So Many Stories

On a frigid day in mid-January, BCL10 students took a walk with Abenaki educator, Judy Dow. It was cold enough that we kept the walk short. Was a few blocks long enough to make substantive connections? We needn’t have been worried. As one student wrote, after an hour of stories, 

My experience with Judy was brand new for me, I had never heard the perspective of a Native American, especially here in Burlington. Judy had more knowledge of this place…than any book. 

– Walter

As we circumnavigated Murray Street, Elmwood Avenue, and North Street, a theme began to emerge — language and cultural continuity. Judy shared that the first hundred French men in the New World married indigenous women, establishing a French-Indian culture whose influence reached far into Vermont. We learned about the wave of Catholic immigration in the middle of the 19th century, and the founding of St. Joseph’s church and school. She relished explaining the schism within the parish when the Bishop refused to offer mass in English.

At the site of the old Barnes School, Judy shared stories of assimilation.

Her story was one of the steady Anglicization of Burlington. Some of that process, like the Eugenics Movement, was horrific and oppressive. Some of it was more subtle. Judy described at the old Barnes School (where T Ruggs Bar stands today), students had to begin and end their day marching in the stairwell, singing nationalist songs. When we turned onto North Street and we arrived at the neighborhood’s current elementary school, a mosaic of cultures waved to us at the edge of the playground. Clearly, the story of cultural continuity is far from over. 

BCL10 students know this well. Within our group of 24 students, there are at least 18 home languages. 

  • Arabic
  • Bosnian
  • Dinka
  • English
  • French
  • Ibibio
  • Kirundi
  • Karen
  • Khana
  • Lingala
  • Laotian
  • Maay Maay
  • Nepali
  • Somali
  • Spanish
  • Swahili
  • Tamang
  • Vietnamese

A few students mentioned that their grandparents speak other languages as well. 

But a list is just that…a list. Who we each are is far more complex. For one, just because someone’s family speaks a language, doesn’t mean that language continues into the next generation. And just because we inherit much of our identities, each of us still has agency. In BCL10, we have explored the personal flow of past, present and future. The “Long Body” is the idea that “you’re not just your physical self—you’re also the past, the ancient past of who you’ve been, who your ancestors are and who you are into the future” (Krippner). 

When we catch a glimpse of that thread, it’s fascinating. At UVM, while we were exploring archival materials from the special collections, Elliot paused when he came across a photograph. It was an image of Burlington’s ice cutting industry. “My great-grandfather was an ice cutter here in Burlington,” he said, “and he’s still alive. He’s 93.”

Not everyone can see their family’s history in the UVM archives, but each one of us has a story. Early in the BCL semester students engage in a project called Telling Someone Else’s Story. It begins with personally meaningful objects. Together, we tour a gallery of these meaningful objects, and nurture our collective curiosity. Then in pairs, students go deep, both as storytellers and as active listeners. They often fill pages of their journal with the details of their partner’s story. They need to, because the stakes are high: they have to collect enough details to write their partner’s story – a story that is only revealed when it is read out loud with our whole BCL community as an audience. 

By itself, a simple object doesn’t tell its own story, but if you give the story room to breathe…
…and ask follow-up questions…
…a story emerges.

I think it’s good having such a diverse group. Our diversity gives all of us a platform to help others learn, and gives us so much to talk about.

– Khiem

It feels good because our group is so rich in culture, and we’re learning from each other every day. 

– Jean-Baptise

The value of having a diverse group is having many different perspectives and many unique minds to contribute to the conversation. 

– Jayde

The relationships I have with the people in BCL are different… We build off of each other to learn and to dive deeper. We rely on each other for different perspectives and different values. People with different interests, values, and perspectives come together to talk about the same thing. Having so many people of diverse groups, cultures, and identities brings out different thoughts, ideas, and lenses on the world. Everyone lives their own lives and develops their own beliefs, so it’s hard for them to imagine or even realize other ideas, but having someone who grew up with different beliefs can be enlightening. When we shared our origins of where we’re from, it was obvious that some people’s families were more connected than others. Also some people had almost identical stories.

– Eh Law La

I think having this much diversity in a community is a good thing, because we all have different perspectives and values on the world. It’s good to hear from everyone about their experiences and what they think about Burlington and the topics we discuss.

– Annemiek

I like seeing people from different cultures and backgrounds in one room. There’s more of a feeling of inclusion, instead of being the only one who’s different.

– Majeni

I enjoy being in a diverse group of classmates, as it makes us learn and enjoy the differences between each other. With the diversity and the connection  I have with my classmates, it greatly reminds me of my time in Upward Bound, which I spent with many of the students in this class.

– Djani

To be in such a diverse group it makes me grateful. I get to see the beauty of other cultures/traditions and get to know everyone a little better. 

– Summer

Being a part of a diverse group is good because we can learn about each other’s diverse experiences and widen our view on someone or something we thought we knew all about. Connecting with people we usually don’t interact with because we are different has a lot of value. In BCL I talk to people I never talk to at BHS.

– Sofia

It feels empowering, because each individual has their own unique experience, which is important. Individuals are given the opportunity to share those experiences, and the class wants to listen.

– George

Stories are everywhere. In BCL, we are lucky enough to have the time to listen. 

Migmar Tsering, telling his story of displacement and belonging.
Eh Law La in “The Hot Seat”–a BCL tradition, where you have to dish, no matter what question is asked.

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