When it is the dark days of data analysis and you are in a basement room at the board office for days on end and an old friend invites you to listen and watch her students live history, you go. You never once pretend the data means more and you go.
Grade 10 history, at a small local high school in Prince Edward County changed me. I went, I watched, I listened and I rubbed elbows with living history, history as it was being uncovered and history as it was being lived and breathed by students who are supposed to understand very little of the purpose of history. As it happens they are the only way it will evolve and become what it should…their culture and identity and who they will know to be their predecessors, change makers, innovators and glass ceiling breakers. At 15 they hold what is dear to many and do it with reverence and grace. Yes, you drop everything as an educator and you run towards this.
There is a little red scooter in the foyer of the high school. The riding kind with a little flag so everyone will see the scooter and the driver. The driver, as it turns out, is 97. He is George Wright, a member of the World War 2 Devil’s Brigade. He has come to watch one of the videos that a grade 10 history class has made as a result of their research, their finding of storytellers and their deep desire to tell the whole story of their small but mighty county. I sit at the back. The front row in the library is lined with guests and the rows that follow are the student videographers. They have told incredible stories as historians uncovering the deepest stories of Prince Edward County. They have done it with a mentor historian and they have done with incredible respect. The history of Prince Edward County Lives.
After all of the videos were watched and thank yous shared, I muscled my way to the front. A dear friend, a retired vice principal, was standing with the community mentor the student had worked with. They were speaking of a plot of land. It had no road access and was literally plopped in the middle of other land. My friend shared the story of buying the land from the mentor’s family. There was evidence of people living there long ago. This story was about the little plot of land and it’s rich sugar bush. That sugar bush had been tapped for generations and was incredibly special. These two men spoke about it and relived its history because it was their history.
I was listening so intently to this history that when I looked around the students had gone for lunch. I wasn’t finished. I need to understand more and I needed to know why we hated to let history go and I also wanted to understand the motivation behind a 15-year-old wanting to listen to 90 years old who were hard of hearing and had never played a game of Fortnite. They were telling us something. My friend is their teacher. I asked if I could have a few minutes in a google hangout with two of her students and like she always does, she made sure we followed up, got organized and made space for me to talk to two of her students.
Andrea and I have spiral back to stories over and over. We cannot let them go. We listen to them deeply. I have come to understand that I listen because I want to know the person telling the story and I know it will be woven in and the person telling you the story is telling you the story to put it out in to the world to be part of who they are out loud. I wanted to know if students listening to history to being told to them by the people who lived it felt the same way.
We found a sliver of time in their busy day and a Google Hangout worked perfectly – with headphones in and lockers perfectly framing their heads they graciously shared and I asked and they shared some more. As it turns out, history makers and history learners feel the same way about stories and the history was living out loud for everyone to be changed by it, including the people who had already lived it.
I asked these two students about interviewing George. It was important to speak loudly and to just take their time because George struggled to hear them. George shared stories with them. His stories, his reasons for joining the Devil’s Brigade was a story of his life and his boredom and his belief that if his father could do it so could he. I wondered if that sounded familiar to two adolescents growing up in tiny Prince Edward County. I did not interrupt their story. They were intrigued by George and his adventures. There are very few men alive who were in the Devil’s Brigade and are able to tell the story. George would show them a medal or remember something and right away tell another story. I realize that he had told these stories many times but I wondered if it felt different this time. I wondered if he was looking at these two young men in front of him filming him and trying to make sense of history and if this took him to a place where he once stood in his own story. Was there a reason to relive history?
I watched their faces as they told me about the project, the interviews, the film editing and watching their peers’ videos as well. I asked if they felt differently about Prince Edward County now that they had heard different voices and different stories.
“Prince Edward County has become a tourist trap, the fact that Lakeshore Lodge, the canning industry and the railroad gave us a better understanding about it before today.”
“It was important to remember what made us come to be, different traditions and history.”
“It meant something different after the project, today I am from the county.”
I wanted to know how they knew if they had done a good a job. They told me about the process and spoke of the many places they self-assessed and dug deeper and edited more and that project was about really getting the facts and doing the research. They had put their guts into it and it felt good. They also told me that they knew by the people who had come the day I had attended. The library had been very quiet while people watched. He was sure that the videos had impacted people who did not know these stories about Prince Edward County and he also knew that the history was personal because it was about where the people in the room actually lived.
I finally asked them about the title of the project, History Lives. They explained that it meant that the history was living on in them because they were telling the stories and not letting them fade away.
Andrea: How did history evolve for those students and mentors?
K: I think, as it started, it was about finding out “the real history” – from as close to primary sources as possible in Prince Edward County. It started out same old same old research and perhaps digging a little deeper and going to the places they were finding out about. They had a mentor who worked with them on their final products and videos. I don’t know if the students felt the impact right away of speaking to history and it speaking back. I am also not sure if they realized when they brought all of that history into one room with all of us, how it was going to make us feel.
A: I think history changes as we look back on it differently – as we change. From what I know about Prince Edward County, the land is continuous. Its shape and its relationship with the people there is rich and vast. Those students will have learned that history is most definitely more than a plaque.
K: Their teacher is a county girl and a graduate of Prince Edward Collegiate. She also loves to collaborate and believes deeply in community partnerships and student voice…the content and the facts are just those. I wondered about students going out and asking questions (they prepared them) and what they were listening for. When I spoke to the two students they told me, “George had a story for every question.” I am not sure that they thought that’s what they were going to out collect when they started. I got the impression that they had done a lot of research and they were going out to confirm it, add to it and to add a voice to theirs.
A: “Knowing something is simply knowing, experience may be the difference.” Their stories were connected to place and time – they give history meaning.
K: One of the students spoke about what it meant to him to know that Prince Edward County had parts of history (like the canning industry and the railroad) that were different then his impression of the county today. I loved that. I loved that he connected to the history as a way for him to make meaning about where he was from and was not satisfied with his tourist trap impression.
A: Place is part of your identity. The quote above is that of Kirk Brant, an artist from Tyendinaga Mohawk community. This is his home, although he lives in the big city of Ottawa, I drove him home. As we drove along dirt road and passed the homes of his friends and family and passed the swamp and the lures caught along the telephone wire, he told stories. I listened.
K: Oh my. This just instantly reminded me of Michael. He was a driver and guide we hired in The Barbados. We turned onto a very small quiet road and it changed from one Parish to another. He slowed in front of a house and pointed and said, this is my mother’s house.” I am from this parish. He pointed along the road to houses and different points and told stores. I remember Steve in the front seat suddenly asking him a million questions (not listening as well as you did) and wanting to know more about everything and everyone. I listened in the back seat but until you wrote what you just did I had not thought about it since.
A: For Indigenous people, and for all of Canada, true facts and figures are hard to find. Maybe I could have researched the fact that the acres and acres of forest we drove past was all new growth. It was once farmland. Farmers of Tyendinaga struggled to sell their crops. No one wanted it, Kirk said. He also said that new growth forest was his favourite type of forest because it reminded him of home. I walked with him there earlier in the week and we were all transformed into our true selves by connecting to the land.
K: True selves…these words are difficult for me to understand. I have heard you say them and in connection to the land. I wonder if this is possible for everyone or there are other ways and places that do this to us – where we are listening and finding out who we are in relationship to whom and what is around us? I also am trying to figure out if that true self changes…
A: Yes, there is coming home, feeling grounded, and returning to the place that formed your identity. I think that we forget that place is not only about the people and buildings and accomplishments upon it, but it is also the actual earth – the dirt, the rocks, and the bones. You are also making me think about Anthony Bourdain. His travels and the way he changed – the way he changed us.
K: He could tell the story of the people and their place on the land and was able to tell how it changed him. What amazes me is that people then tell how his stories changed them right back and how they felt about their home and their history after he shared it with the world. They felt he could change what people believed about a place from having been there and letting it change him. History lives…I am thinking about learning and putting it out into the world.
A: Go on…
K: Anthony learned beside. He did not go somewhere and tell people about food and get behind a stove and make a meal to be broadcast. He went to listen. He had deep curiosity about people and places. He was wide open to being changed. His ability to tell the story of the people and their place with food that came from tradition and from the land changed our mind about a place but I think he took it with him. They became part of him and the story he could tell was because he had learned. He never simply retold. I think about the two students and George Wright. They did not simply retell George’s stories in The Devil’s Brigade.
A: It has to be moving and creative. Anthony would not produce a documentary film or television show that was not remarkable. He would never accept competent work. It was his intention to change the viewer as he had been changed by the experience. School is a place. How do we change what people believe about it? Might we look back on its history and people from an evolved perspective?
K: Is how we change connected to why we change? I think about learning and our perspectives and how we have to bring them to the learning. History is not just facts…there are many perspectives to consider as we weighed in with our own. When we listen to what people believed long ago – to their history – it should bring our perspectives together for deep consideration, perhaps to change our mind.
A: I want to hear those stories – because they are remarkable, because they are grounded in the places we share, and because I don’t know and I want to learn.