By Clint Kimberling
It was William Faulkner who said, “The past is never dead. It is not even past.” Chuck Yarborough, a U.S. History at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science takes this quote to heart. Each school year Yarborough instructs his students with history lessons from the grave.
Yarborough is the project director for Tales from the Crypt – an award-winning and nationally recognized student research and performance project. The year-long project student project starts when a student selects a single name of a person buried in Friendship Cemetery in Columbus. Yarborough collects a pool of about 100 names for students to choose from. He explains, “I don’t necessarily know anything about them, some are on the list just because they have funny names. There’s no rhyme or reason to the choices.”
Students then visit the gravesite of their chosen name in order to begin the research process. They spend the fall semester collecting primary and secondary source research on their chosen subject. From their research students write a paper exploring the life of their subject, and placing their life in a larger historical context of their era.
From here, the project is unique and gets quite interesting for the students. Each student develops a character, writing and performing an original monologue script conveying the student’s interpretation of significant events surrounding the life of their research subject. Students then prepare these monologues, from which 9 or 10 are chosen for performance. Yarborough explains regarding the monologues, “Students are given freedom to make the project their own.”
After months of rehearsal and fine tuning, the monologues are performed in Friendship Cemetery by candlelight, in full costume of the period at the grave of their chosen researched person. The monologues are part of a full tour of the cemetery with students also serving as tour guides providing historical notes and context to the performances.
This year during Columbus’ 2016 Spring Pilgrimage, MSMS students will perform the 26th annual Tales from the Crypt. This year will be Yarborough’s 16th year as project director, and he is expecting about 1800 visitors to view the performance. “The community really values the program. Ultimately, it allows the audience to engage what they know about history, see what it was really like, what were the issues of the day, and how do they apply today. The goal is to create a new understanding of our experience. Not just for students, but for audiences as well.”
As an instructor, Yarborough puts a lot of stock in a quote from Edward Ayers, a Pulitzer-prize finalist, and Historian at the University of Virginia, who said that “all history is local history writ large.” It is in this way that he teaches the lessons of U.S. history by having his students study local history. For example, there was the student who researched an Irish immigrant story and that allowed them to tackle the larger issue of immigrant assimilation. “Tying in lessons from the classroom to their individual research makes the story that much richer for the student,” Yarborough explains.
Students also find creative ways to deal with historical issues that could be troubling for the community. For instance, rather than portraying a slave owner, a student may choose to assume the role of a daughter or another family member. By speaking from another angle, the student can fully explore race and violence without being offensive.
There are 64 students participating in the program this year, all juniors. While U.S. History is not an elective class, over half of all juniors at MSMS ask to be in the Tales from the Crypt program. Yarborough says students get very enthusiastic about being part of the project. “After the research process, they start to get a sense of how this could be fun and interesting. The program is useful to students in a variety of ways. It develops fantastic research skills, college level writing, and public performance skills.”
“The thing that is most appealing and compelling is that they’re actually learning skills that go beyond the classroom and they understand the value of it.”
The legacy of Tales from the Crypt is seen in several similar programs that take slightly different forms. The format is very s adaptable for the use in the community and is done in other towns such as Natchez who holds annual tour called Angels on the Bluff. And towns like Aberdeen, Pass Christian, and Starkville all do similar versions. However, the MSMS Tales from the Crypt remains the only student-driven experience.
Lauren Tice is a senior who participated last year and portrayed a Decoration Day Lady. Looking back on the experience, “It was very enjoyable. Doing the research and performance and rehearsal, it was all fun, it was a wonderful experience. Seniors always tell underclassmen to, take Tales from the Crypt because it’s the best class.”
By Clint Kimberling