It’s inspiring to see that there are still some people making an effort to place the elder population where they belong, at the center of soceity, instead of treating us as moveable objects to be pushed around by our children, guardians, or government. Especially important are efforts to connect the older generation with young people—and not just to babysit them, but to teach and learn from them.
Last week I was lucky enough to participate in one such event organized by Candace Wolf, a Washington, D.C. artist. Candace has worked all over the world—picking oranges on an Israeli kibutz, living with gypsies in an English hopps field, organizing migrants in California. She has been Storyteller-in-Residence at the Kennedy Center and works with the local nonprofit Arts for the Aging, and has helped people of all ages share their own stories, preserving oral traditions and creating a “living history.”
In this instance, she set up an hour and a half student-run session at the Rock Creek Forest Elementary School in Chevy Chase, just outside the District in Maryland. She has 5 classes working on projects in this school,and other students in high schools doing much the same thing. She calls the project “Can I Be Your Witness?’’
She recruited a fifth grade class and brought them together with four elders. They included Victoria Price, a community activist and artist who has Native American and African American roots; Joe Williams, a construction worker (until he fell off a roof and became disabled) and Korean war vet from North Carolina who is also part African American and part Native American; and Beryl Padmore, a seamstress whose family went to Liberia, then returned (she is the grandaugther of Liberia’s 12th president). Plus me.
We were broken up into small groups. I sat surrounded by half a dozen or so fifth graders,armed with a tape recorder. Their job was to ask me about my life with a view to later transcribing the interview and then writing it up. In many respects the process resembled a typical journalist’s interview. In fact, it was part journalism, part oral history,part historical research. There were the usual questions–happiest moments in life, greatest challenges, biggest successes, biggest setbacks, worst moment, and would you do it all over again. I told them about growing up in Washington during the Second World War, and about the air raid wardens and blackouts, the streets crowded with troops of all varieties, and the long-ago streetcars that were the main means of public transport. They wanted to know the most important moment in my life—and I told them about my father getting off the bus one evening and excitedly telling me the war in Europe had ended. Then we talked about the pleasures of rowing a small boat, how my mother pushed me to write an essay which I didn’t want to write. (They were all nodding their heads at this.) And the worst moment: 9/11, which they remarked was odd since it was so late in my life.
Candace was all over the place, scurrying from group to group, encouraging the kids, pushing them to ask the questions. At the end, she had us elders sit in a line,with the team of fith graders who had asked the questions standing close around us, while she took our pictures.
The experience is to wind up in May when the students create pieces of writing based on the interviews. Sometimes the write-ups are in the form of monologues, sometimes poems, sometimes performances. What’s important is that the kids, in a way, don’t just talk to older people while remaining on the other side of the generational divide; in writing and speaking some of our words, they “become” us. They walk a mile—or at least a few yards—in our shoes.