PITTSFIELD

Pittsfield High School sophomore Madison Mayer has dark hair, wears dark eyeliner and often a dark-colored band T-shirt. She may only offer words to a few select and close people in her life on any given day.

But on Thursday morning, her voice and story brought classmates to a hush.

"This is my cousin, my mentor," Mayer told them. "Last year, she died."

Mayer's peers listened attentively.

"This is a way, I guess, for me to introduce her now, as someone who made a difference in my life," Mayer said, clutching her note cards as she looked at the picture she shared of her relative, the late Emily Savery of Middlefield.

Savery died last year, at 18, as a passenger in a car crash.

A photo of Pittsfield High School sophomore Madison Mayer, front, and her cousin Emily Savery as children
A photo of Pittsfield High School sophomore Madison Mayer, front, and her cousin Emily Savery as children (Jenn Smith / Berkshire Eagle Staff)
It was just a few months before her high school graduation.

Instead of focusing on the sad emotions, Mayer shared her cousin's smiling face in every picture of the slideshow she presented Tuesday for English class.

Afterward, Mayer told The Eagle, "I don't really open up to the class a lot, but this was an opportunity to share something important to me, for people to see that I'm not a robot."

As a final assignment this term, PHS English teacher James "Jim" Reynolds assigned his 10th-grade students to write their own memoirs -- a project inspired by his classes reading Maya Angelou's autobiography, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings."

Some projects have carefully designed photo collage covers and other artwork and others are composed of typewritten black-and-white printouts and a few photos clipped to the back. Each captured the grand and grungy details of an individual's approximately 16 years of life.

"I wish the community could come in and read these," said Reynolds. "Some of the kids we get here in school haven't experienced much, but others have really been through some stuff, some hard times.

Part of a cover for Pittsfield High School sophomore Shelby Davis’ project
Part of a cover for Pittsfield High School sophomore Shelby Davis’ project (Jenn Smith / Berkshire Eagle Staff)
"

Some students were too emotional to present their work, Reynolds said.

"The whole idea of this assignment is for the students to see how writing can make a big difference; I mean, when's the last time they've reflected on their lives? Doing this as 10th-graders, they can sort of address the skeletons in their closets and burdens before moving into the final important years of high school," he said.

The personal story project challenged students to make a deep exploration of themselves. They researched the history and reasons behind their names; wrote poetry about their lives; created a résumé of each year of their education; wrote a letter to a teacher who influenced them; created and shared a multimedia presentation on a meaningful moment or influence on their lives, among other writing tasks.

"It was a lot of work, but I thought it was interesting and fun because it focused on ourselves," sophomore Brooke Roy said.

Presentations made this week have been funny and quirky, simple and heart-breaking.

Payden Heath shared the universal childhood story of how things go wrong when a kid decides to stick something up their nose. In her case, it was a blue Crayon versus her nostril at age 3. "I wanted to see if I could touch my brain," she said.

Basil Billow narrated pictures of himself fishing with his father.

"There are a lot of good stories that come out of fishing," he said. For Billow, one was the time a hook popped out of a fish's mouth and caught his dad's hand.

Shelby Davis also presented a story about her dad, who suffered through brain aneurysms but is now recovered.

"I've never been more proud of anyone," she told her classmates.

Though the English class term also included essays on "Romeo and Juliet" and quizzes on "Catcher in the Rye," Davis said she'll likely never forget this particular assignment.

"You're studying more about humans, about the people around you, than ones you don't know," she said.

To reach Jenn Smith:
jsmith@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6239.
On Twitter: @JennSmith_Ink