Our Intergenerational Zoom

For sure, the only constant is change.

COVID-19 certainly proved that. We never completed last year's Intergenerational Writers Workshop because of the shutdown. I saw its theme as dealing with three questions: "Who am I? How do I see myself? How do others see me?" We were delving into concepts of community and identity when the pandemic hit.

The workshop is an annual collaboration that takes place on several Wednesday mornings during the first quarter of the year. It started in 2010 between senior volunteers from Culver City Senior Center and sixth graders from Turning Point School. There are usually six meetings with four at the senior center and two at the school.

There were 34 sixth graders participating this year, split into three groups of 11, 11, and 12 with three teachers, all sixth-grade advisors, each leading a group: Josh Lesser (teaches Drama and Humanities), Casey Cacitti (teaches Humanities), and Vivian Ariza (teaches Science).

Each group had two or three senior volunteers. With Vivian were Anita Jasko and Sue Schulman, with Casey were Peggy Cullinane, Lee Quiring, and Marilyn Russell, and with Josh were Heidi and Hilton Creve and myself. The students in my group were Ryan, Avital, Sebastian, Mia, Miarose, Liam, Sam, Ezra, Edie, Josh, and Isac.

One thing that's very apparent from these workshops is that sixth graders are not created by cookie-cutters. Neither are seniors. So, it's always fascinating and often enlightening for me to view life through another's eyes, especially when those eyes are lodged in the head of a Turning Point student. Fortunately, despite the pandemic's incredible disruption, we were able to have a truncated but still meaningful workshop this year, thanks to Zoom and a generous serving of creativity and flexibility.

Our preliminary Zoom meeting took place Jan. 13 with Josh, the senior volunteers, and the senior center's Amanda Rigali and Jill Thomsen of the Culver City Parks, Recreation & Community Services Department. Josh explained that there would be strong elements of show and tell, sharing, and storytelling, and to "start thinking now about objects in your own house that help tell your story, and why they are important." At our first meeting with the students everyone would display and discuss one such item. The first meeting was originally planned for Jan. 20, but since that conflicted with the inauguration it was decided to extend the workshop by a week.

The Jan. 27 meeting was basically introductory, where we got to learn something about each other based on the items we'd chosen. I felt a rueful pang when one of the students displayed a rather elegant pair of scissors she uses to cut her hair, which looked pretty and well-tended. This past year I've been chopping away at mine, unintentionally transforming it into a rather woebegone mullet. (Hopefully, when the happy day comes that I can see my hairdresser, she will be able to mitigate the damage.) The assignment for our next meeting was to "bring a poem, song or painting that inspired you." I knew immediately what I would bring: a computer printout of Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh, a painting that mesmerized me when, at five, I came across it in a library art book and sensed the emotions roiling within the artist.

On Feb. 3 after we shared our inspirations, we read Maya Angelou's poem, "Still I Rise," and watched a marvelous video of her reciting it. The assignment was to either "write a poem celebrating yourself or list 10 compliments to yourself. We are investigating our own self-worth."

Our Feb. 10 meeting was revelatory and intriguing, as you can see from this sample of assignment excerpts: "I like that I am competitive"; "Creative, humorous, caring . . ."; "I am the underdog with a surprisingly strong bite / I am Batman grappling through the night / I am Godzilla willing to put up any fight"; "I am persistent, I am flexible, I am good at math, I have empathy"; "Trees fall and they fall / people rise and countries rise and they fall / but words, words don't fall / they rise and rise."

We then read "The Guest House" by Rumi, a 13th century Persian poet. It metaphorically describes a human being as a guest house visited by various emotions. The assignment was to "create a metaphor for yourself by writing a poem, the first line being 'this human being is a' and fill in the blank." Our next meeting would be two weeks later, on Feb. 24.

On Feb. 23 I received an email from Josh advising that "the students would be back in school full time on March 8, so our final meeting would be March 3, not March 10. The logistics for getting everyone on Zoom at school are vastly different than from home, and the teachers will be working hard that week to establish new routines and norms that do not involve screens." While sad to lose a session, I was delighted the students could, with appropriate precautions, resume in-person learning and socializing on campus.

At our fourth meeting on Feb. 24 we shared our poems, and concentrated on identity and introspection, what makes us who we are, and why we chose our metaphors. I just wish we had room to print the poems in their entirety, as I was quite impressed. Here are some snippets, but they don't begin to do the writing justice: "This human being is a computer / Every day waking up / Every day turning on"; "This human being is a window / Every day a new storm to weather"; "This human being is a river / Flowing with the current of life;" "This guest house / Every day has a new friend"; "This being human is a Canvas / Every Interaction a new stroke"; "This human being is a napkin / because every small spill or mess / he is the first one there to clean it up" ; "I am a glue stick / I stand straight and strong/ I am loyal because I stick to my friends."

We then read "The Journey" by Mary Oliver, a contemporary poet who died in 2019. It's about a person struggling to find a meaningful pathway in life and one's individual truth, despite pressures from others. The assignment for the students was to write a letter to their future selves, and for the adults to write to their young selves when they were around the age of the students.

And then came our fifth and final meeting on March 3. Sigh . . .

Before we shared our letters Josh instructed us to jot down the phrases and words we heard that particularly struck us, because after the final letter was read he would ask us to call them out and a piece of word art would then be created. I was expecting the students' letters to be filled with questions to their older selves, but some also contained some pretty good advice. Here are a few of the comments I scribbled down: "If it's raining get out there and enjoy it"; "Will we still be on Earth or another planet?"; "Are you happy?"; "When will these problems go away?"; "Smile and wave at a stranger"; "Be careful. Don't do stupid things, but have adventures"; "Strive to be yourself"; "Did your dreams come true?"

Despite my problems with audio, positioning the laptop, lighting, etc., I am very grateful the workshop occurred this year. And my two co-volunteers concurred.

Hilton commented that "the last time I participated in a sixth-grade class was 55 years ago. I was amazed at the maturity level of present-day sixth graders. The coursework assigned by Joshua Lesser required thought and introspection, and was a challenge even to this recent retiree!" Heidi felt "working with the students was a wonderful experience. I'm so glad I had the opportunity to participate!"

"The Intergenerational Writers Workshop is one of the highlights of the sixth- grade year at Turning Point," Josh added, "so it was important to try to replicate the experience somehow, even if it was virtual rather than in person. The students gain so much from their interactions with the seniors, and it is always heartwarming to see how excited the seniors are to work with the kids. This year, in spite of everything, having a space for both groups to reflect and share together was a bright spot. There is something magical about sharing writing across the ages that was still possible even through the computer screens."

Agreed. And I offer a fervent Abracadabra and wave of the wand in hopes of manifesting a 2022 workshop to continue that magic . . . in person!


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