Griswold Middle School students learn about history from those who lived it

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Griswold - posted Mon., Jun. 10, 2013
Betty Mentillo reminisces about her 99 years of life for GMS eighth-graders Zach Lucier and Brett Shoquist. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
Betty Mentillo reminisces about her 99 years of life for GMS eighth-graders Zach Lucier and Brett Shoquist. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

It’s one thing to read about history in a middle-school textbook. It’s quite another to actually meet someone who was born just months before the start of World War I. Eighth-grade students from Griswold Middle School got an up-close and personal take on their social studies topics of the past few weeks – the Great Depression and World War II – by interviewing local seniors at the Griswold Senior Center on June 6.

Terry Blanchard, 88, described working in the mill in Baltic as a young woman, earning 80 cents an hour. The youngest of six children, “I had to give all my money to my mother and father,” she said. “And I had to pay for my own stockings.” Going to church required best dresses, complete with hat and gloves – a far cry from the polo shirts and shorts she sees in church these days. Today, “they don’t have enough respect, even for one hour,” she said. “And the word ‘sex’ was never said in the house.”

The multi-generational oral history project was intended to bring the textbook to life and give students a personal perspective on what they’d learned in class. It served another purpose, too: preserving a slice of local history while those who lived it could still talk about it firsthand.

Delia Pepin, age 92, told stories of the hurricane of ’38, which swept through New England leaving a massive trail of destruction behind it. She was a high school senior then. “The hurricane started about 3 o’clock in the afternoon. I had just gotten home from school on the bus,” she said. “I lived near the Quinebaug River, and we saw furniture come down the river and over the falls. Then the bridge let go and we lost the bridge. They had to put up one of those rickety [temporary] ones. It was scary to walk across, believe you me.”

Eighth-grader Zach Lucier said that the most surprising thing he learned from interviewing 99-year-old Betty Mentillo was the price of gas back in her day. “Twenty-five cents a gallon!” he exclaimed. “And you could get a 20-pound bag of food for $1.50. Now when you go to Wal-Mart for milk and you see other things you want to get, and it’s $100.”

About 20 students and a dozen seniors took part in the project, said GMS librarian Carol Goulart. “This is something [the students] never understand unless they hear it,” she said.

“This is something I think we’ll do again,” said Senior Center director Tina Falck. “I think it’s important for the students to hear how different life was then. They’ll walk away and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that.’”

Youth Center Supervisor Ricky Bevis said that the results of the day’s interviews would be saved onto a CD and permanently housed in the middle school’s library. “Carol feels, and Tina feels, that it’s really important for these people’s history be kept for future generations,” she said. “It would be a shame to lose all that information. These kids really have no idea what previous generations have been through, how dramatic some of their lives have been, how interesting. It’s a really good experience for both generations.”

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