece?
JP: Sure. We had the usual spelling tests to see if we could spell or not.
NF: So in Greece were there any national, countrywide tests that you took?
JP: I'm not sure what you mean by national tests.
NF: Like, everyone in the country took.
JP: No, there weren't, there weren't any tests like that. They didn't have those things in those days. Tests that we took were just given to us by, were given by the teacher. We don't have competency tests like they do nowadays where, but I am not sure because this was a long time ago. But I don't recall Europe having any national tests at all in the 50s. And I was in Athens, the capitol, a major city, so if Athens didn't have it, then the rest of the country didn't have it.
NF: So when you came to the United States, how did you learn English?
JP: Well, I learned English in school and outside of school. When I came to the United States, I was 10 years old and only spoke Greek. I went to a public school in New York City. My class was, uh, full of other foreign language kiddos, like, I think there was a Portuguese kid, an Italian kid and probably a few South Americans, Hispanic kids who, uh, spoke little to no English. There was maybe about twelve of us foreign-born kids and uh, you know. They had a teacher there who taught us English and it was, you know, hard. That teacher there in that class, I, uh, I doubt that she was formally trained in teaching foreign-born kids and, you know, I'm not, I'm sure that they just threw anyone in that room to teach us and, you know, they didn't have someone who was trained and who wants to do what you're aspiring to do. And, and a lot of times well, uh, just stare at her with a blank face because we didn't understand. We didn't have any vocabulary. I was in there for about a semester, and I mean a semester as in like a college term semester, and then I was, and then I went to fifth grade where it was homogeneous and everyone spoke English. I was there in a five-one class and I still, you know, had some trouble because I wasn't fluent. Then I went to a six-one and seven-one and so on and uh, my English got better, you know, like my vocabulary and stuff, but I have no idea how I learned grammar because I was never formally taught grammar. Not that any of the kids, even like native speakers knew grammar rules, but you know. And also, at 10 years old, your brain is like a sponge and you just absorb everything. So, I mean, that's kind of how I learned English.
NF: How did you learn English outside of school?
JP: Yeah, well, uh, I went to the movies a lot. I am a movie buff and in Europe they had different kinds of movies than they do here in the United States. I mean, when I came here and you got to remember this was in the 50s, that the movies here in the US had more action, like the westerns and gun violence than Europe. Also, my stepfather knew English so, uh, at home he and I would speak English, would speak English, and, he'd help me with my homework. Because a lot of times I'd write English words phonetically in Greek so that I would know how to say them in English, so that I'd correct pronunciation. And to go back, my mom didn't speak any, speak any English. She just spoke Greek, so I'd speak Greek at home and English at school. But to answer your question, I pretty much learned English through movies, school and a little bit from home because, you know, my stepfather could help me a bit.
NF: How did they know when it was your time to leave and be mainstreamed in the regular class? Were you given any type of language test in English?
JP: Well, what do you mean by "mainstreamed?"
NF: Like, when you left the class that had the twelve or so foreign-born kids, to a class where you said it was a five-one class, where it was homogeneously grouped to all English kids? Did they think you had enough English proficiency, like you spoke English well enough to leave?
JP: Uh, well, you got to remember this was almost 50 years ago and you're really, uh, testing my memory here so, I guess the teacher thought I spoke English well enough to move into a homogeneous English class. I really don't remember being given any test and it's not like today where there are a lot of tests given to kids. So I assume that the teacher, by her observations, thought I spoke English well enough to move on and once I moved on, I struggled with vocabulary and writing. I think, then I was in the five-two or five-three class and at first, I would still stare at the teacher with a blank face, and then, you know, uh, over the time I could understand more. My vocabulary got better and even my writing. Well, you see, my writing got better because when I got home, I would feverishly write and try to get better at English. I was motivated enough to just to do well in school. I was living in the Chelsea section of Manhattan that had lots of immigrants from Greece, Italy, Ireland and then later on the neighborhoods started to change where more Hispanics moved in. So, in that era, you wanted to be as much of an American as you could. So, uh, my motivation helped me too. But to go back to your question, I highly doubt that there was a test given to me, just the, uh, teacher thought I spoke English well enough to go to the other class.
NF: Do you remember how you felt when you were in that class with all the foreign-born kids and then how you felt when you went into the other class with all the, all the English-speaking kids?
JP: Yeah, well, uh, you know, when I went to school, when I first came to this country, I was nervous and apprehensive because I was this little Greek kid who spoke no English and living in New York City and although there were many immigrants from Europe and Greece, but the whole situation was just overwhelming. After being in that, uh, class with all the other foreign kiddos, I began to feel a little more comfortable because I was learning English, but I didn't have lot a whole lot of confidence. Later on, when I moved into all-English class, I uh, felt nervous and was scared because I kind of felt like I was starting all over again. The confidence I had was lost because there all the kids were fluent in English and I was not. So it took me a, quite a few years to, uh, begin to feel confident in speaking and being in that type of class. Even after the fifth grade, I went into the six-one class and that was the top of the class. I still felt nervous, but I worked hard and then it became easier. Also, the American school system is a lot easier than Greece. Like in Europe there is more rigorous academics than here. So in that way, school here was easier once I learned the language.
NF: When you went into middle school or high school, were there any English exams given to you that you had to take?
JP: Uh, no, they uh, didn't give me any type of test to see how good my English was. Once I had left the class of all the foreign kiddos, that was it. I, uh, didn't have any other type of tests per se, to see how my English was progressing.
NF: Did you take any foreign language in high school?
JP: Yes, I took French.
NF: How was that experience learning French because essentially, French was your third language?
JP: Yeah, you're right. In some ways it was hard because I didn't know any French and French is different from Greek and English. I struggled with it because it was new to me. Just learning a new language is a difficult process. But, in, you know, some ways it was easy because I knew what it took to learn a new language and in high school your brain does not absorb information as easily as when you are a young kid. But French was just something that I learned in high school and never really pursued much after high school.
NF: Did you take English the English Regents in high school, and did you think that you would have a difficult time with it because English was not your native language?
JP: I took the English Regents and well, uh, no, I didn't think that I would have any trouble with it because I had been in this country since I was 10 and you take the English Regents, like your last year in high school so you have four years to get ready for it. Also, I didn't have any accent because, you know, they say that the pre-pubescent time you won't have an accent, but anytime after that there is a chance of having an accent. But I mean, I was nervous about taking the Regents, because they have Regents in all subjects, like math and science, but English is the only one that you take your last year in high school and I mean, no one likes to take the Regents and everyone gets nervous for them whether you are a native English speaker or not.
NF: I know you don't remember taking any type of language tests in Greece or here, but, you know they must have given you some type of test, especially here to test your English proficiency, so do you think that language testing is important?
JP: Yeah because well, uh, I don't know what they do nowadays in terms of kids who come from other countries and how they put them into classes, but should see what the kid knows and then decide what would be the best for him.
NF: You mentioned earlier that you were in a six-one class, what does that mean?
JP: They uh, ranked the classes. The lower number being the top group and as you increase in numbers the level ability goes down. So I was in the six-one class. I was in the top group.
NF: You also mentioned that your stepfather learned English. How did he learn English?
JP: He came to the United States way before I did and learned some English. Then he went back to Greece and met my mom and that is why I came to the United States, because of him. He learned English by trying to read The New York Times, everyday and at night for a while. He took an English class, but he could not speak English, but not really read or write it.
NF: Well that is all of my questions. Thank you.
JP: It was a pleasure. Anytime.