It’s a high school project that English teacher Elizabeth Arnstein loves, but she realizes it won’t last too much longer.

For three years now, Arnstein has assigned her junior students to interview elders who survived the Great Depression. Then they write a magazine-style article about their subject’s life.

“Time and time again, students regard this assignment with panic and worry — they’re terrified initially,” said Arnstein, 44, who teaches at Convent of the Visitation School in Mendota Heights.

As another school year wound down this month, she asked her students which projects worked and which didn’t.

“Over and over, they say how much they loved interviewing ‘my old person,’ ’’ Arnstein said. “I’m always amazed at the richness of the stories the students write. And I like that kids are forced out of their comfort zones, learning something that textbooks can’t teach them.”

For Maria Daly, that meant retracing the steps of a migrant worker who moved as a child from Mexico to Texas to Minnesota, where her uncle dreamed of higher wages in the beet fields along the Red River in the northwestern part of the state.

Now in her 90s, Erlinda Sanchez told her great-granddaughter how her own mother had died when she was an infant. Her sickly father sent her to live with an aunt across the U.S. border. At 11, her aunt and uncle sold everything and moved to Minnesota in 1930.

“We packed up whatever things we had left and drove, stopping in different towns to work just enough to put gas in the Model T,” Sanchez told Daly. “I didn’t know how to work with beets, but I had no choice but to learn.”

Not speaking much English and loathing the farm work, Sanchez ran away and married a fellow migrant named Luz Sanchez in 1935. She described how her young husband would drive from the farm fields to the city every day for months, hoping to find better work in urban areas. He finally landed a job at a Schweppes factory.

For Kaitlyn Zenner, the six-week assignment meant unearthing details of her grandmother’s childhood in Pierz, Minn. — 100 miles northwest of Visitation, her Catholic high school of about 340 young women.

The seventh of eight children, Theresa Weber (now Zenner) was born March 28, 1932. “Theresa’s parents had no money for a hospital,” Kaitlyn wrote in her essay, “so Theresa was born in their rented home with the help of a midwife …. She was sick for months, only able to drink goat’s milk, but during the Great Depression, Theresa’s family was unable to afford to bring her to a hospital to speed up her recovery.”

Her grandmother told her: “They kept me home and hoped I lived.”

She did, but without running water. “Next to the stove, a set of rickety wood steps led down to a root cellar, where a basin of water was located along with a roller towel,” Kaitlyn wrote. “This is where the family went to wash their hands.”

Kaitlyn’s grandfather, John Weber, was an auto mechanic — working for meat and vegetables, often the only price his farming customers could afford to pay to keep their vehicles running.

Not all the students interview older relatives. Julia Carlone contacted a local nursing home, where she met Joan Carman Janssen Ebden, who was born in 1927.

She told Carlone how she cherished the rare times when pears, cherries and peaches found their way to their kitchen counter in Milwaukee. Everyone wore older siblings’ hand-me-downs.

“No one cared where you got the clothes from or the label,” Joan told Carlone, “just that you had clothes on your back!”

Julia has since been back to visit and hear more stories — like the time in 1935 when Joan and her sister were stunned to find under their tiny Christmas tree two $10 Dy-Dee dolls, which each “desperately wanted” and loved.

Arnstein braids the Depression assignment with reading the “Grapes of Wrath” and watching Dust Bowl documentaries — urging kids to contrast the Joads’ experiences in John Steinbeck’s novel with the firsthand stories they collected. Among the common themes that emerge: Depression-era kids often did not understand how dire times were, Arnstein said, repeating a popular refrain: “We didn’t know we were poor because everyone was just like us!”

But their families offered sandwiches and firewood to hobos and raised relatives’ children if needed.

“Communities seemed very tight-knit,” Arnstein said, “and this is an idea that permeates these essays.”

She knows the number of Depression survivors is dwindling with each passing school year. But she’ll keep the assignment going as long as she can.

One recent letter from a student’s mom explains why. Julia Debertin interviewed and wrote about a relative named Lorraine Pletscher, who died in April. None of Lorraine’s surviving siblings was able to travel from out of state to attend her funeral. So copies of Julia’s paper were sent to relatives and friends.

One sister said the high school essay sparked childhood memories, while friends said they learned things about Lorraine they never knew.

“Julia said once that you told her class they may never know the impact their interviews have on their interviewee or their families,” Becky Debertin wrote. “... You were right! Thank you for assigning such a thoughtful project and I hope you are able to continue it as long as possible.”

 

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.