Fourteen seniors enrolled in a memoir-writing class sat down to talk with elderly residents of Hopkins Center in Wyncote in a project designed to give voice to those who generally are isolated from the outside world.
The nine residents had stories to tell, lessons they had learned the hard way — through life experience — and our students were committed to writing those stories, thus passing on the elders’ wisdom to the wider community.
Students in Renie Campbell’s elective, “Telling Our Stories: Reading and Writing Memoir,” visited the residents three times at their facility for hour-long conversations. Each student was paired with one resident, and in some cases a pair of students met with a single elder.
The students found some of the stories painful and difficult to tell as well as to hear, but the process was enriching to everyone involved. As senior Taylor Plenty wrote, “Everyone has a story, and every story needs to be heard, no matter how different it is from your own.”
On March 14, the students went back to Hopkins Center to read aloud the stories they had written. Listening intently were the residents who took part in the project and staffers who gathered in a common room. After each reading, the student handed the resident they had interviewed a hand-made banner that contained a word or two relating to the life lesson they had shared.
The project was a pioneering collaboration between Renie and D’vorah Horn-Greenberg P’06, P’09, P’16, founder of Mending Spirit, which takes art to places to promote healing. She and Renie read aloud for students too shy to come up to the microphone.
AFS senior Tommy Yick read the story he had written about an elder named Rowland, who was seated along a wall, his rollator walker parked in front of him. He wore a Villanova sweatshirt and a ball cap.
In his younger days, Rowland’s personal record in running the 400-meter race was 47 seconds, good enough to earn him a spot in Olympic trials. But because of a hamstring pull a week before the trials, he did not run fast enough to make the team.
As a runner at Villanova University, Rowland ran the third leg in a four-by-four relay, but never challenged the anchor leg of the team. Rowland said the anchor was less than a second faster, but the coach had chosen him for the anchor spot because he had the prestige of being in the Olympics. Rowland decided it wasn’t worth it to try to win the anchor’s spot, but later wished he had made an attempt.
The life lesson Rowland wanted to share was this: “You should always take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way, because once it passes, you’ll never be able to do it again.”
“Amen!” said one of the residents when Tommy finished reading. “Beautiful!” said another.
Among the other life lessons the students garnered from the elders were these: Education is the most important thing; be courageous and fight addiction; be kind to people who are different from you and learn something new every day.
Some of the stories prompted the residents hearing them to shed tears, and many responded by hugging the students who had written about them. All the stories were collected in a booklet titled “Fig Tree Stories: Elder Tales ‘Our Seeds of Wisdom.'”
In addition to Tommy and Taylor, the students who took part were Helen Li, Emily Huang, Cara Tressider, Chloe Bartlett, Jacob Segal, Raphael Jones, Sophie Waldman, Mia Mendez, Ruth Bekele, Jubi Dugdale, Paige Pitcairn and Jamie Fromm.