Every year Middle School students get to step out of the classroom and participate in Exploratory, a block that allows them to try something new in a variety of subjects (academics, arts, athletics, service and more).

Among the Exploratory options was "Write a Biography for a Senior." A small group of students eagerly signed up for this program, a partnership with residents living at a local retirement home. The students were paired with a senior and, over the course of a couple of months, interviewed them on multiple occasions with the ultimate goal of writing a biography for their partner.

Below, Firinne, Charlotte, Julia and Claire write about this unique partnership.

by Firinne R., Grade 8

I have always enjoyed the different Exploratories I have done over the years, from calligraphy to drama to yoga. When I saw this option it seemed so different from all the others I had tried and since it was my last one at Middle School, I thought it would be a great way to end. I also love to write and am interested in journalism. Another factor in choosing it was that for a long time I have wanted to do something like this with my own grandmother. I thought this would be a great way to get inspired and learn how to go about hearing and recording someone's life story.

As I sat in the van driving to The Victorian for the first time, I was feeling two strong emotions: excitement and nervousness. First and foremost, I was excited. I had a dream of learning amazing things about someone which, now looking back, is exactly what happened. A close second though was nervousness. I wanted the experience to be perfect and because of that I had a million worries. "What if she doesn’t like me? What if I ask her something that makes her uncomfortable or sad? What if she doesn't talk much and I run out of things to ask?" I think I felt these things because I was about to interview a complete stranger about her life and that is a very personal thing. It was asking her to be vulnerable and in turn I felt vulnerable too.

At the start, some of my fears were a bit true. It was awkward at first and because of that questions were answered more quickly. That was the hardest part because both of us were taking a step out of our comfort zones.

By the second session it felt incredibly different. I was amazed by how quickly I had grown such a profound admiration for someone whom I had known for a very short time. I learned about how she raised a schizophrenic son in a time where there was little information on the topic and medical support was not what it is today. I learned how she fostered children over the years and how she helped people in all of her jobs.

That was by far my favourite part of this experience: hearing her talk passionately but modestly about her life. I also loved when she would tell a funny story or talk about someone she loved and seeing how her eyes would just light up.

I was excited to start writing her biography. Soon though, I realized I had a lot of information and I would have to narrow it down to the more important bits, which was hard because every part was important. I decided I wanted there to be a theme throughout the whole piece. It was most important to show that even though she never had it easy, she was always a kind, compassionate and helpful person.

When I left the Victorian for the last time after giving her her biography, I really didn’t know how to feel. On one hand, I was happy because she had liked what I had made and it had been really beautiful seeing her reading it and commenting nostalgically on what I wrote. However, it was also very sad because it was the end of an experience that had been so amazing. I left knowing that I really didn’t want that to be the last time that I would see her. So we have already planned to see each other again!

All the Exploratories I have taken part in have been amazing but this has been by far my favourite. It had so much depth and meaning and it was really important to me. Not only that but it was important to someone else – and that means the world. It was a project that I really cared about because I cared about the woman I interviewed. Nothing compares to doing something important to you that also benefits others.

I learned from this experience that everyone has a story, you just need to take the time to hear it. Other than my grandmother's, I don’t have much interaction with the seniors in our community and I forget that they were once as young as I am now. This project reminded me of that and how much times of changed since their youth.

It was an absolutely incredible experience and I feel so grateful I had the opportunity to partake in it.

by Charlotte B.

On the first day we went to The Victorian I was really nervous. I didn't know what to expect or who I was going to get. The only thing I knew about my person was his name: Crawford. I was really glad that I had a partner because it was really nerve-wracking. When you first go up to a new person it’s always a bit awkward, especially if you are asking them questions about their life. But by the end of the session I felt a lot more comfortable because I knew that Crawford wanted to be there too.

Over the course of interview it felt like I was getting to know him, because that’s what was happening. It's really interesting to hear other people's stories. After the initial meeting with Crawford this Exploratory became the highlight of my week. Meeting and having him talk about his life made me feel like I was doing something important. I liked listening to his stories and knowing that I was going to give him a biography at the end of the Exploratory would make his day. I felt so special to be privy to what he would tell us about his life.

Compiling everything into a polished gift for him was probably the best part of the Exploratory for me. It took effort and time but it was definitely worth it. My mom said that I worked on this project more than I had for any other project this year and for me that was because it meant something meaningful. I felt like I had a part to play in making Crawford happy, even just by the small gift I was giving him and I wanted to make it the best that I could.

I'm definitely sad that the Exploratory is over. It has probably been the best Exploratory I’ve taken over my years at the Middle School and I’m really going to miss it.

by Julia M.

When considering the options for my last Exploratory, I went in looking for something simple, fun and active. I never imagined that in the end, I would come out of those choices with a new mindset and an amazing experience. I ended up choosing the biography writing Exploratory. I love reading, writing and speaking. I never could have imagined using all those three loves in one topic that, on top of it all, gave back to the community. Also, I have always wanted opportunities to get better at writing and this was it.

The first day of Exploratory at The Victorian was nerve-racking. I certainly didn’t know what to expect. Just walking in the door, I felt nervous, excited, hopeful and confident. Honestly, I don’t know why I was nervous. Maybe it was the thought of meeting someone new and not knowing how they would react to me. On the other hand, maybe I was just nervous of going into a retirement home as a young person.

I was partnered with Edna. When you first meet Edna you can tell she is very intelligent. Never would it cross your mind that she is 94 years old because she is so youthful and vibrant. Edna has lived in Victoria for all 94 years of her life. I walked in, introduced myself and, through her words, began to get a feel for who Edna is.

The most challenging part of the interview was asking the questions. We had an extensive sheet with suggestions of questions to ask our partners. But I felt that having a generic sheet in front of me would not increase the value of our new relationship. I had to do it on my own and ask questions as they came up in our conversation. I just wanted to get to know Edna for who she was and what she had to say.

For the writing portion of this project, I really wanted to include all of Edna’s best qualities into something she could read and enjoy. When I was writing, I brainstormed words that I thought would be the best to describe Edna: wise, strong-willed and independent. Under each of these I used the details I had gathered to write the best biography I could. I chose to format it into a journal with the pictures that Edna had given me.

Even though the school experience is over, I am still planning to visit Edna. I always enjoyed her company and I loved talking to her. I plan to go back to The Victorian to visit. Going forward, I can’t wait to have more intriguing conversations with her and continue to learn more about her.

I feel that for everyone in this small group, we all got over our minor fear of old people and really got to know each other. Each of us developed unique connections and relationships with our partners that will not be squandered. Also, I want to thank Ms. Vachon because without her running this Exploratory we all wouldn’t have had a remarkable experience that we all enjoyed and really appreciate.

Over the last three years, no other Exploratory has compared to this one. Not only was I involved with the community, it was a rewarding way for me to improve my writing. But in the end, this Exploratory allowed me to meet someone that I can now call my friend and that is a gift.

by Claire P.

I chose this Exploratory over the other options for a few reasons. I really love to write and usually anything that involves writing will catch my eye. I also really love talking to people and just socializing in general, so this Exploratory definitely stood out because it seemed like it was tailored just for me. I also was looking for something new. It was my last Middle School Exploratory ever and I wanted to do something memorable and that would somehow have an impact, and it definitely did.

I was also looking to improve my writing skills, especially a new writing style like biography writing. I also wanted to become closer with some people that I don’t really talk to at school every day. I didn’t entirely think about the impact that Betty could have on me, or how I would have the opportunity to make a new friend. I didn’t really know what to expect signing up for this Exploratory, I just knew it was going to be great.

On the first day that we went to The Victorian I was really nervous. There were so many thoughts going through my head: “Do you have your question sheet?” “Do you have enough questions?” “You better not be awkward!” “Oh my god, you don’t have your sheet.” “Oh wait it’s in your pocket.”

Being in the van on the way to The Victorian was really amazing too. Everyone was very anxious and excited. I remember the very first time Betty and I were introduced she acted as though we had been friends forever. She welcomed me into her suite and we jumped right into the questions. After that first session I felt like I already knew everything about her.

The process of interviewing Betty was amazing. I was so shocked at how different life was while Betty was growing up and how she got through some really tough times. She told me stories about her journeys across Canada, how she dealt with the FLQ in Montreal while she lived there and what it was like when her husband was hospitalized for five years before passing away. Her life story was so interesting and engaging!

As a confident writer, I found the writing process pretty simple. I am used to taking information and turning it into a essay because I do this when I write on my blog. There was one part though that I found to be the most difficult part of this project: what the heck was I going to give Betty for her biography? I didn’t want just a plain old printed Google doc and I’m not artistic enough for something that has to do with art. I contemplated making a scrapbook but I couldn't get any pictures from Betty.

Then I had the idea to use Canva, which is what some of my other classmates used. It makes colourful, interesting posters with crazy fonts and backgrounds. I chose a blue background, wrote my biography and jazzed it up with some ribbon. I am not used to using so much creativity when it comes to writing and I loved being able to spice things up a bit with this project.

To be completely honest, I am really, really sad that this Exploratory is over. This past month or so with Betty has been so wonderful. I could have been having a bad day and I would go to interview Betty and being with her made it feel like all those bad things didn’t happen.

When I gave her my final project I also brought along a bouquet of flowers and she said to me, “Claire, nobody has brought me a bouquet in over a year.”

When we exchanged our last goodbyes she started tearing up, telling me how much she has enjoyed meeting with me and how it was the highlight of her year. I really didn’t want to leave. Betty is an amazing friend and she never failed to make me laugh. I really want to visit her again because she taught me so many lessons and I’m sure could teach me many more. That car ride home from The Victorian the very last time was pretty emotional for all of us. We all had made such great friends and couldn’t believe our time together was over.

None of the other Exploratories I've taken even come close to this one. Sure, some of them were really fun (I’ve participated in yoga, board games, soccer and many more!), but if I had the choice again, I would for sure choose this one. I got to make a new friend, learn life lessons, learn interview skills and so much more.

I hope to take a lot from this Exploratory. I hope that I remember how important it is to listen to older people, even parents or grandparents. They have lived longer than we have and they have gone through so much; they have wisdom to pass on.

Betty taught me one thing that I will always remember: “Live every day one day at a time. If you make a mistake, move on. There is always tomorrow.” I can be a bit negative at times, and I know that remembering those words will really help me out.

I learned a few things about myself from this experience as well. I learned that maybe I could be a journalist when I’m older because I discovered that I love interviewing people. After these past few months in this Exploratory I have found so much about myself and so much about Betty’s spectacular life.

I don’t know if there will ever be something at school that will impact me the way this did.