Thursday, October 23, 2008

It Takes A Village

In my teaching, I believe in using all the resources at my disposal. I know I don’t have all the answers, so I seek out those who do. The Denver area is full of interesting places and people who can bring new insight to my classes.

We have museums and libraries galore as well as amazing outdoor venues. My students and I have been inside mines dating back to the gold rush. We’ve visited restaurants, banks and international grocery stores. We’ve hiked in the woods and howled at the wolves at the zoo. We have scrambled up ancient rock formations and taken in the theater. We’ve ridden a steam train and argued in the state Supreme Court. We have even taken a tour of the giant Coors brewery in Golden. No shortage of parent volunteers came along on that one.

However my favorite field trip may well be the place we visit the most. Next to my school is a shopping center and beyond that a place called The Village at Lowry. An unusual three-story building shaped in the form of an X. At last count it is the home of about hundred men and women aged seventy to ninety-eight, “a senior retirement community.” When I was growing up, it would have been called an old folks’ home. Visiting there is a delight.

For years now, my students and I have made the trek across the grocery store parking lot to the Village. Every school year, we parade our Halloween costumes, we sing, we create craft projects, and we play Bingo. Fifth graders don’t understand the meaning of competition until they’ve played a few rounds of Bingo with the residents of the Village. The seniors play for cash, fifty cents a win, and the kids play for candy, though I strongly suspect under-the-table wheeling and dealing.

My favorite time at the Village is “Story Collection Day.” It happens when we are studying our state’s history. The students begin the year by discovering their own families’ state history. They interview moms, dads, aunts, or grandparents about when their family first arrived in Colorado, how they got here, why they came, and so on.

After the kids have had a chance to practice on people familiar to them, we wander across to the Village to unearth some more stories. Some of the seniors have only moved to Colorado recently, usually to be close to a family member. Many were born in other places but have lived a long and full life here. And a few have long family histories in Colorado.

My students and I prepare a few questions ahead of time with which they can begin to explore, but they are strongly encouraged not to stick exclusively to those questions. Use them as a starting place, the beginning of the trail. Know that you will have no idea of which paths lie ahead. Be prepared to follow any of them. It will be an adventure and you won’t know where you’re going to end up until you arrive.

The residents show up in droves. A far bigger turn-out than Bingo. They are eager to talk, to share the tales of their lives and I wonder how many times they get an opportunity to talk about themselves. Many say that their families are so busy, they just don’t have enough time to visit them as often as they would like. Here was a willing audience of eager young faces, armed with clipboards and a fascination for good stories. Game on.

Mary is short and plump. Her gray hair is cut in a bob. She greets the children with a warm and infectious smile. Her sky blue sweatshirt reflects the gleam in her eye. My students are amazed to learn of her nine children, twenty-seven grandchildren, and seventeen great-grandchildren. They are all in town, except for one in the next state. She knows how lucky she is. She launches into an amazing story; “My great-grandmother was the first white person born in El Paso county. She was born in a covered wagon, yes she was. But her mother, my great-great-grandmother, took sick after she was born and died a couple of weeks later. Her father knew enough to know he couldn’t take care of the baby himself and he sold her for fifty dollars to another family. Fifty dollars.”

Mary’s husband, Harold, sits next to her. Tall and lean, more reserved as he eyes the students through his outsized glasses, he talks about his days in the Navy. Born in Missouri eighty-four years ago, he regales the kids with tales of bugs as big as horses, and how he loves the dry air of the high plains. “Not so good for ocean, though!”

Bob is losing his sight but still doesn’t miss his weekly poker game. Sometimes he arrives in the community room a couple of hours early, sometimes a few days. Poker is only on Tuesday afternoons. Bob was in the Air Force but he chose to describe the reasons he came to Colorado. He grew up in Virginia but his family came out on vacation to a dude ranch. He still remembers the names of the horses he rode all those years ago, Silver and Shadow. He loved the mountains so much, he brought his own family to Colorado to live and bought horses for his two young girls. “I just love them mountains,” he says. One of those young girls is a parent in my class.

Ethel is a sprightly ninety-eight, “the oldest broad in the place,” she claims and we believe her. Soft-spoken, the third grader asking about her stories has to lean all the way across the table to hear her. The image of the young girl making such strong eye contact with a dear old lady ninety years her senior, and holding it for thirty minutes or more, will be with me forever. Ethel grew up poor in Chicago and followed her older sister out west when the older girl got a teaching job at eighteen. Ethel still misses her sister greatly.

Jimmy is a character. Resplendent in his baseball cap, he loves to tease the children. It turns out Jimmy was a semi-professional entertainer. During WWII, he kept up morale in his troop with his song and dance routines. Later on, he flew into Vegas on the weekends for regular gigs, a means to supplement his income from his day job as a farm machinery salesman. The kids adore him. It also turns out that Jimmy lost his wife of sixty years a few weeks ago. The staff tells me how hard life is for him. I admire the valiant face he puts on for the kids and it is easy to see the small pocket of joy he finds in sharing his stories.

Oral history is alive and well. The children return to school passionate about the stories they’ve heard. They fall over themselves to share with each other the amazing events of their new friends’ lives. They are beginning to understand that they have stories of their own, worthy of sharing. Their stories may not end up on the front pages or in the history books but they are bound to bring joy to themselves and others. They are worth listening to.

Addendum: a couple of weeks after this story took place, my class and I returned to the Village for Halloween. The kids were in costume but the residents were not. With one exception - Jimmy. At eighty-two, he had on a blond wig and pink jumpsuit with a sign around his neck: Miss America 1910. A character indeed.

Photo: two of my students, Jayda and Hannah with a resident of the Village. Photo by Eileen Umbaugh.

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