7/5/2009 “Old School” Press Release

While teachers and students vacation, Old Deerfield goes back to school—Old School that is… 

Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association awarded a National Endowment for the Arts’ BIG READ grant for a Pioneer Valley-wide read of Old School by Tobias Wolff

Old Deerfield:  It may be summer vacation for teachers and students, but the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association of Old Deerfield is already going back to school—Old School that is.  The Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association (PVMA) has been awarded a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts’ The Big Read project to organize an eight-month Pioneer Valley-wide community read of Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School.  The Pioneer Valley Old School Big Read will kick off this fall and offer a wide range of activities throughout the Valley until April of 2010.  PVMA’s award was one of only eight made in Massachusetts.

Old School is the first Big Read selection to have been published in the twenty-first century. The novel is the story of an ambitious, idealistic and insecure teenage at an elite Eastern prep school in 1960. Proud of his independence but trying to fit in and advance himself, he conceals the fact that his ancestry is partly Jewish.  Eventually, he discovers that almost everyone on campus has some closely guarded secrets. A literary competition, with its prestige and coveted award, plays a central role in the novel as do three literary giants:  Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway,

The Big Read is an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts designed to revitalize the role of literary reading in American popular culture.  Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, a 2004 NEA report, identified a critical decline in reading for pleasure among American adults.  The Big Read aims to address this issue by providing citizens with the opportunity to read and discuss a single book within their communities. The NEA has announced that 269 nonprofits, including arts, culture, and science organizations; libraries; and municipalities will receive grants totaling $3,742,765 to host Big Read celebrations between September 2009 and June 2010.

This will be the third Big Read project for the PVMA in as many years.  The PVMA museum and library have harnessed the Big Read to explore contemporary issues that intertwine with the Valley’s rich history.   Two years ago the museum addressed issues of the 1950’s such as freedom of the press, banned books, and the threat of atomic warfare with Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  Last year, early 20th century Eastern European immigration and the importance of “land” in the American psyche were explored with reading groups, exhibits, and cultural events around Willa Cather’s novel My Antonia. 

“PVMA applied for a BIG READ project this time on the relatively new book Old School because it’s a great story with many rich layers of meaning, but also because of  PVMA’s long association with schools. Our home town of Old Deerfield is itself  a wonderful conglomeration of independent schools like those featured in the novel– Deerfield Academy, Eaglebook School, and Bement School have made Deerfield an exciting part of the educational Mecca the Pioneer Valley has become,” said Tim Neumann, Executive Director of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association. 

“Another appeal of Old School is its setting in the opening year of the 1960’s and next year will mark 50 years since the beginning of that decade which so greatly changed America.  Old School provides an engaging vehicle to celebrate that historic milestone and for Baby Boomers to share the ‘60’s’ with younger generations.  Old Deerfield is associated often only with American colonial history, and although PVMA is a custodian of much of Deerfield’s and Franklin County’s earliest history, the PVMA has a very active interest in the full breadth of local and national history.”

The title of the book has an allure for the PVMA. “The words ‘old school’ carry their own special meaning for PVMA. Every building on our museum campus in Old Deerfield is an old school, which is oddly appropriate as education is one of PVMA’s main missions,” added Neumann. “What is now our Memorial Hall Museum was the first building of Deerfield Academy back in 1799.  The downstairs of the Old Town Hall next door (which we are slowly renovating) housed the town elementary school from the 1870 until 1925.  Our Teachers’ Center at 10 Memorial was the Old Deerfield Grammar School until1992.  Our Old Deerfield Children’s Museum at Indian House on the historic Old Main Street of Deerfield served for decades as a school for arts and crafts. And even our 1880’s fire house was once home to a dancing school.”

Sheila Damkoehler, PVMA Outreach Coordinator, will be project director of the Big Read, working closely with Sara Woodbury, Director of Tilton Library in South Deerfield, and twenty four community leaders. Partnering organizations include Great Falls Discovery Center in Turners Falls which will host an exhibit co-curated by students  on schools and the land next winter and The Rendezvous Bar in Turners Falls which will host Big Read activities as part of its Craft and Game Nights.  Big Read Partnerships with other organizations are being pursued with The Literacy Project; The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art; and Museums of Springfield’s “Museums a la Carte” program. Of course schools will be approached to participate. Thus far the project is in discussions with Deerfield Academy, the Academy at Charlemont, and Frontier Regional High School. Reading groups and public events (such as films and poetry slams) are in the planning stages for locations in Springfield, Northampton, Greenfield, and Shelburne Falls. The project will be inviting other organizations and schools to participate.

According to Sheila Damkoehler, work with schools is a NEA requirement of any Big Read project: “We are hoping to engage young people both at public and independent high schools in the Valley.  Old School offers a chance for these two types of students, with a shared heritage in western Massachusetts, to find out more about each other’s lives—and also the past.    The all boy ‘old school’ described in the novel is not the multi cultural and international independent school of  New England today—and this might surprise both ‘preppies’ and ‘townies’—some misconception in both communities  may be erased and common ground found.  With the main character’s secrecy around both his Jewish heritage and scholarship status, we want to involve students in both public and private schools in a dialogue around the theme of identity and the struggles of ‘fitting in’ to their own school community. With the school-day schedule very full already in today’s high schools, we also plan to explore social and non-classroom activities…after all the early 1960’s were great fun, especially the music!” 

Big Read Old School activities will be posted on the PVMA website www.deerfield-ma.org. as they are confirmed.  Sheila Damkoehler, Big Read Project Director, may be contacted by email at sdamkoehler@deerfield.history.museum or a phone message may be left at (413) 774-7476 extension 10.

The Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association/Memorial Hall Museum is a membership-based organization in Deerfield, Massachusetts, offering a wide variety of programs to support its mission of preserving the history of Deerfield and the Connecticut River Valley.  It maintains a museum, children’s museum, library, and teachers’ center in Deerfield.  The organization is known for its publications, education programs in the schools and its new educational website:  www.americancenturies.mass.edu.  The PVMA welcomes new members.  More information, membership applications, and a schedule of museum events are available at www.deerfield-ma.org .