Sixteen-year-old Michael Amanfu looked at the chart that 89-year-old Peggy Adams had filled out about her life. It chronicled the birth of a daughter with Down syndrome, her worries that the child would not find social acceptance, and her eventual realization that her daughter, now 52, is happy and loved by many.
Adams’s story was moving, but Amanfu was also struck by something else: She had written it in cursive — an ancient art that he had largely missed out on.
“When I was in third grade they started teaching it to us, but by the time my sister started school they didn’t teach it anymore,” he said.
Adams cocked her head. “There is no cursive? Isn’t that funny; I think it takes so much more time to print.”
Amanfu, a rising senior at Gaithersburg High School, laughed — then just had to check: “But you can actually print, right?”
Welcome to Ingleside at King Farm, a retirement community where some of Montgomery County’s oldest and youngest residents have spent the summer exchanging stories of personal growth and learning about each other’s handwriting, musical tastes and favorite styles of tennis shoes.
The Summer Storytelling Series, created and administered by the nonprofit group Link Generations, teaches teenagers about geriatric issues; they then sit down with seniors to exchange stories about their lives.
At Ingleside, 18 students meet once a week on their own and once a week with 15 to 18 residents.
While bridging the age chasm, they also weave a diverse sociological fabric: The kids in the program, who come from local public schools, are largely minorities and immigrants; the Ingleside participants are largely white.
On Thursday, Walt McKee, 83, told the gathering about a cross-country Winnebago trip that he and his wife took with their five sons and dog Pixie. It was 1972, and there was gasoline rationing, a challenge when driving a vehicle that got eight miles to the gallon. (The Winnebago broke down often, too, leading to a memorable picnic with the family of an Idaho tow-truck driver.)
Sitting at tables in small groups, Joanne Colbert, 80, described moving to Japan when she was 10, traveling onboard a troop ship for 13 days in stormy weather.
“My mother was very sick, and I went and entertained myself by talking to other people,” she said. “I just tramped all over the ship, and they probably wondered who this little waif was.”
At another table, Junichi Kobayashi, 17, a rising senior at Walt Whitman High School, told his table companions about a journey in the other direction: He moved from his native Japan as a child to Korea and then, three years ago, to the United States.
“Changing schools, learning a new language, that was hard,” he said. He was helped by teachers and other students who had also come from abroad. And soccer. “Doing sports is good, because it doesn’t really require speaking.”
Caroline Touchton, who said she is “over 80,” could empathize. She told Kobayashi about moving from a small town in south Georgia to Chicago during high school and finding that she had not taken the same courses as her new classmates; she had to go to summer school to catch up.
“I was nobody, and I had been used to being somebody and smart,” she said. “Back in my day, people went to summer school because they’d flunked. I hadn’t failed; I just hadn’t taken the classes.”
Eldie Kabamba, 14, who moved to the United States from Zimbabwe, could also relate. “We were kind of colonized by the British, so I had had British English.” In the United States, “Every time we had spelling bees I would fail, because my spelling was British.”
Each week, the sessions focus on a different theme, such as music, gratitude or resilience. Participation counts as credit toward the 75 hours of student service that is mandatory for high school graduation in Montgomery County.
For the residents, spending time with the students was often revelatory. Bob Balkam, 96, said he was surprised at their sophistication. “They were ready to talk with the adults almost on an equal term,” he said.
Ron McKee, 83, no relation to Walt McKee, volunteers at a high school but mostly sees the students there from afar. “I never had children,” he said. “This gives you an opportunity to really interact with them. They’re very comfortable. I’m surprised at how comfortable the kids are. They encourage you that the next generation might do a few good things.”
Several remarked on the fact that many of the students come from abroad and wondered how that felt for them at a time of heated political rhetoric about immigration.
“They are very Americanized,” said Charlie Miller, 89, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War. “You can’t distinguish whether someone just came over from Botswana or from Rockville High School.”
Students said that the sessions have helped them appreciate what they have.
“I think now our life is easier than theirs was,” said Siril Stephen, 13, a rising eighth-grader at Redland Middle School. “Now we can ask our parents for a dollar for the vending machine, and they had to work really hard to get that dollar.”
Marysol Hohl, a rising 10th-grader at Gaithersburg High School, agreed. “Caroline, she was telling me about back when women couldn’t be much more than a teacher or a secretary. I just realized how lucky I am.”