Staples student finds where there's a will there's a way to bridge generations
Updated 6:32 am, Friday, March 4, 2011
Following is another installment of the "15 Minutes of Fame" feature series highlighting students of note at Staples High School.
Will Bitsky never met his grandparents. All four died before the Staples High School junior knew them.
So now Will is working hard to ensure that other peoples' stories are not lost forever.
Two years ago, Will's father mentioned the Ethical Will Project. Originally a Jewish tradition in which people interwove their own histories with a description of their personal values, hopes, dreams, fears, regrets, beliefs, lessons and experiences, it has evolved into an important undertaking at senior residences around the country.
"It's one thing to pass down your belongings," Will says, "but passing along knowledge can be much more valuable." Last year, Will set out to help a Norwalk woman in her 80s create her own Ethical Will. She knew his father from work -- but Will knew little about her. During weekly visits, over the course of several months, he learned a lot.
She was born in China, in a settlement of Russians. Will had no idea such an area ever existed.
"Her life had all these adventures," he says. "The Japanese invaded, and they had to run away." As the woman described her life -- surviving enormous floods, emigrating to the United States, meeting her father's "fanatically religious" family in Brooklyn, adjusting to American life, meeting her husband as he delivered ice by horse and wagon, living through World War II, working on Wall Street for an investment banking firm, moving to this area and teaching dancing -- Will took notes.
"I'd never have known about any of those things," he says. "There were funny stories, spiritual stories and exciting stories. Everyone has amazing stories. It's a shame if they don't get written down." At the same time, Will prompted the woman to talk about her values and ideals, too.
Then the real work began. She had jumped around, from year to year. He had to organize everything coherently. He had to write it clearly. And he had to include the woman's life lessons, as well as her life. (His sophomore "Collaborative" class -- a combination English/social studies course -- helped him with the self-reflection needed to make his writing strong.) The result is a very readable, thoroughly enjoyable nine-page letter. Addressed "to my dear family," it flows vibrantly through her childhood, adolescence, young adulthood and middle age, all the way to the present.
Will mixed the lessons in well. For example, when the woman says, "I would like you all to know how to be smart and shrewd," Will follows with a story of how her father feigned fainting to get his family through the door of the American consulate in Harbin, after a quota had been reached.
Similarly, she says, "everyone needs to learn to laugh. Laughing and crying are so close together that you just have to bring the humor and happiness out of everything." "I'd heard how important humor is," Will says. "But she really showed the importance of making the best of things, by seeing the funny side even through hardships."
The woman concludes, "You all have been a great source of happiness to grandpa and me. Try to find joy and beauty in the simple, ordinary things. Laugh a lot and enjoy your life."
At first, he thought the process would be "boring." But, he found, "I was amazed every time I heard those stories." The woman "loved doing all this," Will says. "She felt she'd never had a chance to tell her stories. Her kids are spread out all over the country. This was an opportunity she never thought she'd have." Will went the extra mile. He printed her Ethical Will on archival paper, and added professional-looking binding. He included extra pages, so she or her children could add stories in coming years.
After his first interviews, Will did others. Recently, he began interviewing a woman in her 40s. He'll be sure to add many blank sheets to her Ethical Will.
He is also interviewing his own parents. "Even though I've spent my entire life with them, I'm hearing things I've never heard before," he says.
As important as it is to get stories on paper for posterity, Will says, there is an added benefit. "It's like having substitute grandparents. Even though I didn't hear my own grandparents' stories, I'm learning from people like them." He hopes to get many others to participate -- as story-tellers and writers. His dream is to spread the project as far as possible, creating a meaningful bridge between generations.
The Ethical Will Project is not Will's only activity. He is a member of the Westport Youth Commission, Staples' Teen Awareness Group and the Israeli Culture Club. He does database development for FTSE -- that's right, the European market.
But it's clear that unearthing and writing life stories and lessons is an important part of his own life. When he finally gets around to it, Will Bitsky will have plenty of interesting tales to tell of his own experiences -- including the Ethical Will Project.