Drumming up understanding between the generations

Faded photos from the 1960s share a table with a newfangled Polaroid camera and a half-eaten cake. Scattered worksheets note mundane information about people's hair color, favorite foods, and marital status. In the center of it all sit a few small drums, each one's base a collage of images.

These drums are more about the rhythms of life than of music. They are the focal point of the Peace Drum Project, an intergenerational arts and oral-history program sponsored by Boston's Cooperative Artists Institute.

Sitting at the adjacent table in the library of Farnsworth House, a retirement building, are ninth-grader Zena Nieves and resident Violette MacArthur. Zena slides bracelets up and down her arm as she listens to Ms. MacArthur recount the story of how she met her husband more than half a century ago. "You know that game, Spin the Bottle?" MacArthur asks her teenage friend. Some things haven't really changed that much.

The two have in common a degree of shyness, it turns out, and a penchant for music. "You go, girl!" Zena exclaims when MacArthur says she taught herself to play harmonica.

It's just the kind of scene Charles Holley envisioned when he dreamed up this pilot project. He says urban teens often face the same problems he has encountered as an African-American man - strangers crossing the street or moving away on the subway because of negative stereotypes. "I wanted to bring them here in their street clothes, so people can see they're just kids," Mr. Holley says.

In turn, the kids get a chance to realize that just because a person has lived to see 15 presidents occupy the White House doesn't mean she's out of touch or short on vitality.

Many states and local communities have created intergenerational networks to encourage such programs. The number of older Americans is projected to double to 70 million within 30 years, according to the Center for Intergenerational Learning at Temple University in Philadelphia. They should be tapped to help nurture young people's development, the center's website urges. And they in turn can benefit from teens' companionship and eagerness to help.

The Peace Drum Project will culminate in an exhibit of the personalized drums, decorated with photos or symbols of participants' lives. It is designed to pick up where threadbare school arts programs leave off. Ninth-grader Andre Hankerson, for instance, has his eye on art school and architecture, but his high school doesn't offer much beyond the basics. Prior to interviewing the seniors, the teens visited artists' studios and learned about visual ways to tell a story. They created a scrapbook of self-portraits and collages. Even their nametags are canvases for creativity. Shaniqua Osgood drew two flags on hers, for her Chinese and Cuban heritage.

Students also met with a woman who works closely with older people, says program director Susan Porter. And they built up writing skills by keeping journals.

The project currently involves fewer than a dozen people, but it will expand next year through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

"To me, it's beautiful to get together and talk," the rosy-cheeked MacArthur says. "I try to keep up with teenagers, because you can't just go with what you like."

Her partner, Zena, is equally enthusiastic: "I like it a lot, because when I get to be their age, I'd like young kids to ask me questions."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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