Digging for stories has always been part of my life. Growing up on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, I was surrounded by an intricate culture of West Indian and Danish history. On Sundays, my father and I would take the car and set off on some dirt road searching for anything fun to investigate. Some days we would find ourselves wandering through cemeteries lost in plant growth, reading the summarized versions of people’s’ lives on the headstones. Many times we would trudge through old ruins of abandoned homes, wrecked by age or hurricanes, trying to piece together the stories of those who had lived there. Always searching for interesting artifacts, always on a treasure hunt, I was overjoyed when I would find a colorful piece of tile or fragments of an old newspaper. I often wonder how common it is these days for students to have time to casually walk through their neighborhood, talking with neighbors, without the distraction of “stranger danger” or even with the focus in mind to look closely at their surroundings.
This past August, I taught a course called ‘Weird Chicago’ at Morgan Park Academy’s Summer Enrichment Program. When designing the course, “weird” was up for interpretation. Previous classes have researched urban myths or local ghost stories, but I instead partnered with a historian at The Ridge Historical Society in the Beverly/Morgan Park neighborhood to interpret “weird” in a different manner. With her expertise, I researched and identified various addresses in the neighborhood that had each housed a unique resident or which the actual structure had generated an anecdote. En route to an address with my small group of students, we would stop to admire small details discovered along the way: a perfect climbing tree, a fuzzy caterpillar, oddly decorated yards, and architectural accents. A few times, we stopped to chat with residents of homes we passed, informing them of our purpose, and ultimately learning a unique story about them or their own historical home. Over the course of the two weeks, it was wonderful to see the neighborhood through Middle School eyes. At first, students bemoaned the long walks, but they soon developed an ease and joyful anticipation with which they navigated the area. They began to look forward to the walks, planning routes for the class, and assisting with discoveries along the way.
A few times a month, my family will take what we call “A whole family walk”. Usually, it’s when we are feeling too cooped up and driving each other crazy, so we load our four-year-old into the wagon and walk a few blocks and back. It helps reset everyone’s mood, and we will talk at length about what mystical creature might live in a hole we pass along the way, or my daughter will admire the paint color of a home. We will stop at mini libraries in front of people’s homes, or engage with a friendly pet that runs out to greet us. Sometimes, if we are lucky, our pre-schooler will even fill us in on something personal that happened at school, as we make our way down the street. I encourage you and your family to take a walk. You never know what you will find out about your child’s day, your neighborhood, or even yourself.