by Elizabeth P. Stewart

How connected do young people feel to the past? That was one of the things we set out to learn when we began planning for our current exhibit, Two By Two: Students Reinterpret Renton History. Thanks to our partnership with Renton High Language Arts teacher Derek Smith, in fall 2011 we were able to invite 58 Honors English students in to explore the Renton History Museum’s collection. Their task was to select historic objects and photos, research them, then compare and contrast them to their own meaningful objects and photos.

The students dove into the assignment, and the result is an extraordinary youth perspective on the past. Their themes were universal—family, friends, patriotism, and the importance of cherished objects—but their experiences and diverse backgrounds added a new dimension to old things. Carlotta Saban saw an immediate link to the past in the way men and women use leisure time. She compared a 1909 saloon with the photo of a present-day nail salon. “Back then guys went to saloons and women went to parks,” she wrote. “Many men still go to bars, and many women go to beauty salons.”

A 1930 image of North Renton boys in coveralls reminded Hang Bui of her Vietnamese childhood with her family. “My cousins and I used to love to waste our whole day squatting in abandoned fields, cornering grasshoppers,” Hang remembered.

Some objects stimulated more serious discussions. Amanda Dyer compared an 1890s mourning brooch to the program from her grandfather’s funeral; others also recalled deaths and injuries. Shelby Mensalves shared her father’s basketball jersey, remembering how her father and his Brooklyn teammates had been ridiculed for their small stature, just as Renton High basketball player Henry Moses had been denigrated by opponents in the 1910s for being Native American.

This project helped students sharpen their skills at critical analysis, research, and writing and revising (on a deadline, no less). Two By Two also involved them more deeply in their community, helping them find themselves in Renton’s history, and reminding them that they too have a role to play. For our museum visitors, sharing these very personal stories has breathed new life into conversations about differences and similarities because of age or race or ethnicity or religion.

In a thank you note to museum staff, Cindy Thai Nguyen wrote, “The entire project overall makes me even more proud of being a Renton High School student. We might have a reputation otherwise, but Renton High truly is a wonderful school.” The seriousness of the teenagers’ work has changed the way visitors think about high school students, and the way students think about themselves.

Elizabeth P. Stewart is the Director of the Renton History Museum, located at 235 Mill Avenue S in Renton.  “Two By Two” will be on exhibit until May 26, 2012.