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Andy Lippman: Heritage Day Gives Students a Peek Into Their Ancestry

Marengo Elementary School fifth graders display their Family Heritage projects

It’s the holiday season.
So, pass the melting pot.
That’s what fifth graders at Marengo Elementary School have been doing the past few weeks as they prepared a project on their heritage, which went on display last Friday before families and friends who came to sample the fruits of their discoveries.
Heritage Day has become a yearly tradition. In the weeks before Thanksgiving, Marengo fifth-grade students are given a project that explores the question: “Who am I?”
I visited with a group of fifth graders in Natalie Peterman’s dual immersion Mandarin class prior to them setting their presentations up for display.
I had initially wanted to talk about the holiday customs the students celebrated at their homes, but the overall response I got to my questions might be translated to “bah humbug.”
Peterman and Andrea Fox, from the superintendent’s office, then suggested that I might want to hear and see the results of what students were showing that morning.
Arroyo Vista Elementary School has an annual international food festival and Monterey Hills Elementary has multicultural luncheons, but neither of these South Pasadena schools does an event like Marengo.
It was wonderful to hear the Marengo fifth graders’ enthusiasm as they showed me what they had learned about their families. Peterman had arranged to have five students stay behind to talk to me, while their classmates were setting up their displays, many on large poster boards with flags showing nations of origin.
“There was a lot that I didn’t know,” said Rex Heyler-Erickson. “I went on walks with my mom and I sat down with my dad who told me that one of my great-great grandparents had come from Finland.
“I learned that on my mom’s side, I have ancestors from Sweden, Germany and the Isle of Man.
“Now it all makes sense to me.”
Heritage Day is always the Friday before the Thanksgiving break and has been going on for many years. Students and parents are given the requirements for the projects, and the turnout by parents for the assembly to showcase the results reflects the interest on the part of the parents, who were bustling in to get a look at the dozens of projects on display.
Some of the questions included describing the most interesting artifact they had found. One of the students showed me a pin that one of her grandparents used in Korea to hold her hair.
The students were asked to provide recipes from people on their family tree and to explain where the recipe had come from.
One student explained that one of his ancestors came from Italy and the family often had pasta with their meals.
“Students are excited to complete the project, although sometimes a bit intimidated by the number of components we ask them to complete,” said Peterman, who is in her second year as a teacher at Marengo, and who began her teaching career as an English as a second language teacher in Korea.
“This year, one fifth grader traced her ancestry back to the 1500s. We also had a student get an ancestral DNA breakdown and include that on their board along with a map highlighting their roots,” she said.
Emily Liaw talked to her grandparents and her parents, who came to America for better opportunities.
Blake Poh was the student who had pasta on the family menu, and he showed me from his exhibit that his grandmother had come from Italy, other relatives had come to America from Ireland via Canada, while his dad’s family had come from Singapore.
Ava Kirk said that her family also had pasta-filled shells on the table – a possible reflection of the fact that one of her grandmothers came from Italy, while another was from Korea.
Students are allowed to bring in food samples that represent family traditions or their cultures of origin and Peterman said that in the past they have had seaweed snacks, empanadas, Swedish meatballs, boba milk tea drinks, concha pastries and steamed dumplings.
Peterman said that some heirlooms in this year’s exhibits, and in the past, have included photos of grandparents; a photo of a medal of honor earned by a grandparent; an Army helmet that belonged to a grandparent; a book of violin music that belonged to a student’s mother; cookbooks passed along from previous generations; and pictures of immigration papers and records.
Students were asked to look at each other’s projects, to answer several observation questions and finally to reflect on, “Are all of our family roots the same? Do you think this is a strength or a weakness in today’s world?”
Peterman explained that she wanted this project to expand their horizons beyond just their normal computer use. She wanted them to talk to their relatives, and dig into their past.
“I want them to open their eyes to themselves,” she said.
The Heritage Day project was just that — an eye-popping experience for students, teacher and parents.
In stark contrast to my time at Marengo are my memories of a school day, 60 years ago.
It happened Nov. 22, 1963, the day that President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas.
I was 15 and sitting in an algebra class in Bethesda, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C., where my teacher was writing a formula on the blackboard. We suddenly heard the loud speaker come on and we could hear an announcer talking.
The first words I recognized were: “John Kennedy has been shot.”
The second sound I recognized was the sound of a chalk stick being snapped by the teacher when he heard the news.
The rest of the day was a blur of tears. Girls and boys sitting on the hallway floors crying. Teachers — barely able to keep their emotions in check — trying to comfort them and bring them into classrooms so they could have time to let their emotions out before classes were dismissed.
The emotions that day were as raw as those emotions I experienced at Marengo last week were joyous.
This Thanksgiving weekend, my wish is for more joyous moments for everyone.

First published in the November 24 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.

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