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St. Elizabeth High School seniors practice art of conversation while preserving stories of generations past

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Dialog reporter

 

WILMINGTON — Everyone has a story, and students at St. Elizabeth High School have taken steps to get some of those stories recorded for posterity. Seniors in Joan Mangan’s AP English class took part in the Great Thanksgiving Listen 2015, for which they interviewed another person to learn his or her life stories. The interviews are posted online at www.storycorps.org.

Several students talked to people they already knew – or thought they knew – their grandparents, including Tiara Tanzilli and Dylan Gerstley. Both said they found the conversations with their subjects – Tanzilli’s grandmother, Rose Eastburn, and Gerstley’s grandfather, Jack Hogan – to be revealing.

Hogan graduated from St. Elizabeth High School in 1950, so Gerstley was eager to hear about the differences between the school then and now. Hogan remembered that the school had significantly more girls than boys in its early years, so the Vikings’ first basketball games against Salesianum stand out.

 As part of a class project, St. Elizabeth seniors Tiara Tanzilli (bottom right) and Dylan Gerstley (top right) interviewed their grandparents. Tanzilli talked to her grandmother, Rose Eastburn, while Gerstley recorded his conversation with his grandfather, Jack Hogan. (The Dialog/Mike Lang)

As part of a class project, St. Elizabeth seniors Tiara Tanzilli (bottom right) and Dylan Gerstley (top right) interviewed their grandparents. Tanzilli talked to her grandmother, Rose Eastburn, while Gerstley recorded his conversation with his grandfather, Jack Hogan.
(The Dialog/Mike Lang)

“I’ve always been interested in what his life here was like, growing up in the ‘30s and ‘40s,” Gerstley said. “He just moved around the neighborhoods all around the school. He never moved all that far away, so that was always interesting to me.”

Gerstley also liked hearing about Wilmington of 50 or 60 years ago, with a modern transportation system and large employers like Dupont, for whom his grandfather worked.

“A lot of kids my age just want to get out of Delaware. But my grandfather talked about Wilmington as an up-and-coming, prosperous area. It was fascinating to hear,” Gerstley said.

Hogan said he recalled things he hadn’t thought about for years.

“In telling these stories, a lot of these things about Wilmington came back to mind,” he said. “And one of the things that really impressed me as a kid, our trolley system. And there were buses with big blue tires, and they were energized by electric. Silent, clean.

“It was an eye-opener to me, too.”

Tanzilli is the youngest of Eastburn’s 14 grandchildren and “the youngest favorite.” They have always communicated well with each other.

“We’ve lived down the street from each other my whole life, and I know a lot about her and her childhood, but I wanted to know more. She’s just easy to talk to, so I knew she would be a good pick,” Tanzilli said.

Eastburn, a Bronx, N.Y., native, recalled ice boxes and horse-drawn vegetable carts from her childhood.

“I mean, I barely remember that,” she said.

The project was sponsored by Story Corps, an organization that has been collecting and sharing people’s stories since 2003. Last year, the founder, Dave Isay, received a Ted Prize and launched an app that expanded Story Corps’ reach. The students used this app in their projects, which, Mangan said, served as more than an opportunity to walk down memory lane.

“Part of the project was to get the high school student to speak to someone in their family to kind of help grow the project at the Library of Congress, to have a kind of intergenerational connection, to practice the art of listening and respect for the lives of people who are older, to enjoy talking and listening to one another,” she said.

“Every single life has a story, and every single person has thousands and thousands of memories and stories.”

Eastburn liked the idea of actually talking. “I have been at family gatherings with five of the grandchildren, cousins, are sitting at the same table and they’re all (on their phones), and for all I know they were talking to each other. I think it’s kind of refreshing to remind the kids that there’s a lot to be said for human interaction.”

But, as Mangan noted, “the irony is that it’s the technology that’s allowing this to happen.”

Tanzilli said sitting down with her grandmother revealed that she didn’t know quite as much as she thought she did.

“I knew a lot of the surface of the stories, but sitting down and talking to her brought it all together,” she said. “This project taught me that sitting down and talking is something that people should still be doing.”

The students were supposed to have a few questions ready, but only to get the conversations started, Mangan said. Eastburn liked the informal nature.

“If it was too polished, it wouldn’t be as real,” she said.

Hogan said he and Gerstley spoke for more than half an hour. He didn’t realize that had gone on for that long.

“When Dylan’s dad sent me the app to listen to it, it was pretty cool because we did cover quite a long period of time,” he said.

Both Gerstley and Tanzilli would like to record more stories and encourage others to give it a try. Gerstley said he is the youngest of five siblings, and he doesn’t know his oldest brother as well as the others. He wants to hear his brother’s perspective on growing up as a member of the family since they are separated by several years. Tanzilli said she wants to conduct separate interviews with her parents, who are divorced, to learn more “about how they met, their story.”

Mangan said she likes the Story Corps idea. “What they’re trying to amass is this history of people who are not sought after all the time but who are leading wonderful lives with beautiful families. It’s just a wonderful thing.”