Richmond children from kindergarten through high school are feeling afraid.
Many are uncertain and not at all sure what the changes brought about by the pandemic mean. They miss playing sports, seeing friends and going to school. But a lot of students are also advocating for people to wear masks and to socially distance to protect the vulnerable people in the community.
These thoughts and feelings – in the form of stories, journals, drawings and video clips – are being created by students throughout the Richmond region as a means of showing future generations how life here changed during the spring. As part of its mission to document Richmond history, the Valentine museum put out a call to children to share their impressions of their new normal.
- Jaylen A., 6th Grade, Binford Middle School
Once schools closed and the Valentine temporarily closed the doors to the public, it wasn’t a question of if the museum would respond, but how.
“The Valentine has a long history of student engagement, from onsite programs to student tours, so it’s part of our institution’s DNA to serve Richmond’s students,” explains Director Bill Martin. “And that’s what we’ve done with ‘Richmond Stories from Richmond Kids.’”
Since the museum’s early days, it has directly connected to students by making admission free for all Richmond Public Schools and Title I schools. The museum’s education team regularly presents a robust series of programs for students that cover a wide variety of topics, from African American history in Richmond to monuments.
- Madeline V., 3rd Grade John M. Gandy Elementary School
Once it became clear that those in-person programs weren’t going to happen, the museum’s staff had to determine ways to stay engaged with the children it’s committed to serving. Marisa Day, the student programs and tours manager, is always thinking about how kids interpret and respond to history.
“What’s most important is that when they interact with the Valentine, they make a personal connection to one of the histories or stories we share,” she says. “Connection is key to engaging students with stories from the past.”
After submissions began rolling in, the museum responded by posting them to an online gallery and sharing them weekly on social media.
“Each student who submits is informed that their submission may eventually become a part of the official Valentine collection,” Martin explains. For now, the museum is focused on providing Richmonders with a gallery of student stories on social media.
The importance of gathering children’s thoughts and experiences of the pandemic and life in quarantine goes back to the 1918 flu pandemic. Despite the breadth of the museum’s collection, it has surprisingly few first-person accounts from children of that time.
“During these times of crisis, we hear from politicians, doctors and other experts – all adults – but we rarely hear from kids,” he says. “They have their own stories to tell from a unique perspective, but often their experiences aren’t a part of the historical record.”
Their curatorial team will eventually go through the submissions and determine if there are areas where the museum should be collecting, but for now, it’s more focused on gathering the stories, giving kids a way to be involved and trying to provide students in the Richmond region with an opportunity to influence the historical record for generations to come.
Already the Valentine has gotten submissions from across the region, from the heart of the city to the surrounding counties, so it follows that it’s seeing experiences that run the gamut. In many ways, that’s why the Valentine sees these stories as so important to collect.
- Kiyasha R., 10th Grade, Meadowbrook High School
“One of the most interesting threads, I have to say, is the undercurrent of optimism, of hope,” Martin says. “So many of our submissions come from students who are ultimately hopeful about where we’ll be as a community after the pandemic. That feels important.”
The voices of the next generation saying it thinks we’ll emerge stronger than before seemed to the museum staff to be an important part of the narrative that deserves to survive. That so little attention to the impressions of children living through a major historical event has been recorded in the past only motivated curators more.
“We wanted to help change that by collecting these stories and experiences because this is, in so many ways, a turning point for our community,” Martin explains. “These are voices that need to be heard.”
“Richmond Stories from Richmond Kids” submissions at thevalentine.org/studentstoryproject.
Adults who want to contribute to the historical record can do so by submitting images coronavirus-related signs to the Library of Virginia at its “Signs of the Time: COVID-19 in Virginia” Tumblr page.
With many local businesses closed or offering reduced hours, it can be challenging for owners to convey information to the public during quickly changing circumstances. Impromptu paper signs often created hastily and taped to doors and shop windows indicating current circumstances and reminding people to practice social distancing will help document this time.
The Library of Virginia is collecting community photos of temporary signs to help future generations visualize what life was like for Virginians during this major disruption to businesses. To be safe, it’s suggesting people only document signs they see when they go out for supplies or takeout food rather than leaving home to take photos.
Submit at va-signsofthetime.tumblr.com.