(Editor’s note: This is the first of several stories on educators awarded the Simple Gifts Grant, which will appear in The Sampson Independent over the next few weeks.)
Four months ago, Clinton City Schools educator Lee Howard, along with four other local teachers — Vevelyn Lowe and John Lowe and county educators Megan Fussell and Angela Martin — received the first-ever Simple Gifts Teacher Grant offered to teachers in the city and county.
Howard, who teaches English and Latin at Clinton High, traveled to England, Virginia and Maryland to explore storytelling and genealogy.
She, along with the other educators were each given a grant for $8,000 to go anywhere over the summer break to learn more about their craft, to develop lesson plans and activities for their students.
“I was surprised and very pleased that I was a recipient of this grant,” Howard said, sitting in her soon-to-be former classroom at Clinton High School (Howard will be transferring to Sampson County Early College this school year). “My journey is a lot more complex. It is the combination of learning to be a storyteller and researching my family history, and it is complex, because it is ongoing.”
Howard attended two storytelling events and will attend another one this October; she recently returned from a week-long trip tracking down her ancestors in Bristol, England.
“Mine is not one that can be completed in just one summer,” she said, smiling. “I put it in my grant application and I was so pleased that they approved it. I had been doing a little bit of the genealogy over the years so this, to me, was just the perfect opportunity to try and figure more of it out.”
She did just that. After attending her first two storytelling workshops, she hopped aboard a plane and flew to England in hopes of answering the questions about her ancestors that have been gnawing at her for years.
One question that she had always had in her mind was the motivation of people traveling from one place to the other hundreds of years ago. “I had the names, places and some of the dates,” she admitted, “but I just could never figure out why someone would up and move, what their conditions were like, especially so long ago when transportation was not as easy and communities really depended on each other.”
Her journey, rooted in her own family history, began to teach her things, not just about her ancestors but impressions and possible misconceptions of life back in those days.
“My particular story relates so much to what you read in history books; it is a very common story,” she explained. “My story is not completely finished yet. I found out that my family did leave England in the 1600s and there were several things that were put into place that encouraged them to move to the United States.”
One issue was that her family were Quakers, a religion that was being persecuted during that time, which was one of the reasons they wanted out of England. “One of my ancestors that moved was a ship owner and he had the means to move,” she explained. “They came over to Maryland and land was being given away. Tobacco was the hot commodity, so if you had land in Maryland and you could farm tobacco, you could make money. I think everything was in place to do that.”
Howard said she didn’t know her ancestors were mariners. “It is interesting,” she says softly. ” I also learned about that time in England, just how much history and economy drive what people do, as well as the religious aspect of it. Really a lot hasn’t changed.”
About the time of the Revolutionary War, Howard said her ancestors moved to Virginia and set up a grist mill for wheat and corn. “Well, England was the primary market for tobacco, so England was no longer buying tobacco from Maryland, so all of that just dried up, so they needed to find a new way to make a living,” she explained. “They needed something that they could make a living on, so they picked something that could help feed the soldiers during that time, and it worked.”
Howard said she followed the trek from England to Maryland to Virginia to get a better knowledge of her ancestors. She was given access by simply asking for help, something that was heartwarming to her.
“I was able to engage experts everywhere I went,” she explained. “I would go to records offices, historical societies … you name it. I am so glad that I did it like that because there were so many surprises along the way. I would take things from the experts in England and bring it to Maryland and so on, it seemed that with each piece of information, I would be on to a new adventure. There are just so many tentacles to all of it. But the best part was how receptive people were to my journey. They were always eager to help.”
The long-time educator said because of that, the project could go on forever.
“There are so many things that you think will bring you to an end, but it just opens up more questions,” she attested. “I think this project, to be honest with you, will never be finished. I am not through, I feel like I have just begun.”
In addition to making her more attuned to her own ancestry and storytelling, Howard said it is her hope to share her adventure, not only with her students, but with the community.
“History is very important,” she said. “Doing something like this, it makes you appreciate that. I have such a better understanding of America and the hardships of people starting out. Whether it is someone starting out as an American today or 300 years ago, there is always a struggle. That is something that people would be amazed about. I hope that one day I will get a chance to share my story with people who are interested. I would really like to do that.”
It will be after her trip to Tennessee in October before anything can be planned.
“This grant has just opened up my eyes to so many things,” she said. “I have thought of many ways of incorporating this with my classes. I now know how to engage them in my storytelling, as well as research. I am just so thankful that a grant like this was even offered to teachers. I can’t thank them enough.”
For more information on the grant click on to www.simplegiftsfund.org.
To reach Doug Clark call 910-592-8137 ext. 123 or email to email@example.com.