Broadneck student project is one for the history books

Stories: What began as an English class assignment grew into an oral history of people's lives on the Chesapeake Bay.

April 08, 2001|By Alyson Harkins | Alyson Harkins,SUN STAFF

It started as an English class assignment for a group of Broadneck High School students - taking and writing oral histories related to the Chesapeake Bay.

This afternoon, the result - a book titled "Shoes, Ships & Sealing Wax" - will be celebrated with a reception, readings and signing at the Barnes & Noble store at Annapolis Harbour Center on Solomons Island Road.

The students were asked last fall by English teacher Mary Medicus to find someone to interview whose life was connected to the bay. She says she was astonished by the results: "They found people in areas and occupations that I never could have imagined."

Medicus was so impressed that she decided to seek funding to transform the students' projects into a book. She received two grants, and some money from the school for the project.

The teacher - who retired in February - said the idea of students recording and writing oral histories was inspired by another book that she read about 12 years ago, Studs Terkel's "Working."

She saw in the oral history an ideal and interesting way for students to combine a variety of language skills, and began assigning the project. Each year, a new class of students would choose people to interview on tape, and convert the tape into written form.

What she wanted on the Chesapeake assignment, Medicus said, was stories - and that was what she got. "We hear so much about the scientific facts of the bay and the environment, it's depressing," she said. "These stories say more than lists and charts - there's life here. We need to hear this."

The book offers a variety of viewpoints on the Bay - watermen, Department of Natural Resources police officers, recreational boaters and fishermen, crab pickers from Smith Island. It includes stories of terrible storms, big fish, superstitions, sinkings, diving for oysters, environmental changes and, of course, crabs.

Students found subjects for the oral histories through parents, teachers and acquaintances. Taped interviews were conducted on docks, boats, front porches and at kitchen tables.

The real work, the students say, was in converting their taped interviews to manuscript form. Each transcript was painstakingly reviewed and checked for mistakes.

"The more you read it," said Broadneck junior Josh Grodin, "the more mistakes you found."

Medicus kept them working, Grodin said. "She kept it going - she kept everyone motivated."

Part of the challenge, Medicus said, was to retain on paper the rhythms and unusual qualities of Maryland accents.

Many of the students came away from the project with newfound respect for the watermen.

Valerie Golt, also a junior, said even though her grandfather is a waterman, she learned a lot from her participation in the project. Valerie and another student, Erin Thorne, interviewed Smith Island waterman Chuck Marsh, who talked about crabbing and life on the bay. Two other students, Jackie Zens and Fran Catterton, interviewed Valerie's grandfather, Sonny Golt, whose recollections included growing up during the Depression and life on the Eastern Shore in the days before the Bay Bridge was built.

"A lot of the arguments over [saving] the bay have to do with money," Valerie said. "The watermen aren't in it for the money. If money was what they really wanted, they wouldn't be watermen."

The reception, reading and signing at Barnes & Noble is scheduled for 3 p.m.

The book is also available online at

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