When World War II veteran Greg Mitrakas entered Seneca Ridge Middle School’s seventh-grade history class Thursday, students sat up straight and listened.
For the last three years, Greg Mitrakas has come to the Sterling school to tell war stories and talk about his immigration from Greece to the United States.
When his daughter, Seneca Ridge Middle School English teacher Toula Mitrakas, asked her father to talk to her class and seventh-grade history students, he thought it was a good idea.
"I’m trying to make kids aware of what a wonderful country we live in," Greg Mitrakas said. "I am an American and I am proud of that."
GREG MITRAKAS came to the United States in 1928.
The 7-year-old boy left Vithos, a small Greek village, with his parents, in search of a better life.
During class, Toula Mitrakas encouraged her father to talk about his journey to America, Ellis Island and his first experiences in his new home.
"Tell us the ice-cream story," Seneca Ridge Middle School student Alyssa Hannah said.
Greg Mitrakas laughed.
"I tell this story every year," he said.
He went on to tell the students about eating ice cream for the first time.
"I thought my tongue was going to freeze," he said. "We didn’t have ice cream in my country. No soda either. And you should have seen me with my first piece of gum."
After each story, another set of students’ hands shot up with more questions.
"He is living history," Toula Mitrakas said.
Toula Mitrakas asked her father to talk to her students, in preparation for the Standards of Learning (SOL) history test on Tuesday, May 30.
"This isn’t just for the SOLs," she said. "He’s also a person who’s lived through what they are reading about in their books."
By the end of the day, Greg Mitrakas had told students about being an immigrant, learning English, being a prisoner of war and receiving two Purple Hearts.
DURING A BREAK from the discussion, Seneca Ridge students Courtney Todd, Paige Simpson, Allison Riddle and Julia Woods talked about what they learned.
"I was surprised the Germans treated him so nicely," 13-year-old Todd said. "They gave him three meals a day and cigarettes."
"He said he traded cigarettes for food," Woods said.
Simpson asked Greg Mitrakas about being a prisoner of war.
"How did she know — your wife — know you were all right?" she asked.
Toula Mitrakas chimed in with a story she remembered from when she was a little girl.
"My mother used to tell me the story about when two men came to the house to tell her my father was missing in action," she said. "She said she knew something was wrong. She had a feeling."
In order to communicate with his wife while he was in a German prison, Greg Mitrakas wrote his wife, Fran, a letter. He wasn’t allowed to send his letter to the United States because he did not have a German serial number. So, he found someone who did.
Mitrakas befriended an English soldier who was mailing his wife a letter. Mitrakas slipped his letter in English soldier's envelope with specific directions to the recipient.
"I sent my letter with an English soldier. The English soldier’s wife mailed it to my wife," he explained. "That was the only way to communicate. Through that one letter."
"What did the letter say?" Simpson asked.
"It just said that I was OK," Greg Mitrakas said. "We won’t get into all the mushy stuff."
By the time Mitrakas was finished, the students were talking about World War II, Ellis Island and the difference between being labeled missing in action and prisoner of war.
The class ended and the students said in Greek, "Oppa!"