Last week I was invited to Louis Pizitz Middle School in Vestavia Hills, AL. This was my second trip to the school and, I hope, it won’t be my last. I met Kelly Sorrell, one of the social studies teachers from PMS, several years ago when she was attending the Belfer National Conference for Teachers at the USHMM and I was there for a book signing. We had a great conversation that has led to four consecutive years of the entire sixth grade reading Tutti’s Promise.
My first day at PMS consisted of my meeting with all 400 sixth graders over the course of five class periods. I was able to hold a writing workshop in which I walked the students through some of the research skills and techniques I used to create scenes in the book. I showed the students how to look at historical photographs for clues, the importance of talking to people who witnessed the events, and how to uncover the answers to questions in archival documents. The students listened and asked thoughtful questions. “What was the hardest part of the research?” “How long did it take to get all the information?” “Did your mother know how much danger she was in?”
The following day I had the opportunity to address the entire school during an assembly – twelve hundred students on the gym bleachers, two screens showing my slides, a microphone, and me. Just before I started speaking I asked the principal when I should wrap things up, and it turned out the time was about 20 minutes shorter than I had anticipated. I hit the big items and skipped many of the details I usually share; however, I wasn’t worried as these kids had all read Tutti’s Promise. I did spend several minutes explaining how the Germans segregated the Jews from the rest of Dutch society and I made direct references to Jim Crow. After all, I was less than ten miles from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. I let them know that Hitler had learned how to segregate people from the USA. I hinted that Alabama’s history wasn’t free of controversy. At the end of my talk I showed the students the ADL’s Pyramid of Hate and explained how genocide doesn’t start with death and violence but with words, fear of differences, and a lack of self-reflection.
Throughout the 40 minutes the students listened intently. I only heard one student talking and what she said reminded me of the impact I was making. When I stated that 1.5 million Jewish children were murdered during the Holocaust simply for being born to Jewish parents someone spontaneously said out loud, “Oh my God.” I repeated it, “OMG. Yes. OMG.”
Before I got home from my trip to Alabama there was a mass shooting in Buffalo, NY killing ten and wounding three. Police are treating it as a racist hate crime. The suspect is an 18-year-old self proclaimed white supremacist. OMG I repeat to myself. When will it stop?
I hope that as the students I met last week continue to grow and discover who they are and what kind of people they want to be that they will take some of my lessons with them – never stop learning, consult multiple sources, ask questions, help others, and above all else, be kind.