WHO ARE YOU?
That’s the first question Studs Terkel asked when he interviewed me in 1991. “Who are you?” We sat on a couch in his home on the north side of Chicago. His wife, Ida, settled into a chair across from us, asking, “Mind if I listen, too?” Studs held a portable cassette recorder with both hands — portable for those days. He fiddled with it as if he had no idea how to operate it. “I don’t trust the damn thing.” He was 80 years old, then. His hearing was fading. He leaned against me, his shoulder overlapping mine so he could hear better. I could smell a recent cigar. “Who are you?”
I was a high school English teacher at that time, and struggling at it. That’s what I had come to Studs’ place to talk about for his book Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Talk about the American Obsession. He changed my name to Peter Soderstrom, wanting to retain my Swedish heritage while concealing my identity.
In time, things got better in my work, by which I mean I was actually learning how to teach. Then, after fourteen years, I was offered a position in the education department at The Field Museum, and later, Director of Education at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Now I am a professor of education at National Louis University in Chicago. I have published two books in my field, Making Conversation and, with Betty Jane Wagner, Situations.
Long inspired by the work of Studs Terkel, I began collecting the stories of others in 2012 when, as an education professor, I wanted to better understand what it was like to work in American schools during this highly contentious time in our history. Rather than just read the analysts and historians, I turned to the people who are living it every day, experts in their own lived experience. I have been doing that ever since. The collection of conversations with educators across the country is called A Legion of Davids. It continues to grow, so I welcome suggestions for future interviews.
I then became interested in how Americans across the financial spectrum see their relationship with money, and the people and experiences that shaped that relationship. It troubles me that we seem to acquire our notions of “how the other half lives” mostly from a distance– through rumor, urban legend, and the media — all of which foster and caricature our differences. I want to better understand the financial lives and experiences of those whose circumstances are different from my own by seeing the American economy through a multiplicity of perspectives. That is what I have set out to do in the collection, Our Inheritance.
I have collected well over 200 interviews, now, and see no reason to stop. I have recently begun a collection on the theme of “Change” and will start sharing those soon. The more I hear, the better I understand and the closer I feel to our shared experience. My first question is, “Who are you?”
I am deeply indebted to the significant talents and generosity of Amanda Steiger, my transcriber; Samuel DeHuszar Allen and Liam Montgomery, website designers; Marc Perlish, who created the homepage and About Mark Larson images; Terri Johnson, who agreed to be photographed while we talked; and a host of people who provided excellent leads.
Most of all, gratitude to the many people who were generous and courageous enough to openly share their stories with me. For more on the photography of Marc Perlish, go to www.marcperlishphotography,com.