Did you ever have a piece of art work displayed? Were you ever on TV? Were you ever arrested? Did you ever run away from home? Were you ever in a room with a famous person? These were some of the ice-breakers that Mary Mertsch, a 10th grade English teacher at the Rivers School in Weston, Massachusetts, asked a roomful of her students and senior citizens who had come together to talk with one another in a program designed to bridge the generation divide.
Sages & Seekers, created in 2009 by Elly Katz, a graphic designer turned anti-ageism advocate, pairs high school sophomores with senior citizens in a seven-week program of one on one conversations culminating in the student’s oral presentation of a “tribute essay” intended to capture some aspect of their sage’s life story that struck an especially responsive chord.
This was my fourth year as a so-called sage, and I was looking forward to meeting my seeker and discovering the kind of connection we would develop.
We had already gone around the room giving brief introductions and now, in response to Mary’s questions, sages and seekers alike began sharing their experiences. One woman told of how she once found herself standing behind Julia Child in a checkout line at the grocery store.
A boy described taking his sleeping bag into the woods around his house in a fit of anger with his parents, only to return a few hours later when camping lost its charm. Did your folks search for you? Call the police? “Nah,” he replied with a smile, “I do this a lot.”
A man recalled his teenage years and a prank that got him suspended from school. We were encouraged but not required to speak, but once we got started, a spirit of fun animated the group, and the stories flowed. From the safety of passing time, we looked back and laughed at ourselves, and in the time we shared, we laughed with one another.
Soon it was time to meet our partners, and when the pairings were announced, each sage and seeker pair found some quiet conversation space to begin this seven-week journey of discovery.
By chance, my seeker this year was a boy I’ll call John (I’ll give all the seekers pseudonyms), the younger brother of James with whom I had been paired two years ago. When I told my wife of this coincidence, she quipped that since I had already told my life story to James, this was my chance to create an alternate life for John. An intriguing idea.
After all, who hasn’t thought of what might have been had we taken the other fork in the road? But I’m happy with the life I’ve lived, and that’s the story I tell every year.
And what exactly is that life? That’s what John would attempt to learn in our weekly conversations. Supplied with questions and prompts by the classroom teacher, seekers ask about sages’ families of origin, education, hobbies, careers, children, grandchildren, valuable lessons we have learned, and anything else that piques their curiosity.
For a psychologist who has spent his working life asking the questions, this is a refreshing turnabout. Even so, I can’t resist the temptation to ask questions of my own, to turn an interview into a conversation, and in the process, discover points of connection or what I have come to think of as bridges of empathy between us.
In my first year of the program, connected on FaceTime, my seeker Peter and I shared the shock and disruption of our lives brought on by the pandemic. We talked about how we were managing to stay in touch with friends and about our hobbies.
Peter asked all the usual questions about my background and career including a query about a major historical event that I lived through. My stories about the Cold War and a post high school exchange program that brought me to East Germany and the Berlin Wall were all captured in his final paper that emphasized my curiosity about people living under circumstances very different from my own.
Year two continued on FaceTime with John’s brother, James, and we connected through our mutual interest in theater and stories. We spoke twice while my wife and I were at our son’s house helping with our granddaughter. In his tribute essay, James put together a picture of a man motivated by his dedication to family and friends, and I recognized the guy that emerged from the happy chaos of the basement playroom.
My third year in the program was my first on campus after COVID precautions were lifted, restoring Sages & Seekers to the in-person experience that it was intended to be.
Meeting all of the other participants and learning something about them in brief warm-up exercises added an important dimension to the occasion, though babysitting duties kept me from attending the final presentations.
That year, my seeker Daniel capped off the litany of the facts of my life with questions about what I had learned, what made me most proud and what I was most grateful for. In the moment, I was grateful for the questions and the chance they gave me to say what was most important to me on the spot – no pressure, no right or wrong answers. I might give different answers tomorrow, but whatever I said today would be at least another piece of the puzzle.
Now, in my fourth year as a sage with all the questions asked and answered, I sat next to John in the next to last meeting of the class, waiting to be called to the front of the room where he would read his tribute essay at the podium, and I would sit in the chair of honor.
In our time together, we had connected over our shared love of sports and travel and talked about how interests could lead to careers and careers could change and expand into lives big enough to include all that we love.
We were the last pair of the day and had already heard many of his classmates describe the lives of their sages. We heard not only about their achievements but also about the relationships that sustained them and the values and lessons that guided them along the way.
Now it was our turn, and John began my story at the beginning. He included all of the important facts and from several strands of my life, wove a cord that tied everything together. I heard no aphorisms or words of advice and hoped I had given him enough. It was just my old familiar story, but he assured me that he had taken from it just what he needed to hear at this point in his life. It was enough for him, and that made it more than enough for me.
Research on Sages & Seekers conducted at the University of Southern California has shown many benefits for adolescent participants including increases in a sense of purpose in life, civic engagement, social-emotional skills, reflection on core values and feelings of well-being, gratitude and hope. Another study, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, found increases in generativity and working memory for the adult cohort. As a psychologist who knows the value of empirical support, I am encouraged by these results, but they feel empty and incomplete for us older adults.
As a senior citizen who has sat with bright, kind, open, and respectful adolescent partners in honest conversation for the past four years, the numbers give only the bare outline of the program’s benefits.
They are a black and white sketch of what feels like a masterful painting full of true form, vibrant color, and just enough imagination to keep it fresh. In the picture that emerges, we realize that there are many pieces of the puzzle that makes us who we are and that, regardless of our age, we are all seekers together, learning from one another on life’s journey. We old-timers may offer the wisdom of our experience, but the young fill us with hope for the future of the world we entrust to their care.
Note: To learn more about Sages & Seekers, including a list of New England area schools where you can participate, please visit their website, www.sagesandseekers.org.