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‘My grandmother . . . . was Miss Rockaway Beach.’ : Spoken Histories Help Fill in Generation Gaps

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“In the normal course of events, these things don’t get said. . . . I feel like Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn, eavesdropping on my own funeral,” mused 66-year-old Benedict Freedman, thumbing through a history of his life written by his 12-year-old granddaughter, Shauna Shapiro.

Freedman, a professor of mathematics at Occidental College in Los Angeles, was among about 60 authors, teachers, gold miners, airplane designers, truck drivers, beauty queens, inventors and war heroes who attended the Oral History Box Social on Friday at Thurston Intermediate School in Laguna Beach.

They had come from as far away as New York and from as near as the next block to hear tales of exotic travel, favorite fishing holes and narrow escapes from death. They had come to hear the stories of their own lives, as recorded and recounted by 11- and 12-year-olds in a sixth-grade language arts class.

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As part of the core requirement for sixth-grade English at Thurston, 63 students were required to write reports on people at least 50 years older than themselves. After weeks of interviewing, researching, writing and rewriting their reports, the young historians had invited their interviewees and families to the school to share a glimpse into the past over homemade box lunches.

Young and old sat in folding chairs surrounding lavender cloth-covered tables strewn with fresh flowers and elaborate lunch boxes. Dozens of chocolate-covered strawberries nestled in baskets among delicate doilies. The students fidgeted nervously, clutching cue cards and giving a final tug at a sun-streaked lock of hair or a pastel designer shirt.

Amid laughter, applause and occasional tears, the children introduced their subjects, many of whom were their own grandparents. One by one, each interviewer mounted the podium to announce his or her guest with a short anecdote.

“My grandfather was so smart he went to college when he was 13,” Shapiro said proudly in her introduction. “Later he married a beautiful actress and had three beautiful children.”

“It is wonderful to see the devotion between the grandchildren and their grandparents,” Shauna’s grandmother, author Nancy Freedman, observed. “We thought we were very unusual having that sort of relationship, but I see from this that it’s more universal. I was beginning to think grandparents all shut themselves up in condos in Malibu,” she said, her eyes twinkling as she tossed her long, loose, silver hair. “I am awed.”

“What impresses me is how well the reports are organized,” said Benedict Freedman, flipping intently through his granddaughter’s report. “I teach college students, and I was impressed by the questions Shauna asked. I think it’s a tribute to the school. I am enormously flattered. I took a day off from work to be here,” he said, gesturing at his brightly colored blue Hawaiian print shirt.

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As the introductions continued, it became apparent that although the details varied dramatically, each person’s life had, indeed, been transformed into a vital record of the past.

When Kimi Ikeda’s turn at the podium came, she was ready. “My name is Kimi Ikeda, and I wrote my report on my grandmother, Katherine Gorin,” began the 11-year-old brunette.

“I found out a lot of things I didn’t know about my grandmother,” she announced with a mischievous smile. “Like she went to Europe every winter, and one time she was in her tree house imitating Tarzan and she fell and broke her collarbone!”

Surprising Discoveries

Later, during lunch, her grandmother elaborated. “I still bear the scar from that fall,” Gorin said, pressing a perfectly manicured, apricot-colored fingernail to her collarbone. Although Kimi shares her grandmother’s Laguna Beach home, she expressed surprise at the information her report had uncovered.

“I had no idea she knew so many famous people,” bubbled the granddaughter. “Amelia Earhart and Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.”

“Well, daddy was in show business,” Gorin explained. “This report Kimi wrote brought so many things to mind. I think it’s just fascinating.”

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Jeff Holmes sauntered to the podium in a black Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts. “I interviewed my grandmother. When she was young she used to hang around the soda parlor. She was Miss Rockaway Beach,” he announced amid a roar of appreciative laughter and applause. A dark-haired woman in a red-striped blouse rose gingerly and gave the audience a wry smile.

Tall, serious, brown-eyed Mia Lee recounted the story of her grandmother, So Ching Lee, who escaped from China during the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists just after World War II and was reunited with her husband in Brazil after they had been separated 12 years. Today they live on Balboa Island.

A dark-haired boy in a crisp, white shirt mounted the podium. “My grandfather was a man of war. He traveled all over the United States and many foreign countries, but he couldn’t come today because he just had a stroke and is in the hospital,” he said, his voice breaking. Fighting back tears, he abruptly turned and went back to his seat in the audience.

First Look at Television

The introductions continued for about an hour, recalling such memories as a favorite doll being exploded in a toaster, candy bars that cost five cents, an escape from war-torn Yugoslavia, a first look at television.

After the box lunches were opened and lavishly praised and the last of the chocolate-covered strawberries had been cleared away, the interviewees had an opportunity to examine their copies of the reports. Many of them included photographs, charts, colorful maps, time lines and family trees. The interviews covered such topics as housing, utilities, clothing, food, schools, weather, medical care, inventions, occupations, war, holidays, entertainment and observations about life in general.

“Being interviewed was very incriminating,” joked 70-year-old Gene Holkesvick, grinning across the table at his red-headed grandson, Mike Allen. “Knowing Michael, I wasn’t sure what he was going to do. Those kids sure have a lot of poise, though.”

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“The interview was fun,” said Mike, running a hand over his spikey, short red hair. “Grandpa is special because he’s nice and polite and he likes watching sports. He lives in Fullerton, so I know him pretty much already. Mostly I knew about Exer-Genie,” he said, referring to Holkesvick’s health equipment invention.

Dianne Allen, the sixth-grade teacher who proposed and organized the project, said she hopes to make oral history reports an ongoing part of the language arts curriculum.

“Although this is only the second time we have done the oral histories, they have been well received,” she said. A California native and 10-year veteran of the Laguna Beach Unified School District, Allen said her idea for the project came from a Grandparents’ Day report she assigned to a class a few years ago in which students compiled histories of their grandparents.

50 Years Older

This time, Allen said, she expanded the assignment so that students could pick anyone more than 50 years older than themselves.

“One of the reasons we are doing these oral history reports is because things are changing so fast now. Kids don’t go out and do things with their family as much as we used to. There just isn’t time,” said the mother of three. Her own son, Mike, was among the sixth-graders who wrote a report on his grandfather.

“It’s also important for kids to get to know their neighbors. Some kids are hesitant to interview someone. But most people are overjoyed to tell you something about their lives.”

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Ann Becker, principal of Thurston Intermediate, was supportive of the oral history project as both a language arts exercise and a way to experience history in a more personal way.

“An oral history report is an excellent idea because it brings together the historical research, writing and speaking,” she explained. “It brings history to a different level for the kids. They aren’t just reading it out of books. John F. Kennedy is practically Roman history to this generation. But if someone tells you about the Kennedy assassination, it becomes more real. The more levels of experience you can provide the students, the more meaningful it is to them.”

Becker was especially pleased with the emotional response the project evoked among the students and those they interviewed.

“There are so many people who have had such a variety of experiences. But when we talk to people, we often just use social noises. An oral history establishes a whole different relationship. It gives the kids a little more appreciation for their family and country. It can’t all be TV and electronic games and who got a new surfboard. It focuses more on what we feel is really important.”

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