Celebrating–and learning from–older Americans

When I was teaching sixth grade at Orchard Elementary, I was always trying to think of ways to make my lessons more real.

We were studying a particularly dry history textbook about World War II—a series of dates, battles, and names of generals. Those publishers had to work really hard to make World War II boring, but they accomplished it.

While I was driving home from work one afternoon, I kept thinking about how I could break out of the text.  My car stopped at the red light.  I looked out the window and saw what I always saw.  On this corner was a gas station, a grocery store, and a retirement home.

A light went on. I pulled into the parking lot of the Golden Living Retirement Center.  I got out of my car, went to the reception desk, and asked if my students could be pen pals with the residentsI would bring our letters in on my way to and from work and pick up any of the residents’ letters. In particular, we wanted to ask them questions about their memories of being young people during the war years.

It was magical. In our best cursive handwriting, we asked a million questions:  Were you afraid of having to fight?  Did you lose anyone you loved?  The answers we received were profound. 

One resident was in the merchant marines looking out for German U-boats.  Another told us about meat ration coupons.  One woman said that all the young men in her little town left for the war and the girls and women took over… everything!  Another told us about getting something called a “telegram,” and when one of those showed up at your door, you knew someone had been killed. It’s how she found out about her brother.

My point is this:  Intentional, inclusive generational diversity is as important as any other type of diversity in our lives.  Young people and not-so-young people have much to learn from each other.

May is a great time to focus on bringing generations together because it is Older Americans Month.

I bet educators know many people 65 and over—who account for 1 in 7 Americans—that would welcome the chance to share their experiences with curious, energetic students.

This year’s theme is “Engage at Every Age,” a reminder that our birthdate shouldn’t keep us from doing things that benefit our physical, mental, and emotional health.

Bringing older Americans together with students offers countless benefits: Older people gain an understanding of the challenges young people are facing today, and students gain perspective, encouragement, and a deeper, nuanced understanding of history.

If you are an “older American,” yay for you! Thanks for your contributions to our communities.

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