Here are a few things to remember this weekend: 16.1 million Americans served in the armed forces in World War II between December 1, 1941 and December 31, 1946. 292,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines paid the ultimate price and died in the war; 671,000 more were wounded. Of all those World War II veterans, less than 213,00 are still living– but about 900 die every day. And every one who passes on takes a rich piece of American history to the grave with him or her.
But not before Sveri May’s 10th grade students can honor, respect, and capture those stories in a meaningful way. Sveri May is a teacher in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She grew up there, raised her children there, and has taught History at the Loy Norrix High School for 29 years. She may have stayed in the same town, but Mrs. May is the kind of extraordinary teacher who is on fire to open up the world to her students. So 13 years ago, she decided to try something different to engage her students in American history. “The kids were so bored, and nothing I was talking about seemed real to them. So I decided to let them learn history from the people who created it.”
The Living History Project sends teams of 10th graders to the Battle Creek VA Medical Center to interview veterans, conduct research, and then write their life stories. The report takes two months to complete and is put into personalized notebooks for each veteran to keep and share with their families– a living record of their service. “For the vets, it’s a wonderful chance to tell their story to a young person who wants to hear it. They may be tucked away in the hospital, but they have amazing stories to tell. And these notebooks become part of the family’s legacy, so the students are creating something really valuable.”
For the students (sometimes for the first time) it’s a chance to show respect for and interest in their elders and appreciate the incredible sacrifices made by the Greatest Generation. These stories have to get written down,” says Sveri May passionately. “The kids may not go into it expecting much, but by the time it’s over, they’ve created a real bond with their vet and they don’t want to disconnect. It’s really moving.”
Today, the kids of Loy Norrix will go back to the VA to present the notebooks to their veterans and have an old-fashioned picnic with them. Then they’ll place flags on 600 gravesites at Fort Custer National Cemetery nearby, and tour the Michigan National Guard across the street where five kids who have excelled at the project will be award regimental coins of excellence.
Personally, I can’t think of a better way to celebrate Memorial Day– or a teacher that I’m more eager to support. My $100 will go to buy food for today’s picnic and a few notebooks for the most excellent Living History project of Sveri May. In memory of all those who serve … God bless you!