“I’ve never tried to block out the memories of the past, even though some are painful. I don’t understand people who hide from their past. Everything you live through helps to make you the person you are now.” -actress Sophia Loren
Over the Christmas holidays, I learned to do several things on my computer that have changed my life. As a result, I have begun the arduous task of collecting, scanning and cataloging old family photos; and I have also started researching my family history on the Internet. I even signed up for a genealogy course at a local college.
I also taped a two-hour interview with my mother. After that, we went through a huge box of nearly 1,000 family photos that she had been keeping in her attic. I left the tape recorder running while she identified each photo. My wife numbered each one and jotted down the information. I wound up with over four more hours of family stories on tape. Then I used my computer to burn CDs from the tapes, and my wife put all the photo information in a computer file.
I guess it’s common for baby boomers like me to look back and start assessing who they are and where they came from. In fact, genealogy is a huge industry these days. With so much data available on the Internet, it is fairly easy to find at least some rudimentary information about one’s ancestors.
In just a few hours, I traced my paternal grandmother’s family back to the 1700s. When I called my mother up and excitedly told her about my discovery, she remarked, “That’s nice, but what are you going to do with the information?” “Well,” I answered, “It’s not what I can do with it that’s important, but what it does for me.”
Down deep inside, all of us have a longing to learn what makes us unique and special. After all, no matter what age we are, all of us are products of our family roots, our experiences, and our environment.
I was reminded of this while watching On This Island, a documentary that was aired on PBS last month. It is part of the series called Independent Lens, which includes Downside UP, the North Adams movie by Nancy Kelly. The film takes place on the island of North Haven, which is 12 miles off the coast of Maine.
North Haven has about 350 year-round residents, many of them lobstermen whose roots on the island go back centuries. It’s only school, which serves everyone from kindergarten through high school, has fewer than 80 students.
A while back, famed 70-year-old Broadway producer John Wulp retired and moved to the island to paint. Soon after, he was recruited by North Haven’s school principal to work with the students on a theater project. The principal told him that the kids seemed to have a talent for performance, and for imitating the unique personalities of their neighbors.
The theater program succeeded wonderfully, winning state contests, as well as helping to improve academic performance among the students. But some of the island’s residents disapproved, contending that Wulp’s influence would eventually lead kids to move away, and that the program was detracting from the study of basics like math and science.
A lengthy battle ensued, causing nasty arguments between neighbors and family members. The board of education even tried to fire the school principal. But Wulp finally brought the community together by creating a musical about life on the island, and by casting the islanders as themselves.
In one very poignant moment in the movie, Wulp and songwriter Cindy Bullens interview some of the young students, hoping to mine dialogue and song lyrics from their comments. Wulp asks the children if living on the island has made them special or different from others their age. The concept is a bit over their heads, but they offer some tentative and revealing answers.
On the movie’s Web site, filmmaker Stephanie Slewka was asked what she hoped to achieve by making the documentary. She replied, “I would hope that people would agree with John Wulp that art is everywhere, right in front of your eyes, and that you just have to look at your surroundings to find it. And in that vein, that viewers might realize that the everyday is the stuff of creation.”
Teachers and school administrators can learn a valuable lesson from this film. Somewhere in the curriculum, there must be room for local and family history, and for the opportunity to understand and appreciate one’s community. If children are to realize a strong sense of self worth, they must first learn who they are, where they came from, and what makes their community unique and special. Only then will they be able to see themselves as unique and special also.
In North Adams, many of the teachers I know have already learned this lesson and are putting it into practice every year. This is especially notable in the fine projects created by Community Service Learning. But parents can help by talking about family history around the dinner table, by telling old family stories, and by actively involving their children in these discussions. In addition, it’s wise to take children on walks around the neighborhood and the wider community, pointing out the architecture, the views and vistas, and the various things that make the community what it is.
The other day, I took some old North Adams photos into the Bean to show to a friend. Pretty soon, everyone in the usual morning crowd was looking at them, and it spawned some pretty lively conversation. Underneath the soundtrack of chatter was a quiet understanding that they were not just looking at old photos, they were looking at themselves.
“Everybody needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.” -author Saul Bellow