“Elephants and grandchildren never forget.” Andy Rooney
While many studies have been conducted to measure the memory span of an elephant, the results are varied and scientists may never know, truly, the length of the giant mammal’s memory span. In the late 1990’s at The Elephant Sanctuary, the United States’ largest natural habitat refuge for elephants in Hohenwald, Tennessee, a sweet lady elephant named Jenny became boundlessly excited when a new elephant, named Shirley, arrived at the Sanctuary. Intrigued by their joint enthusiasm, employees looked into the animals’ backgrounds and found that the two elephants had met before. Twenty two years earlier, Shirley and Jenny had performed with the same circus for several months! While not a scientific analysis, workers proved these elephants knew each other before and based on their behavior clearly remembered one another as friends after two decades of separation. Thus, amidst dozens of studies illustrating various outcomes of an elephant’s memory span, we see from these two old friends that nearly two dozen years of memories can be stored by an elephant.
But children? Ah, a child’s memory far outlasts an elephant’s; especially a grandchild’s. For example, my 88 year old grandmother still shares with me stories of her grandparents’ farm in rural Missouri and the endless days of plowing and reaping harvests that lasted long into her grandparents’ later decades. My mother can still recall stories told to her by her grandmother – tales of raising nine children with no electricity, no running water and of the simple joys of making hand churned butter. And I, of course, still ask my grandmother to retell the tales of her life, though I remember all the stories well. Whether 88, 61, 29, or 3, 4, 5, and 6 like the children in your classrooms, the stories our grandparents share are forever seared in our memories. These tales are told to grandchildren like fairytales – beautiful stories with hints of a place and time that no longer exist but in our imaginations, are places and times we can revisit for years to come. Like Andy Rooney says, “Elephants and grandchildren never forget.”
What is it, exactly, that grandchildren never forget? They never forget stories, and they never forget experiences. The histories of ancient civilizations exist because of one reason: narratives shared from generation to generation. In these tales not only the facts but the feelings of the story are shared and therein lies the power of storytelling. When my grandmother tells the story about having to make lye soap I can feel the angst and trepidation she had towards the process – she knew each time the smell was going to make her sick and the aroma of the lye would cause her eyes to water and burn. I can tell you step by step how to make lye soap, but more importantly I can tell you how my grandmother felt about the process. This feeling, the feeling of being in your grandparent’s shoes and experiencing for a brief moment what they experienced so many years before, is a priceless taste of history that can never be shared except through story.
So, in honor of Grandparent’s Day this Sunday, September 7, we at SLC are asking you to assign your students one very simple, joyous piece of homework. Ask your students to call or get together with a grandparent (if a grandparent is not available, a special adult, even a parent, will work) this weekend and have the grandparent tell their grandchild a story. That’s it. On Monday, when your students return to your classroom with boundless energy from a restful weekend, ask each of them to share with you the story their grandparent shared with them. We promise they won’t have forgotten it and their interpretations of the story will surely add joy and heartwarming moments to your sleepy Monday morning. If you can, write the stories down to create a lasting memory your students can keep for years to come. Tuck it in their backpacks at the end of the day and rest assured you created history in your classroom today.
Authored by Jordan Gainey Khadam-Hir, Rice School Literacy and Culture