Two years ago, when Bonnie Kaplan spent a year with my sixth grade writing workshop, we thought Thanksgiving would be a wonderful time to collect family stories and craft Slices of Life about these stories. My kids came back from Thanksgiving Break with wonderful stories, which we shared and loved and celebrated. A Room 202 tradition was born: we collect family stories at Thanksgiving, we write them up, and we share them.
This year, NPRs StoryCorps offered The Great Thanksgiving Listen in . We took a tour through the StoryCorps archive in the days before Thanksgiving Break, examined the way questions were asked and followed up, and then decided that: Yes! we want to do this!
My kids came back from Thanksgiving Break with stories to tell about the stories they had collected. All of last week, these stories dribbled in on our Slice of Life Google Classroom page. And all of last week, we were moved. Each slice conjured visions of my students sitting with their elders, asking questions and learning something new about their family’s past, their family’s story. Every single slice ended with a version of: I am so glad I did this, I learned something special and new about someone I have always known and loved.
Here are a few:
The person I interviewed over Thanksgiving was my grandfather. Most people call him “Jerry” and I call him “Pop” or “Pop Jerry.” Pop was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on September 27, 1946. He was the third of four children. He had two older brothers and one younger sister. He was happy to be interviewed by me.
Pop Jerry’s four grandparents came to America between 1895 and 1905. They left Ireland because there weren’t enough jobs there. When they arrived at Ellis Island, they heard there were jobs in Philadelphia so they went there. Pop told me that one of the traditions in his family growing up was to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and their Irish heritage by getting together with extended family and singing Irish songs after dinner. His family would go to church and then have a big dinner in the afternoon and then they would sing. They would eat corned beef and cabbage or roast beef and potatoes. Pop even sang a few lines of his favorite Irish songs to me!
Pop went on to talk about his childhood and growing up in a family of four in a big city. He said, “we didn’t have a lot of money but it didn’t seem to bother us.” Pop and his brothers and sisters had little jobs like delivering newspapers and shoveling snow and they would give the money they earned to their parents to help out.
My Pop met my Nana when they were 16 years old and working in an ice cream shop in Philadelphia. I asked him to describe meeting her. He said, “I walked into work one night and there was a beautiful girl who had just started who was exactly my age.” He went on to describe how they dated for six years and have been married for 46 years since then.
Finally, I asked Pop about some life lessons that he could share with me. He described the most important lesson that he’s learned. He said, “things may happen to you that may not be your fault or be fair, but you have to always give your best and try to overcome those difficulties especially when things don’t go your way.” I really liked that lesson, it made me think about things that don’t go my way sometimes.
I really enjoyed this SOL. I liked the different and more personal format. The interview helped me learn more about my grandfather and what his childhood was like. I am very glad that I did this and I’m sure that my grandfather is too.
My grandfather was born in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. He is 83 years old. He is very kind and warm hearted. He loves to tell stories. When I interviewed him, he was glad to share his life stories with me.
I asked him who was the person he looked up to most in life. His answer was his father. I asked him why. He responded, “He was the closest male in the world to me and was very kind and taught me many things. He was not an educated man, but I think he was a smart man and he understood about life and had a great instinct for it. Most of all he was basically a happy man and he made people around him happy too. He was a very warm hearted guy and would help me when I needed it.” None of this surprised me because I knew that my relatives were giving and happy people.
When I asked him about what he thought of school he told me he liked it. He also told me a funny story about how his dog walked into the classroom while a lesson was going on. I laughed at that story.
My grandpa Vito loves to fish, like me, so he has a lot of stories to tell. I asked him about one scary time while fishing. He told me one of them stood out from the rest because he was scared to death.
My grandfather Vito, my father, their friend, and their friend’s two daughters were fishing when a huge storm suddenly blew up. My dad went down into the cabin and noticed water flowing in. He told his friend who then held a piece of wood over the hole. My grandfather was driving the boat back to the dock where they could repair the boat. Then a pipe, carrying water to the engine, broke. Water flowing out of it was making the boat sink lower in the ocean. “I had to hold it with my hands. Now there was no one to steer the boat. Your father had to drive it and he was only 10. He had steered the boat but not in circumstances like this. He was sitting at the helm holding the wheel and looking at the compass to make sure he was on the course I had given him.”
Wow I thought, I can never use a compass to find my way. How did my dad do that? He continued telling me the story,“We traveled like that for a little while until we reached Port Jefferson which was not the port we needed to go to. We got something to plug up the hole and headed out. It looked calm. When we got out to sea, the storm was still going. The leak sprung again and so your dad had to steer the boat once again. I needed to go down and hold the pipe with my hand once more. Your father took us all the way back to Port Washington, which was the port where we needed to dock. It was 9 or 10 hours. He was there like a hero holding the helm. At that age it was incredible.” I stopped to think about how I would feel if I was in my dad’s shoes. I would have been frightened. I can drive the boat but not with that much pressure.
At the end of the interview, I asked him if I lived up to his expectations. He said, “You exceeded my expectations.” He also said, “I want you to have fun. You have to enjoy life and do exciting things. You also have to be serious. The idea is to blend the two. You have your family around you and they love you and they take care of you so you’re a pretty lucky guy.” It is the most important thing I took away from this interview. This was also one of the most important lesson I have learned in my life and this is very meaningful to me.
Interviewing my dad was different than I expected. I knew that he was a veteran, but I never thought much of it, it was just a fact about him. I never knew much about his service, just that he was a pilot. Well, this interview helped me to understand more about him. Here is what I learned.
For a long time as a kid, my dad dreamed of being a pilot. He wanted to do something on his own, and he didn’t really want help from his parents, which is why he didn’t work for the family business at first. Also, my dad had a very patriotic family, and when you put those two together, that is what he did. My dad joined the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland at the age of 18. At that point, he knew what he was getting himself into. “You sign a lot of your rights away,” he told me. I asked him what it was like being in the military, and he answered with: “A lot of times, you learn from your mistakes since there was no set of rules.” He also told me that at first, you were very monitored, and you were scheduled to be places like breakfast, dinner, along with for. However, as you got further into the service, you had more free time, but you still had to be at formations and follow a flight schedule.
My dad also served in war zone, where he would do surveillance as he flew over Iraq. “That was the only thing you had to worry about and focus on, and it was the only place that you had to be,” he told me. “It wasn’t scary, it was just something that you did. It wouldn’t do you any good if you were scared.”
My dad went on to tell me about lessons that he had learned while he was in the military. Just a couple of them were: “You learn to rely on your team, and it is no longer ‘me’, it is us.”, “You learn to respect your elders and your peers respectfully.”, and “It’s not just about you, it’s about the people that you’re in charge of and the people that you’re with.” These lessons really spoke to me, and since I thought that these lessons were so important, I will always try to live by these lessons.
“The hardest part of being in the military was not being with my family,” my dad continued. “I couldn’t see your sister until she was three months old, and I relied on two 15-minute phone calls a week to keep me up to date on how you and Caitlin were doing, and I had to hear from mom about a bunch of little things that I had missed. Then, I was deployed again, and again, I left my family.” Hearing this from my dad made me feel bad for him, since he couldn’t see his own child when she was born. Also, my dad told me that the hardest part of transitioning from military to civilian life was socially. All of his old friends had moved on and my dad had lost touch with, and everyone that he was friends with in the military went back to their homes. My dad explained to me that he had to start over and make all new friends, and how that was very difficult.
In the final part of our interview, I asked my dad if there was anything that could be better about the military, and how the military was on a scale of 1 to 10. He replied with, “It was an 8.5 on a personal level, and it was a 10 on a professional level.” He told me that the only thing that could be better was that if he got to see his family more often, and since that could never be granted, he told me that on a professional level, there was nothing that could be better about his experience. My dad also said that he would recommend someday being in the military, and as I get older, that will be one of the job opportunities that I will look into.
What did I learn about my kids as they learned about their families? That they want to understand the hardships and sacrifices their elders have had to make. That they now know that showing an interest and asking questions can open up new worlds of experience, advice, and tradition. That to listen is an act of love.
Here is the video with which I introduced our listen in:
As I read through my students’ stories, I knew this exchange was much in their minds. And I celebrated the launch of another Room 202 tradition: The Great Thanksgiving Listen.