Joelle Jahn's history teacher thought it was a joke when a voice on the intercom announced that there was a U.N. ambassador from Italy on the phone.
It was no joke. The caller was Siro Polo Padolecchia, a former ambassador and the last living descendent of 13th century explorer Marco Polo. He just wanted to know how Joelle's History Day project had gone.
Weeks earlier, Joelle and her teammates, Leah Alexander and Rachael Kratz, all 15, selected Marco Polo as the focus of their 2009 History Day project. Having successfully contacted a direct relative of English suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst for their 2008 project, the sophomores at Shorecrest Preparatory School thought they would try the trick again.
Joelle learned about Padolecchia from a New York Times article and tracked down his e-mail address on the Internet. Hoping for the best, she sent him a message.
She received more than just a response to her questions. Over the course of their correspondence, Padolecchia sent the girls pages and pages of information, historical pictures from his personal archives and other unique documents, including a scan of Marco Polo's will.
Additionally, he invited the girls to visit him if they're ever passing through Italy. And he inducted Joelle into the Marco Polo Society, of which former John F. Kennedy is a member.
Padolecchia has a former girlfriend from St. Petersburg, and Joelle attributed part of his enthusiasm to his connection to the bay area. Leah said she thought he was also just happy to know that young people were taking an interest in Marco Polo. "I think he really appreciated what we did," she said.
Although the girls did not progress past the county level in the History Day competition, Ron Heller, a Shorecrest history teacher, said he has been extremely impressed by the connection the girls have forged. He was especially delighted that Padolecchia called back to see how things had gone.
"I was blown away when Joelle told me," he said. "I said, 'You're kidding me.' "
More than 700 years later, it seems that Padolecchia is carrying on Marco Polo's work of connecting people across the globe. Joelle knows a bit about this topic herself.
She spoke no English when she moved to St. Petersburg from Lubeck, Germany, as a fourth-grader. With diverse roots of her own, she admires Padolecchia's passion for preserving his personal history.
"He's so involved in his ancestors," said Joelle. "I wish more people were like that."
With the competition over, the girls are starting to come up with ideas for next year's History Day.
"We're thinking right now," Joelle said, "but we'll keep it a secret."