Greene: Liberating Stories

May 1, 2018

Historiography, or the study of who gets to write history and why, is usually taught as a college course, as is the use of original sources.

But with the help of Abenaki educator, Judy Dow, it’s being taught in the fourth and fifth grades at Guilford School by teachers Cory Sorensen and Amy Skolnick. They're using primary sources and oral stories to aid students in creating a digital map and story of the places and people actively targeted by the Vermont Eugenics Survey.

The eugenics movement was driven by UVM zoologist Dr. Henry Perkins, with the ultimate aim of reducing the growth of Vermont's "social problem groups" - especially those of Native and French Canadian ancestry - most controversially by the sterilization of designated people. Dow explains eugenics to the students as an attempt to breed better people, the way people do, in fact, breed faster racehorses or cows that gave more milk.

The students researched Doris Seale, a woman from the southern Vermont village of Algiers, whose family was first targeted by the Survey, then dispersed when her mother died of polio. Doris was sent to an orphanage. She later became an author and children’s librarian for 45 years.

Excitement is palpable as the students piece history together. “I thought this was going to be a scavenger hunt,” says one, “but this is a real story!” And these stories can be life-changing - a high school junior had been in one of Dow’s classes in 3rd grade. “I see now that you were talking about my family,” she told Dow. “I didn’t know it then.”

I thought learning about the mistakes of our forebears might discourage kids, but it seems instead to be liberating. Children have an acute sense of justice. Teaching them that other points of view have validity enables them to explore and honor their own stories. One little girl answered my concerns by saying, “Am I too young to know right from wrong? Am I too young to have a voice?”

The children created mnemonic devices for capturing and retelling the stories they discovered, in non-traditional maps formed as baskets, paintings and leatherwork. They will be on display during Diversity Day in the Emerson‘s window on Elliot Street and at the Brooks Memorial Library throughout the month of May.