This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.
History, in its rawest form, is found in houses and churches and grocery stores – in everyday communities, not dusty textbooks.
That’s what Mitch Wright’s ninth-grade students learned this semester.
Wright, a social-studies teacher at Caldwell Early College High School, set an unusual task before his freshman students this spring: Go find a Caldwell County resident older than 70, he told them. Interview that person. Learn his or her story.
The students paired up, taped and rendered their interviews, and paired the audio with photos. The result was an archive of history and experience you can view at the Caldwell Speaks website, caldwellspeaks.org.
Anyone who talks regularly with students this age will tell you: Confidence is not the name of their game.
But when these students talk about their interviews and their subjects, they speak with authority.
Meredith Triplett and Bethany Collier interviewed 99-year-old Ruth Greene, who was born in the Baton area and has lived in Caldwell County her entire life.
When Wright first read the girls’ rough proposal for their project, he thought they’d made a typo – he couldn’t believe they’d found a 99-year-old resident ready to share her memories of World War I.
But Greene was surprisingly astute.
“She remembered everything,” Triplett said. “It’s just amazing how much she remembered.”
Another pair, Jose Daniel Castillo and Amber Chester, interviewed Helga King – a current Caldwell resident who was living in Germany during World War II. As King told Chester and Castillo about her childhood, she broke into tears.
“There was no freedom,” she said, describing life in northern Germany under Hitler’s rule. “There was no freedom.”
Many of the students were surprised at how much their subjects opened up to them.
“She talked about her childhood, and it pained her to say those things,” Castillo said. “It was just very surprising that she would share part of her life like that, even though it hurt her.”
All of the interviews were done in person, usually at the subject’s home. Talking face-to-face – instead of using iMessage or email or Skype – made the whole experience seem more real, the students said.
“I think it means more,” Chester said, “to actually sit down with someone.”
The website – built by Wright – features love stories, veterans’ stories, stories of countries far away and stories of Caldwell years ago.
Some of those stories were caught just in time.
Matthew Ogles and Marco Chumbimuni interviewed Dale Reid, a 92-year-old World War II veteran who was stationed at Pearl Harbor. The students interviewed Reid at his home in Little River Township – the same house where he was born. Not quite 3 months after the interview, he died.
“The biggest thing we got out of it was being able to catch a big part of history – and knowing that we caught it just in the nick of time,” Chumbimuni said.
The lessons each student learned went beyond dates-and-numbers history, they said.
Castillo, one of the students who interviewed Ruth Greene, said he left the interview inspired to push through tough times.
“The message that she kind of portrayed to us was, ‘Things will get hard – but after they get hard, they’ll get easy,’” Castillo said.
Wright’s students are done with their part of the project. The interviews are taped, the photos snapped, the “ums” and “ahhs” snipped from the audio.
But Caldwell Speaks is just beginning.
Students in Whitney Sims’ 10th-grade class at the Early College are starting their own round of interviews now.
And Wright hopes to spread the program to other schools, too.
“I’d love for it to be a growing archive for the county,” he said. “You can pick anybody over 70, and they have a story to tell. Look at what we found, just in our neck of the woods.”