Thanks to a large grant from Aroha Philanthropies’ Seeding Artful Aging initiative (which enables older adults to share art in unusual, complex and engaging ways) as well as support from the RI State Council on the Arts, School One has embarked on a rare and unique intergenerational program: Working Stories.
During the course of three separate ten-week sessions, which will run through November, students both young and old will explore various themes by way of story telling and art making under the direction of teaching artists Phil Goldman, Eve Kerrigan and Diane Postoian. The first of those sessions began at the end of 2016, when eight high school students and 12 adults over the age of 65 met for the first time to examine topics relating to “work.” The younger students are also reading stories from the book Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs. Each participant shares both an oral history and written story of their experiences, which will culminate in the spring with an installation of their work as well as a performance at Laruelmead Cooperative on February 22 by School One students.
Goldman, a history and writing instructor, and lead teaching artist at School One, begins each session of the arts program with a small movement warm up, which some approach more carefully than others. At this second gathering, the participants form a circle, take deep breaths, shake arms, stretch out and introduce themselves. Later, Goldman unrolls a wide scroll of brown paper across adjoining narrow tables and asks the students to add photos and a few words that speak to the images’ meaning. The paper serves as a visual timeline and is only one of the many layers that will add to the depth of the program.
Kerrigan, a fiction, essay and screenplay writer, addresses the group. “As a listener, your job is to listen well, to listen deeply and to allow the [interviewee] the freedom and safety to share what they have to tell you,” she says. Reminding the students that they will all be both subject as well as interviewer – listening to personal stories and telling their own – she says that all parties may, at times, need to gently nudge the other while allowing them to feel safe. “Ask probing questions,” she says, “and ask yourself, ‘Am I doing everything I can to make this person feel safe?’”
The older students, which for this session happen all to be women, are eager to share their stories, as are the younger participants. They start by breaking down the large group into smaller ones to create an intimate circle for sharing their personal narratives. The students are in the very early stages of this venture, yet they are trading anecdotes that reveal their concerns, fears, desires and passions – which is not something that ordinarily comes easy to teens. Barbara, a former educator and former psychologist for Brown University’s Child Development Center and Meeting Street School, is one of the older students. She reads her short story about climbing Ayers Rock in Australia – the world’s second largest rock formation at nearly 3,000 feet high – after her retirement. She tells of the difficult climb to the top as well as the inelegant descent on her backside, which pretty near reduced her hiking pants to a rag. But it was one of the most rewarding experiences of her life. School One students, Jasper and Alanna, listen intently and discuss Barbara’s use of illustrative language, which helped to enhance the story – a compelling one in its own right.
What is clear is that the students are engaged – after all, they’re hearing stories about people who have remade themselves time and again. These are transformative stories that are relatable and inspire. Stories that bridge the gap of generations and build mutual respect and empathy between people who barely know one another. By the end of this program, it seems they are sure to be good friends.
The teens involved are receptive and curious; they are garnering wisdom from the elders and learning that it’s possible to remake oneself. They want to know more about their older counterparts. The seniors, for their part, are just as interested in the younger students and their anecdotes, and they report that the students help to keep them young. School One student Alanna talks about her journey to Israel where she happened upon a sad tale in a cemetery. She learned that young teens are required to join the State’s Defense Forces. She speaks of culture shock, and a cathartic moment that affected her deeply, leading her to feel grateful for what often can be disguised blessings.
Jasper relates his story of working as a volunteer at Roger Williams Park Zoo, where he’s spent time with baby Rhesus monkeys and bottle-fed a pronghorn antelope, which is known to outrun the cheetah. He feels equally blessed for these moments, saying “[I’m] learning that stories about doing something [passionate] stick with you for life.” He particularly relates to the story of a woman who, at midlife, took a job with a fine carpets dealer and eventually found herself traveling the world in search of Persian rugs. Captivated by foreign faces, she began photographing people she met or observed while abroad and amassed a collection of one-of-a-kind portraits. Jasper says, “Although I have never sold rugs, or been to Mongolia or Bhutan, I have found the same beauty in stranger’s faces, and I find myself drawing people who I see on the public buses from time to time. “
Writer and activist Barbara Deming once said, “The longer we listen to one another – with real attention – the more commonality we will find in all our lives. That is, if we are careful to exchange with one another life stories and not simply opinions.” Listening to one another with attention, and exchanging meaningful personal histories, is precisely what Working Stories is all about. And what is unfolding between the generations is, indeed, commonalities.
Jamey, a School One student, mentions that the stories told by the seniors are influencing her own writing. “It has a lot to do with connections,” she says. “There’s something that’s said that connects with me and relates to my own story. That’s the way work should be. I feel like everybody should find something they enjoy about whatever they’re doing, whether it’s walking, doing the laundry or performing actual work. Find something that you enjoy about it. It makes [work] go by faster and it’s a lot more enjoyable.”
That’s a great philosophy, isn’t it? And it seems enjoying themselves comes easily for all those involved in Working Stories.