Making New Friends in the Wise Elder Program at Walt Whitman High School
Nima Padash and John Noble share their experience in the mentoring project
Whitman sophomore Nima Padash (left) met John Noble through Wise Elders, an oral history and mentoring project. Photo by Liz Lynch
The first time they met, 15-year-old Nima Padash asked 79-year-old John Noble all about the jobs he’d held, including his work as a hospital orderly, a newspaper reporter and a government executive. The second time, Nima got more personal. How did losing his father at a young age impact Noble? Did he pass on his independent streak to his sons? What else does he hope to do in his life?
At first, some of the questions stumped him, Noble says. But over time he found himself becoming more reflective, reminiscing with the teen about pivotal moments in his life and the wisdom he’s gained from past mistakes. “If I look back, I lived my life unconsciously,” he said. “It was a series of intuitive actions as I went along.” He explained that he wished he’d sought counsel from others before making big decisions.
“I feel like I’m in a therapy session,” he told the teen with a laugh.
Nima, a sophomore at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, and Noble, a retiree, were one of five pairs participating in this year’s Helen Pelikan Wise Elder Program. The oral history and mentoring project, established in 2009, is sponsored by Bannockburn Neighbors Assisting Neighbors, a “village” system to support older residents aging in place. Teen volunteers, who earn 25 student service learning hours for participating, conduct a series of interviews with the elders and prepare a presentation on one aspect of their lives.
“The idea of Wise Elders is that young kids and older people can learn a lot from one another,” says Miriam Kelty, who coordinates the program with neighbor Marianne Ross. Both have lived in Bannockburn since the ’60s. “With families dispersed, there are limited opportunities in a lot of situations for older people to meet with kids, and for kids to know their grandparents.”
Often, the elders try to pass on life lessons, Kelty says, and in turn they get a glimpse into the busy lives of teenagers, sometimes learning about their favorite music and how they use technology. (The teens record audio of the interviews on their smartphones, a new concept for many of the elders.) Some of the pairs form lasting connections. In 2011, Kelty and her young Wise Elders partner bonded over a love of art and got together to make pottery. The teen later became a lifeguard at the neighborhood pool, and the two chatted throughout the summer. When she was applying for college, the teen asked Kelty for advice on the admissions process.
After Nima’s family moved to Bannockburn from Potomac in 2014, his mother, Mehrnaz Neyzari, thought Wise Elders would be a good way for him to get to know the roots of his new neighborhood. “He came back the first day and said, ‘I just met the coolest person,’ ” she recalls. “He was really pumped up.”
Noble was nervous about what Nima might share during his presentation at the Bannockburn Community Clubhouse in February. He and his wife, Diane, have lived in the Bethesda neighborhood since the early ’70s—he knew their friends would be in the audience watching. But Nima was a good listener, Noble says, and he trusted the teen with his story. For 10 minutes, Nima showed photos of Noble, including one of the man on horseback as a child and another one of him running in a triathlon. Noble, who was born in Argentina to American parents, was raised in the Midwest and had a successful career in both the private and public sectors. “I thought it was amazing how when he grew up, people tried so many different jobs,” Nima said. “With life now, kids focus on one thing.”
The teen recounted the story of when Noble injured his eye while tending sheep in Oregon and decided to stay with his flock rather than seek medical care. Noble, then 20, was living on a ranch for six months during college. “That’s very noble of him,” Nima said, drawing laughs from the crowd. “He had a duty. He stayed with it.” After Nima’s presentation, Noble told the audience that he appreciated the teen’s positive spin. “It’s embarrassing to see a messy life presented in such an organized fashion,” he said, adding that he treasured the Wise Elders experience.
Looking back on the process, Nima, now 16, says he appreciated the opportunity to gain a different perspective on life. “The lesson is to slow down and take my time to think about what [I’m] doing,” he says. Going into the project, he thought it would be odd to have long, in-depth conversations with someone he’d just met.
“I didn’t think I’d actually like the person I was interviewing, but I really like Mr. Noble,” he says. “Toward the end of our time together, we were no longer strangers.” Despite the age difference, they’re planning to stay in touch. They’ve talked about going to nearby Sycamore Island on the Potomac River, where Noble is a member, for a day of hiking or canoeing.