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Telling the history of Elmont, one story at a time

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For the past four years, ninth-graders at Elmont Memorial High School have been encouraged to share their stories of hope, loss and aspiration in their English classes as part of a two-week lesson plan on the art of interviewing and the importance of firsthand accounts. The result, school librarian Christine Fulgieri said, is a beautiful portrait of the Elmont student body, which she now wants to expand to include the larger Elmont community.

“Together we can build the experience of shared humanity, strengthen and build the connections between people, teach the value of listening and to weave into the fabric of our culture that everyone’s story matters,” Fulgieri wrote in a letter to community members earlier this month. She explained to the Herald that her goal was to create an oral history of Elmont.

To do so, the school opened an account on the StoryCorps website. StoryCorps is a nonprofit organization that seeks to “preserve and share humanity’s stories” by cataloguing interviews of everyday Americans. It partners with National Public Radio to tell these stories on air every Friday, and all of the interviews it collects are preserved in the Library of Congress.

Groups across the country can add to the StoryCorps collection by creating their own page on its StoryCorps website and uploading their interviews. Each uploader also has the ability to decide whether to make their interviews public or private.

“It’s a very accessible way to build these local histories,” said Elmont High Principal Kevin Dougherty, noting that the project gives students an opportunity to learn more about those around them, because “no one story defines a place or time.”

In fact, Dougherty said, the school held its own version of a TED Talk nearly three weeks ago about the dangers of listening to only one side of a story, which, Dougherty said, would help the school’s cultural proficiency by making sure all students, of all backgrounds, are seen and heard.

“It’s important for people to tell their own story,” Fulgieri said, because they “can really define themselves.”

The students who have taken part in the program since she brought the lesson plan to Elmont four years ago have spoken about the people, places and incidents that have made them who they are today. Christopher Alexander, for example, spoke in his interview about how he felt when he lost his older sister to suicide when he was just 7. His sister had been depressed, he said, but “didn’t show anything,” and when his family “took our eyes off of her for maybe a few weeks,” she had died. After that, he said, he had trouble connecting with others, but knew he had to be strong for his niece and had actually become a more outgoing person.

Natalie Hynes spoke about the loss of her grandmother, whose hands she was holding just a few hours before her death. “I cried myself to sleep,” she recounted in her StoryCorps interview, “and when I woke up, she wasn’t there.”

Other students have talked about their extracurriculars and their aspirations. One, Myrwaldy Lucien, said she wanted to be an astrophysicist and hoped to be “rich, living comfortably” outside of New York.

“Each of our students and their families have important stories to tell; stories that are worthy of being collected, shared and preserved,” Fulgieri wrote to the community, before asking Elmont residents to send in their own interviews. She has provided a list of 35 questions people can ask in the interviews, which, she said, should focus on one event, one question or one “big idea.”

“We would love to collect the stories of what matters to you,” Fulgieri wrote.

She is now working with some of her former students as they prepare to interview their family members, and Dougherty said, he hoped that when “Covid subsides a little bit, we can send some students out” into the community to get more stories for the Elmont StoryCorps page.

“Hopefully when there are some interviews in the collection, it will be less daunting to new contributors,” Fulgieri said, adding that she and Dougherty “want it to grow as big as it can.”

For more information about the project, email Fulgieri at cfulgieri@sewanhakaschools.org.