Question of ethnicity: My first family tree — #AtoZChallenge 2023

Q is for Question of ethnicity: My first family tree. Seventeenth of 26 posts in the April 2023 Blogging From #AtoZChallenge. Theme: Endwell: My High School Years — adding my story to the family history mix. Please join me on the journey.

Family history was not at the top of my agenda during my high school years (1965-68). Yet a social studies discussion during senior year on the question of ethnicity prompted me to create my first family tree, shown below – a roadmap to future genealogy research!

One day in class, our teacher Mr. K asked us to go around the room and call out our ethnic backgrounds.

“Greek,” someone said, probably my classmate who attended the interesting Greek Orthodox church in Endicott. I went there with her once and was surprised that they let you drink wine or grape juice as part of the service!

“Italian,” called out another student – actually, several students. The local Endicott-Johnson shoe company had recruited leather workers from Italy, and the large Italian American community made our area famous for its Sicilian pizza (known as hot pie) and spiedies (a marinated shish-kabob eaten with Italian bread).

“German” was another frequent response, as was “Czechoslovakian” – not unexpected in an area with fabulous Eastern European bakeries. A friend from my block was Czech. I remember eating delicious rolled-cabbage halupkis and lekvar-filled kalachi cookies at her house – and learning to dance the polka.

My first family tree (1968). Determined to show my ancestral diversity for a high school social studies assignment, I typed each ancestor’s name, country of origin and (for the immigrants) approximate year of arrival onto small, white squares glued to black construction paper — a roadmap to future genealogy research! Photo by Molly Charboneau

A heritage challenge

Mr. K nodded and smiled as each student in turn called out one or two ancestral countries. When my turn came, I sat up straight and recited my family’s ancestry in the sequence we always used: “French, English, Irish, Welsh, German and Italian.” (Swiss came later, but I didn’t know about it then.)

“That’s impossible,” said Mr. K, frowning.

“What do you mean?” I asked, my face getting warm. He had not commented on any of the previous students’ responses.

“You can name one or two countries, but not so many,” he replied.

“I have ancestors from each of those countries,” I protested, but he was already moving on to the next student. So, I slumped back in my seat to consider the problem.

Displaying my ancestral diversity

I was named after my paternal Welsh Irish grandmother (Molly), my maternal German American grandmother (Beth) and had a French last name (Charboneau) – that’s four ethnicities right there. Plus, I’d chosen Antoinette for my Confirmation name (after my Italian American grandfather Tony) bringing my ethnic-name total to five.

I was proud to bear these ancestral names – and now Mr. K was demanding that I pick one or two and forget the rest? Well, that wasn’t happening — even for one of my favorite teachers . I was determined to display my ancestral diversity on the family tree that Mr. K told us to turn in later that week.

Carefully querying my parents, I typed each ancestor’s name, country of origin and (for the immigrants) approximate year of arrival onto small, white squares. Then I glued them to black construction paper and handed in the assignment.

An apology from the teacher

The following week when Mr. K. handed back the family trees, he made an announcement to the class.

“I want to apologize to Molly,” he said with a slow smile. “She has shown that it is possible to have ancestors from all the countries she mentioned.”

That night, my mom tucked my high school family tree into my “baby box,” where she kept photos, health records, report cards and other important documents for each of us five children.

And that’s where I found it 20 years later when I made the decision to go looking for my ancestors in earnest.

Note: Results of that search are shown in the interactive map above (click on the pins for each ancestor’s details.)

Up next, R is for RFK, MLK and a tumultuous 1968. Please stop back.

© 2023 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

11 thoughts on “Question of ethnicity: My first family tree — #AtoZChallenge 2023”

  1. Family history was never raised at my school so I am interested that there was acknowledgement of the diversity of your fellow students’ backgrounds.

    I agree that it is surprising when we look back how some lessons stick in our minds and were important to our future interests.

  2. Hi Molly! Your anecdote reminds me of creating our “imaginary family tree” for our youngest son’s school assignment. You see we have a mystery in my husband’s family, so rather than leaving empty blocks, we decided to imagine who might be the ones to fill the time and place. We didn’t save it, of course, and, despite years of genealogical research, we have not yet solved the mystery.
    Kudos to your teacher for apologizing, and kudos to you for standing up for your research.

    1. Hi Barb! Such a clever way to fill in a mystery person on a family tree for your youngest son. Amazing how intractable some of these family history mysteries can be, as you know from our relentless search for the Irish birthplace of our Dempsey-Gormley-McCarty ancestors.

  3. Now that we have genetic testing (which I have not done) we have found out just how complex family trees can be. In a way, you were years ahead of your time. Interesting how adult passions can be ignited years after the initial spark.

    1. Writing this series I am surprised how many of my adult interests initially emerged in high school — and how long-lasting they have been. Forever grateful to my mom for saving that tree!

  4. I loved your interpretation of Questions for the tricky letter Q , and your linking of High School memories with your family history. Your complex ethnicity is fascinating – and what a source of family history stories! I too would have kept your map in your Memory Box. I am pleased your teacher gave the class a public apology and acknowledged your work.

    1. Thanks so much! Yes, Q is always an A-to-Z Challenge — but I wanted to be sure to include something about this first family tree. Many of us in the US have complex ethnicity — probably more so today since additional generations have been born. They call us the melting pot for a reason!

    1. Thanks, Diane! I’ve since cleared up some inaccuracies in my first family tree, but the names and countries are generally on point. So glad my school-teacher mom saved it for me.

  5. I’m glad your teacher apologized. How could he not know that?
    Imaginative layout for your tree and lucky to be able to pull it out when you needed it.

    1. I actually liked Mr. K and his comment was uncharacteristic of him — so I was pleased that he owned up and apologized. Although it’s rudimentary and there are some inaccuracies, I really love that first family tree 🙂

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