Sharing stories ? and respect

Intergenerational project brings together seniors and Barton students

The complaints are common: These kids today don't respect anything, say many seniors.Those old people are cranky and don't like us, say kids.

A group of women from the DayElders Adult Day program at the Southwest Senior Center and sixth-graders from Clara Barton Open School recently spent a month trying to get beyond the common complaints. They learned about each other - and the meaning of respect.

A videotape and photos of the intergenerational project, led by visual artist Usry Alleyne, will be shown to the public June 26 at Intermedia Arts.

"I think it's always great when people from different generations know more about each other," said Mary Ann Schoenberger, director of the Southwest Senior Center. "We are trying to promote understanding between the two groups - how they show respect, what types of things make them feel respected."

Waiting for students to arrive at the Southwest Senior Center, women in the Adult Daycare program showed each other the photographs and albums they had brought for the kids to see.

"I've shrunk, but I used to be 5'4'' or 5'5''," said Alice Duckworth, a bit pridefully, as she displayed her snapshots.

"That's me and my daughter on Nicollet Avenue in the '50s," said Ocie Mae Young, pointing to a dog-eared black and white photograph.

When they first arrived for a visit at the Senior Center, the students often seemed shy and self-conscious, and conversation with the elders was halting. But, as the seniors chatted away, the kids became more relaxed and comfortable. There were even a few jokes traded. "How old are you?" one student asked Grace Jarrett. "Grandmas don't like to tell their age," she responded tartly.

For the seniors, the visits from the students were an opportunity to share and exchange stories, to relive old memories. "It's so important that the kids hear the seniors' stories," said Schoenberger. "It's so important that these stories are not lost."

For the students, the project was a chance to hear those stories and to see these seniors as real people with histories and opinions - and a sense of humor.

It is hard not to see the high spirits of the elders in the kids' presence. While a conversation between one senior and a student was being filmed, the other seniors threw wadded-up pieces of paper at each other and at the students. When a projectile hit its intended target, they collapsed into raucous giggles - and started the whole process over.

Defining respect

Many of the seniors in the group said they thought today's kids are disrespectful, not the way they remember growing up.

"A lot of young kids out there, they don't know what respect is, but one day, they'll be old too," says Alice Duckworth. "You can tell how a lot of people are raised these days. Like when you don't hear them say 'excuse me' or 'thank you' very often, or when some of those young people will barge right by you when there's an open door. When I was younger, I used to think, 'Oh, that poor lady, I'd better help her because I'm going to be old someday.'"

Janie Harris said she misses the politeness of yesteryear, too. "You get respect by giving respect," she said. "Some of today's youth are respectful, but most are not. They used to say, 'Yes, ma'am' and 'No, ma'am.'"

But in the discussions, the students talked about their own, simple ideas of what respect means: "Be honest, and treat others the way you want to be treated." "Respect is when you make someone feel good." "When you don't make someone feel bad, make them feel good about something - like a new haircut."

After chatting with the students, many of the elders said they felt the students were respectful after all.

"It was a great experience," said Jarrett. "I learned that kids do respect elder people. Before, I thought kids these days didn't respect us, but these kids did, and they showed it through their mannerisms and kindness."

Bridging the gap

The project has become less about the pat and often predictable definitions of what respect is and more about demystifying the gap between the generations. Many students said they were surprised that they and the seniors shared so many opinions.

"Just to see that they were thinking what I was thinking about stuff, that was interesting," said Ben Hovland. Another student, McKenzie Erickson, said she was surprised to learn that the seniors "had a lot of the things back then that we have now. I thought it would be different because they lived so long ago."

Nathan Notermann said he was surprised the seniors were so cheerful. "I thought they might not like kids if they'd had bad experiences with them. And, I also thought that maybe we wouldn't like talking to adults, but I learned that older people have stories to tell and that you should listen to them."

The five-second rule

Not all of the lessons learned in the project were taught by the seniors. When Ben Hovland dropped a cookie on the floor and then ate it anyway, a horrified Jarrett gasped, "What are you doing?"

"It's called the five-second rule," Ben said nonchalantly. "If it's on the ground for less than five seconds, you can eat it."

It may have been in simple moments of conversation like these that the seniors and students learned the most about each other's generation.

Intergenerational project

The videotape and photography project developed by seniors and Barton School students will be on display:

June 26, 3-7 p.m. Reception at 6:15 p.m.

Intermedia Arts, 2822 Lyndale Ave. S.

For additional information, call Mary Ann Schoenberger at 822-3194 or Intermedia Arts at 871-4444.