Sunday, March 22, 2009

Menticia and I become part of Chapel Hill's history project.

Graig Meyer, head of the Blue Ribbon Mentor Advocate Program, sent the mentors an email about this and my eight-grade friend Menticia was game, so we went.

Extracts from
Our Stories, In Focus - A Community Art and History Project
Share your story - become part of Chapel Hill's history!

We invite you to bring your piece of history (a photo, a letter, etc.) to either of our two community workshops listed below, where we will scan or photograph your item to be included in a public art community portrait created by local artists Leah Sobsey and Lynn Bregman-Blass.

Further explore your personal and community history at these workshops by participating in oral history, genealogy, journal writing and story circle sessions. An art project for children will also be offered during these workshops.

This public arts and history collaboration invites residents of Chapel Hill and Carrboro to look more closely at their personal and community histories by participating in workshops that explore two questions: What brought you or your family to this place? and What is the legacy you want to leave in your community?

Art Project

Bring personal mementos you'd like to see as part of the community's living legacy. Artists Leah Sobsey and Lynn Bregman-Blass will make reproductions of photos, letters, journal entries, postcards, old newspaper articles and more. These images will be printed on strips of translucent paper to create a "tapestry" [which] "tapestry" will become a permanent public artwork to be displayed in the community.

You may also take a moment to describe your memento for the artwork's video archive.

Journal Writing and Story Circle

Join in journal writing and story circle sessions with Debra Kaufman and Grey Brown. These involve exercises designed to trigger images or memories to get you started writing a story, personal essay, or poem about some aspect of your personal or community history.

Oral Histories

Come in pairs to tell your story in an audio-recorded interview under the guidance of The Southern Oral History Program from UNC's Center for the Study of the American South.

The project was lodged in a large space in the mall which used to be a furniture store; the furniture store went out of business and this gaping hole is now available for "events." It was early when we arrived so people at all the stations were happy to see us.

I had brought two photos - one of my great grandparents in front of their farm in 1924, the other of their son (my grandfather) and his two daughters and son (my dad), who had a band called "The Peppler Family" and had a regular radio show in York PA and played for local fairs and picnics.

Menticia had demurred when I asked her to bring something, but I'd badgered her enough so she showed up with two photos of the dusty, lonely looking street where her mother lived in Puebla Mexico. One picture featured a big tree with orange flowers.

The artists at the first station scanned our pictures. Then we went around the corner and were videographed as we told our stories.

I explained: my father's people had spoken Pennsylvania Dutch although the families had lived in this country since the mid-1700s, and that my grandmother had been taken out of school in fourth grade to roll cigars and it was then that she learned English, at the factory, and that the Peppler Family Band had been broken up when my aunts got married because their husbands thought it wasn't proper for married women to play music.

Menticia stood tall and confident, telling the videographer: her mom had explained that, living on such a dusty street in such a tiny empty town, she had hoped for something better for her children, and that's why the family had moved to Chapel Hill when Menticia was one year old. She pointed out the tree with the orange flowers and said it was her mother's favorite climbing tree when she was a little girl.

Next we went to the oral history station, where we were each given a lavalier mic and had a series of questions to get us started. I interviewed her and vice versa. She said all she remembered from the early times was that Chapel Hill was "very quiet." She said it had been easy for her to learn English, in ESL sessions in pre-school, but that her parents had struggled for a long time, and that now all the kids speak English to each in the home but the parents are reluctant.

I asked her, for the interview, what her hopes are for the future. She said she wants to go to UNC in Chapel Hill and become a nurse. I think she'll be great.

Then we went and got copies of the New York Times front covers for the days we were born (the NYT cost a nickel on the day of my birth in late 1953).

Lastly, we were directed to where two women were sitting rather disconsolately alone at a table in the very back of the space. This was the "writing workshop" and Menticia and I were the only volunteers. They perked up a great deal when we sat down, and gave us paper and pencils.

The first woman read us some poems about food, and then we all wrote and wrote about food and then read what we'd written. Menticia wrote about coming home tired and hungry from school and being so excited wondering what wonderful dinner her mother had cooked that night. Her mother truly is a fabulous cook and I drool just thinking about her tamales.

A couple more people came for the second half, when the other writer read some poems about shopping and we wrote and wrote and then read our writing aloud, and then it was over.

Menticia had a GREAT time doing this writing, and did it very fluidly, and that surprised me because she always says she hates to write at school. "It was because of the way they did it - I liked that they read us examples, and that we could write whatever we wanted, and then it was fun to read it out loud." Too bad they can't do that at school.

Menticia explained they never have a chance to do fiction or personal writing at school, and that all their writing is confined by strict rules and requirements. Of course that's important too, but I was a little sad seeing how excited she was to do this free writing and to realize she'll rarely get the chance.

It was late and we were hungry, but we had to stop on the way out and make "wish flags" which were being hung on strings all across the windows, painting fabric ink on squares of cloth and then writing our wishes with Sharpies. Menticia wished people would take responsibility for their own actions! I wished a happier, healthier world for the children than we all have right now.

Then we went and had a fine Chinese lunch.



At 7:52 PM, Anonymous susanlynn said...

Sounds like you two had a great day. In the community college where I teach, the students are taught to write with a formula : 5 paragraphs , the first paragraph is the intro and the last sentence of this first paragraph must give three details which are expanded on in the next three paragraphs, and these three points must be repeated in the final paragraph. I was never taught to write using a formula like this. It's kind of like cookiecutter writing to me.

At 8:28 PM, Blogger Hannah said...

That sounds like a wonderful day! You guys have great adventures, Menticia gets more and more smart and accomplished every day!

At 3:07 PM, Blogger Alma said...

What a great opportunity! I'd encourage Menticia to keep a writing journal where she can be as creative a she likes whenever she likes!

At 9:30 AM, Blogger Neal said...

What a great project! I'm glad you were able to go with her. Now that she knows she likes writing maybe you'll be able to expand on that for her. The schools are not designed for creative thinking, I'm afriad. It's one reason I'm taking my kids out next year to home school. I WANT to believe in the public schools, but I see my kids' creativity and curiousity being smothered to death. No one wins...

At 9:56 AM, Blogger NinaK said...

That's a wonderful story, Jane. It's sad that people think writing has to be taught as a formula. Kids can often set forth a narrative clearly, but they are given formulas that make them abandon their inherent sense of logic.


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