The Power of a Story

“What’s the Holocaust?” a student asked me the day before we were scheduled to hear a Holocaust survivor guest speaker.  After I gave him my best Holocaust 101 spiel he looked at me with disbelief. “But why?” he asked, certain that I was leaving something out. Certain that this couldn’t be true in the world he knows. “What was their motivation?”

“Hate,” I said. “Hate and ignorance.”

I love that he asked why. I am glad that to him this seemed an impossible nightmarish tale.  And I am happier still that he had the opportunity to hear the whole story from someone who lived it.

For those people who think the power of a story is nil, or who believe adolescents have the attention spans of the average gnat, I would challenge you with what I saw today. I saw 3oo 8th graders sit in rapt attention while one tiny 87 year old German lady spoke to them for 55 minutes. She stood there and she spoke. At times she was hard to hear, occasionally hard to understand. But they sat and they listened and they learned. Her story was one of impossible hardship and unbelievable miracles. The day that she and her mother finally stood in the gas chamber, after three years of starvation and forced labor, on that day it malfunctioned and she walked out.

When she told of the lemon her father carried in his pocket the day they were transported to the camps, I believe every student in that room could taste its tartness. When she held up the striped shirt her mother wore in the camps I think we all shivered at the thought of wearing so little through three harsh winters. We were transported by her story.

After she spoke I debriefed with my students in English class. I remembered when I was their age and had been lucky enough to hear another survivor speak. It will not be this way for their children. By the time any children of theirs are thirteen; old enough to learn about horror, the survivors will be gone.

I told them that what they heard today makes them witnesses. They heard it firsthand and with the hearing comes the responsibility to pass on and share the story. After today I think they will.

My big gay soapbox part I

yay dykesI  have a good friend who likes me to update her on what the middle schoolers are wearing -mostly so she can update her closet with the latest choice items from Forever 21. But I do feel a certain general responsibility to update all of you who live in 24-7 adult world on the latest happenings in teen and pre-teen nation. Otherwise most of my friends get their ideas about young people from Mean Girls or Scared Straight.

Speaking of straight I was recently told by a student that our middle school was a pretty homophobic place. What I was most surprised by was my own reaction. Aren’t they all? Was what I thought to myself. After a certain amount of reflection I realized how sad it was that I would accept this as the status quo. Me. Liberal banner waver, daughter of guitar playing kumbaya singing parents, former Oberlin women’s rugby playing drag ball attendee. If I accept homophobia where I work than everyone will. I realized it’s not enough to be the teacher who barks at the kids when they say something is “so gay!”  I need to do something pro-active so that all my students have a safe, comfortable place to go to school.

Alas, I don’t think I can wave my rainbow wand and make my school the beacon of tolerance I would like it to be, but there are things I can do if I care to.  And I do care to.  Generally speaking  middle schools are more conservative places than high schools. I long for the day when talking openly about sexuality will be as accepted as discussing different religions. Until then I proceed cautiously.  When I mentioned my frustrations to another good friend she gave me the idea of putting a little sign up; a rainbow or pink triangle as a kind of a friendly flag to students. She said that, though she would not have been comfortable approaching a teacher to talk at that age, it would have been reassuring to know there was an ally nearby.

So my first step has been to place a few small signs around the room. I downloaded these safe space stickers here.  And I’m working with our school guidance counselor to create a Tolerance Team, kind of a middle school version of a GSA. We’ll see how that goes.

In the midst of all this I found myself up at our high school for an assembly.  I ran into a former student who gave her girlfriend a big ole smooch right there in the halls as I stood by talking to another teacher. I’ve never been more pleased to see someone break the high school rules on PDA. I was happy that she felt so happy to be openly and proudly herself. So happy that I ran out and took a picture of myself with the nearest poncho-wearing lesbian I could find. Not really -this is from Portland Pride a few years ago but I’ve always wanted an excuse to use it in a blog post. Dream realized.