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Social Fabric Needs Stories Woven by Elders

By Donna Britt
Friday, April 22, 2005; Page B01

As human beings, we are our stories. So I'll start with this one:

As a high school senior, my mother won an oratorical contest. The judge: a young NAACP attorney named Thurgood Marshall.

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The 1942 speech, Mom recalls, concerned "the future of blacks -- or 'Negroes' at that time." The nation was deep in World War II; virtually all her black, male classmates "knew they were going right from high school into the war." Her speech questioned the fairness of them risking disability or death for a country that discriminated against them.

Mom's recollection of Marshall is also vivid. "He was handsome," she says. Back then, Marshall was a virtual unknown. "But when I saw him . . . whoa!"

The story has a coda: My mother's home is 15 minutes from mine. I talk to her daily. And I had no idea before this week that she'd won a contest judged by the man who would become the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice.

It's the culture. Today, we are all rushed, so focused on our relentless comings and goings that we too rarely talk with, or listen to, our elders. Certain oldsters, of course, don't help. I've begged Mom to record her memories, but she's like everyone else:

Too busy with church, friends, everyday life for such an inactive activity as pausing to reminisce.

No wonder I was thrilled yesterday to be on a church van ferrying eight seniors from Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ in Northwest Washington to an "intergenerational" program at Georgetown Day School.

The year-long student-seniors exchange was the brainchild of Bill Young, a former Georgetown Day principal who's now with IONA Senior Services, a nonprofit community organization. Students interact with senior citizens from six District senior centers and homes, listening to and recording seniors' life stories. In Thursday's all-morning session, teenagers educated elderly visitors about pop culture, digital photography and setting up a Yahoo account.

I came for the stories. They started in the van, with Silver Spring resident Ethylene T. Lewis's reluctance to give her age because she was "still courting." That somehow led to reminiscences about the days when these riders reflexively called adults "sir" and "ma'am" or -- as Jessie M. Robinson, also of Silver Spring, did -- rejected the use of such "subservient" terms.

After arriving at Georgetown Day, visitors from Peoples and four senior facilities entered to the strains of Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" expertly played by students in shorts and tank tops. The school itself -- with its multicultural mix of students and "Gay Pride Week" bulletin board announcements -- was markedly different from schools remembered by the elderly guests.

Meetings between teens and elders aren't just "terrific fun," Young said. "Kids today see their grandparents at holidays but have very little regular contact with old people." Popular culture, he continued, belittles the elderly "as frail, hesitant, forgetful" -- stereotypes that are disproved as students engage seniors about such events as the Great Depression and the civil rights movement.

Although students are familiar with such events, "they know almost no one who has lived through them," Young said. "It's one thing to read about Washington as a segregated city, about World War II."

It's something else entirely to hear the voice, see the face and feel the engagement of one who experienced it. Few young people today "have what most other societies provide -- a real appreciation for older people's wisdom and experience," Young said.

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