Culture Club // Connecting With History Through Personal Stories

By Valerie Reinke

You may have Bainbridge pegged as a community lacking in diversity. But step into Woodward Middle School’s annual Culture Fair and the notion will quickly evaporate. As you walk through throngs of people nearly 800 last year—and past a vast array of colorful poster boards, you see America.

A melting pot represented in pictures, passports, maps, letters, telegrams, trinkets and flags from around the world all carefully curated by students who have spent months researching someone special to them. Nearly 300 eighth graders stand next to their respective displays and multi-page essays.

The kids are primed to talk to fair-goers about the grandparent, great-grandparent, aunt or uncle, guardian or dear family friend whom they have painstakingly learned about and profiled. Most wear an endearing mixture of pride and self-consciousness.

The special person a student profiles doesn’t have to be a blood relative, but it does have to be someone who has “shaped or influenced the student’s values and beliefs,” according to directives from the four social studies teachers, Sara Bourland, Patti Bredy, Betsy Carlson and Keri Schmit.

The team enthusiastically leads the Culture Fair program in cooperation with the district’s Multicultural Advisory Council. Nearing its 30th anniversary, the ambitious and much anticipated annual production—practically a rite of passage at Woodward—has eighth graders pondering that most intangible of intangibles: culture.

“We really emphasize that culture is not biological,” Schmit explained. “Culture is passed down from the people who raise us. Many students choose people who are related to them through adoption and marriage.” Kendall Emerson immediately knew whom she wanted to interview.

“My mother is one of the strongest people I know and her story is full of hardships,” wrote Kendall for last year’s event. “But it shows that you can come from a rough beginning and still end up in a better place.” Kendall’s mother, Angie (formerly Kyung Me), was born in Seoul, Korea.

After her own mother died when she was 2, the family immigrated to Alaska, where she and her older sister secretly lived in the bunkhouse of the factory where their father worked. Kendall traced Angie’s life from there: moving to California; enduring teasing from her peers for her traditional Korean ways; working nights throughout high school at a janitorial job; then making it into “one of the best state colleges in California,” and, happily, meeting Kendall’s dad, Mark, whom Angie did not like at first, “because she thought he was too smart.”

Following Angie to present day, Kendall went on to document the lives of the growing family; how they were personally impacted by the global financial crisis of 2008; how they grappled with Angie’s cancer diagnosis (which she successfully overcame); and how they finally settled on Bainbridge.

The immediacy of Kendall’s paper underscores a theme that the social studies teachers are hoping the kids internalize: that history is happening now, all around us, in our homes and communities. And what isn’t documented is lost forever.

Shalin Converse never got to meet his Culture Fair subject. His grandmother died a few years before he was born. But Devi Rani Bansil is something of a legend in his family and he was drawn to her story and wanted to preserve it. “She had  a very inspiring life,” he reflected.

Because he couldn’t personally interview her, he turned to his mother and aunt, who drew from their memories. Bansil was born and raised in India in the 1940s and fortunately had a father who recognized her academic prowess.

“He was often considered to be out of his mind for wanting his daughter to go to college instead of his three other sons,” wrote Shalin. Bansil ultimately graduated from dental school and then opened a practice in Kenya, where people were more tolerant of female doctors.

When Bansil, a Hindu, married his grandfather, a Sikh, Shalin recounted that the number of holidays that the family celebrated effectively doubled a boon for his grandmother as “she loved to cook special meals.”

Though the arc of Bansil’s life from birth to death is expansive, the details are what speak to an outsider reading Shalin’s account: that she enjoyed raising orchids; the taste of her delicious fruit soufflé; and how decades ago in Kashmir, her daughters sat on her lap in a field of grass, laughing. Culture is embedded in the minutiae.

Teacher Bourland concurs. “This is not a history project about someone famous who died 100 years ago,” she said. “It’s about a personal connection.” Even so, that personal story provides an entrée into the major historical events of the last century.

“The Culture Fair allows students to learn about history the Depression, World War II, Kennedy’s assassination—within the context of a real person’s life,” added Schmit. “They see that these seemingly abstract events from history really do make a difference in the lives of individual people.”

This was Paige Bouma’s realization as she researched the life of her great-grandfather, Lawrence Bouma, a teenager during the Great Depression. Growing up on an Iowa farm at that time meant that the family ate only what the farm provided. It also required the family to be resourceful and as a direct result, Lawrence evolved from “tinkerer to entrepreneur.”

Some years later when he moved his young family to Ontario, California, a region once known for its dairy farms, “he noticed that the way the cows were being milked was harmful to the cows and inefficient for the farmers,” according to Paige. So he decided to find a solution. “It took him many years to perfect his invention because he built it mainly from spare parts,” wrote Paige, but the BouMatic, an automatic milking machine which carries the family name, is now used worldwide.

Lawrence Bouma, who is 99 years old, doesn’t travel easily, so he was unable to attend the fair. But many of those profiled did. Woodward Principal Mike Florian, who has attended the annual event for the past 11 years, said it is one of his favorite school experiences.

“It is very exciting to meet the grandparents or family friends who were selected as subjects for these projects.” The multigenerational aspect of the project is not lost on Schmit. “At the very time when these teenagers are beginning to separate themselves from their families and assert their independence, they have the chance to reconnect with family and rediscover the important role their family members have played in shaping their own lives.”

Walking through the Culture Fair, taking in the infinite variety of countries, religions, attitudes, beliefs, hopes and dreams represented there, one can’t help but wonder how everyone ended up on Bainbridge Island.

The truth may simply be that all communities are grounded in diversity, and whether it’s self-evident or sub rosa, it only requires a little digging to reveal culture’s influence. This year’s Culture Fair will be held at Woodward Middle School on May 18 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.