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Collecting Family History: Rooting Ourselves in Identity During the Pandemic

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    Khizer Husain, Director of External Relations at Two Rivers Public Charter School

It started with an email invitation less than a week into our remote learning journey.

Hello friends of Crew 302! 

If you're getting this email, you're in our thoughts and we hope all is well on your end. We're reaching out because it occurred to us that some of you might be feeling a little bereft at the abrupt disappearance of 5th graders from your life. Esther, Khadeem, and I are still seeing them regularly, but maybe you're missing them?! If so, we've got an idea for you!

I was hooked. School closure had indeed left me “a little bereft” in not seeing our students’ joyful faces. As the Director of External Relations, I find great pleasure in opening the doors of Two Rivers to visitors in order to share our rich learning and belongingness fostered in Crew—a culture of helping each other to succeed and belong. Crew 302 opened for me their door to Genius Hour and to a learning journey with Jay, a 5th grader at Two Rivers. Genius Hour fit squarely with the 3 C’s undergirding our remote learning: Core academic content, Connection, and Creativity/Curiosity. Jay wanted to explore the topic of family history, and I signed on to be his advisor.

In my first video call with Jay, he shared with me his project log, illustrating what he knew about the topic and what he wanted to explore. He shared that he did not know much about his own family history but that it was important to him. I was impressed by his self-awareness. I talked to him about my interest in the topic and a recent conversation I had had with a neighbor, Cappie, who had recently published her family history as a collection of stories entitled Recollections: Plantations and Family Stories. I shared with Jay how Cappie had interviewed her grandmother forty years ago when she was living with her in Washington, DC. Her grandmother was a great storyteller and she diligently recorded these interviews. This book brought to life those stories (and those of other family members) and Cappie’s own reflections as she passes along these stories to her grandchildren. Jay’s eyes widened. He was intrigued by this thing called family history.

Over the next video calls, I would come to learn about Jay’s parents and extended family members - where they grew up and where they moved. To assist Jay in thinking about his own family history, I shared with him one of my own stories. It was a story of immigrating to the U.S. with my mother and two older brothers. I was in diapers and it was the month of March, which is hot in Hyderabad, India but cool in Chicago. My mother was prepared: she bundled me up and put socks on my feet, clothes we never needed in India. Three days later, we made it to my uncle’s apartment in Chicago. When she went to pull off my socks, she realized in a panic that the socks had been too tight. They had dug into shins and started to make them bleed. I told Jay that I still have scars from that immigration journey. It’s a reminder of how difficult it is to uproot yourself and move to another land - for my parents to learn so much very quickly - like how socks work.

I had never shared that story with any student and with only a few adults. But, in that moment, Jay had made me feel safe to share this part of my life. It was a story told to me by my mother many years ago but one of which I only reflected now. As Jay pieced together his own family history he is more and more interested in reading about others’. 

The disruptions from COVID-19 may fade over time. We will resume our lives, albeit in a new way. We’ll try to reboot hybrid distance/physical learning and perhaps attempt to make up for lost time. We’ll mourn so much in 2020, especially the lives lost. But a silver lining for me throughout this ordeal will be my moments with Jay, sharing harvests of stories that connect us to our past and give us a contour of who we want to be in the future. As family storytellers we marvel at the pivotal points in our ancestors’ lives when they grappled with tough decisions. While we root for them to make the right choice, Cappie’s family history, which includes a dark chapter of enslaved plantation labor, tells us that sometimes that is not the case. But we must tell those stories, too. This is how we grow. This is how our kids and their kids grow. As we reflect on these stories, I am hopeful that for both Jay and I, Genius Hour will have been one of the fondest memories of the pandemic.

Khizer Husain is the Director of External Relations at Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, DC where he manages communications, partnerships, and advocacy. In his free time, he coordinates large-scale family reunions.