MIDDLEBURY — If there’s a lesson to be learned from Tropical Storm Irene, it’s that disaster makes for good stories. And not just news stories.
Middlebury-based Vermont Folklife Center is holding workshops across the state to help people record their personal memories from the flooding.
Last month, the VFC’s Aylie Baker and Greg Sharrow offered an interviewing workshop with students from Jacki McCarty and Sarah Ibson’s classes at Harwood Union Middle School in Duxbury. The finished multimedia presentations will be ready to screen by mid-October.
“It really started with the kids,” McCarty said. “They wrote a short response about rebuilding Vermont, and when I read what they’d written I knew we’d have to dedicate more time to these stories.”
Ibson said the students couldn’t think about anything else, anyway.
“They were chomping at the bit to talk about this,” she said.
Students were encouraged to interview one another and their families, integrating photos and video clips with the stories. And they took the skills they learned there to another level: This past weekend, Harwood students were scheduled to staff the “StoryCorner” recording center at the Moretown Restoration Pig Roast and Leaf Peeper’s Picnic, collecting stories from community members. With the students’ permission, some of these projects will be available on the VFC blog at http://vtfolklife.tumblr.com.
“We like to think we’re at the vanguard,” McCarty said, “but we hope that other schools try projects like this.”
Harwood isn’t the only educational link in VFC’s storytelling project. A teacher in southern Vermont has led his students in a comparison of archival footage of the 1927 flood and video from the recent disaster. Next spring, Middlebury College literature professor Dan Brayton will hold a class on human relationships to water, relying on the Folklife Center for training and historic materials.
“When you think of the hurricane, you think of roads washed out and houses full of water, but there are so many stories of compassion,” said Baker, a VFC fellow. “We’re training people to listen to those stories, and encouraging them to make recordings, however is easiest for them. You can make a recording on a cell phone, even.”
Baker, who emphasized the kindness and joy that she’s seen following Irene, cited Rebecca Solnit’s book “A Paradise Built in Hell: The extraordinary communities that arise in disaster.”
“The word ‘emergency’ comes from emerge, ‘to rise out of,’ the opposite of merge, which comes from mergere, ‘to be within or under a liquid, immersed, submerged,’” Solnit wrote. “An emergency is a separation from the familiar, a sudden emergence into a new atmosphere, one that often demands we ourselves rise to the occasion.”
Across the state, Vermonters emerged from the flooding with help for their neighbors and resilience to their own losses. Baker mentioned children running a lemonade stand and neighbors rescuing each other in canoes.
“People stood up and took care of themselves, largely without government aid.” Baker said. “We want to celebrate that community.”
The VFC hopes to build up an archive of impressions and memories from Tropical Storm Irene, which will be collected at the center. In addition to historical records, these stories are powerful links between people and communities in Vermont.
“But it’s not just for an archive,” Baker said. “This is part of community healing.”
The Harwood Union Middle School projects will be screened in mid-October, first in an assembly for the students, and also in an evening program for community members. VFC will post videos on its website and archive them at the center.
After a month of chronicling human tales of the emergency, Harwood students are getting back to the standard curriculum.
“The state of Vermont is our home, and we are happy to have had the chance to do our part to help restore this unique and beautiful land, both in terms of our society, and our environment,” McCarty said. “If we can help to raise the morale of Vermonters as we all try to rebuild our infrastructure and our community, this project is a success.”
The Vermont Folklife Center encourages you to gather your own or your family’s stories from the floods. Visit the VFC website, www.vermontfolklifecenter.org, for a complete tip sheet on interviewing. Here are a few of recommendations to follow when collecting stories:
Be an engaged listener. “The Vermont Folklife Center believes listening is just as important as asking questions,” said VFC Director of Education Gregory Sharrow, “and that if the interviewer can establish his/her role primarily as a listener with the intent of bearing witness to someone’s testimony, a safe space is created.”
Encourage the storyteller to be specific. Ask him or her to reference details and include sensory information, such as “What did it look/smell/sound/feel/taste like?”
Have a list of conversation starters. Try this list of starting points:
• Please tell me about your experience during Tropical Storm Irene.
• Where were you?
• How were you affected?
• What did you see the next day?
• How did people in your community respond?
• What are your feelings about what happened?
• What is the memory you will hold with you 20 years from now?