It was William Faulkner who said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Chuck Yarborough and his students at the Mississippi School for Math and Science couldn’t agree more.
To them, a gravestone is as much of a testament to what’s possible as it is to what’s dead and gone.
“(My) students do public performances in the cemetery, as a culmination of a year-long project,” said Yarborough, a history teacher at MSMS and the director of service projects Tales from the Crypt and the Eighth of May Emancipation Celebration. “Students (in the project) do original research and writing to generate scripts which they then audition and then perform in collaboration with their classmates for the public.”
At 2 p.m. today, July 3, in the Hall of Philosophy, Yarborough will explore his school’s unique performance projects in “Burial Ground is Common Ground,” part of the Week Two Interfaith Lecture Series, “Common Good Change Agents.” Joining Yarborough is James Fallows, reporter for The Atlantic and co-founder of its American Futures project.
Yarborough will also be accompanied by MSMS students Erin Williams and Dairian Bowles.
The Tales from the Crypt project — which is in its 29th year at MSMS — gives Yarborough’s students the chance to research and develop a performance around one of Columbus, Mississippi’s historical dead.
“Erin’s Tales from the Crypt research project involved a woman named Susan Casement Maer,” Yarborough said. “Susan Maer was, I think, the first female publisher and editor of a newspaper in Mississippi, which is notable because this was in the 1880s. Ms. Maer purchased a daily newspaper and operated it until her death in the early 20th century, at which point it was taken over by her son, Percy.”
Yarborough said Williams’ research project soon became an “exploration of not just the biography of Ms. Maer, but also an exploration of women in the late 19th and early 20th century. So it became an exploration of gender, basically.”
Bowles’ project comes from the MSMS’s Eighth of May Emancipation Celebration, a project which allows students to portray some of the area’s late 19th and early 20th century African American leaders.
“(Bowles’) performance was the result of a small group of students researching the life of the late Senator Robert Gleed,” Yarborough said. “He was, to this day, the only African American to represent all of Mississippi County in the state legislature.”
Yarborough said he wants his projects to develop leadership in his students, but that ultimately, his main goal is to empower students.
“I think that every educational program, and education itself, is about empowering people,” he said. “This is about empowering young people to recognize that through their good scholarly work, they can help shape a community. And that’s what we’ve seen, year after year.”
Crucially, Yarborough said his school’s research projects are not meant to operate in isolation.
“It’s transferable to almost any community in the country,” he said. “Now, it’s going to look different than what we do in Columbus. But, for instance, in Indianapolis, a young teacher with middle school students has enacted our program in what they call the ‘Indianapolis Tales from the Crypt.’ ”
For “Burial Ground is Common Ground,” Yarborough said he hopes someone will walk out of the presentation and bring the project model with them back to their own community.
“Ultimately, we have to be in a relationship with one another,” he said. “This kind of program encourages an increased understanding of parts of the community that many people just don’t consider. Then, in conversation with one another about those events, we establish relationships that allow us to improve our local communities. That could happen everywhere.”