NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Students at the E3 Academy have focused their larger projects over the years to aspects of the community: a line of merchandise celebrating the city, a food pantry, teaching younger kids about healthy food, researching social and civil rights in the area.
On Saturday, the alternative high school program put forth perhaps its most ambitious project: a series of interviews with residents collected into the book "The City Before You."
"Stories, smiles, laughter and an occasional doughnut were shared as students formed friendships with these local historians," read Rayven West on Saturday before an appreciative crowd in the Hunter Gallery at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.
Each student, in turn, read snippets from the book and presented a copy each to the North Adams Historical Society and the North Adams Public Library.
The stories of 17 people are in the book: how Fritz Spooner was rejected by the Army so came home to join the National Guard; how Dick Dassatti hitch-hiked around the country but came to realize nothing was as beautiful as his hometown; Bernice "Red" Alcombright told them about running a machine with 80 bobbins in the mill; Justyna Carlson recalled the old hangouts like Rice's Drugstore and going to the Drury-St. Joe games.
Jason Bunt said he liked learning the history of the area.
"I liked to talk to the old people and have coffee with them and sitting there with the inteviews and understanding about their life and what it was like back then," he said. "It's nice to know about it."
Bunt interviewed Alfred "buzz" Dickinson and his friend spoke with Buzz's wife of 60 years, Betty.
LaShay Darkins interviewed Alcombright, the former mayor's mother.
"She was nice to me," she said. She really enjoyed "the experience of being in Mass MoCA and seeing everybody here enjoying our show."
The students' show was interrupted regularly as people walked by the presentation in the gallery, a connector space that features Spencer Finch "Cosmic Latte" lighting installation. It was free day at the museum and it was packed with people. In addition to the E3 Academy, the Historical Society and the history department at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts were holding a "history harvest" to digitize photos and objects from the former mill and city's history.
For the E3 history harvest, school counselor Abby Reifsnyder had contacted the Spitzer Center and North Adams Commons looking for people willing to be interviewed, then the adults brainstormed to come up with some more, like Fritz Spooner.
"We got some of the best stories from him," she smiled.
Among the interviewees was Joe Manning, the Florence resident who has become an integral part of the North Adams community. Manning's written his own books on the city based on interviews and said it was kind of weird to be the subject this time.
"It was kind of fun being on the other end of an interview," he said. Though it was tough at first to answer the questions "because I'm thinking more academically as a historian." But he realized it was about sharing experiences.
"I just opened up and said exactly how I felt," he said. "It's fun to be interviewed."
Reifsnyder said the students were really pushed with this project. They did followup interviews, wrote up summaries and quotes, and did numerous revisions to create the content. Then they printed out the folios and sewed the books together.
"They really did the whole thing but we ran out of time," she said. Only a few books were completed for presentation by Saturday. "Next week, they'll each make another one for themselves and for each one they interviewed. We're really happy with how it came out."
The project also connected the academy, located in the Armory, to the Spitzer Senior Center just down the street.
"What was really sweet at the Spitzer Center, we went one week and then we went the following week so the kids could ask some follow-up questions, and now we have an ongoing relationship," Reifsnyder said. "Last Wednesday, we presented them with a copy of the book and all the people who we interviewed were there and they were so excited."
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