Holocaust · Writing, author, books, editorial, philosophy, kindle

Everywhere schools

As part of my relentless search for truth and resolution for World War II and the Holocaust, I was fortunate to encounter a book called The Librarian of Auschwitz, by Antonio Iturbe and Lilit Thwaites. This is a remarkable book of courage and determination, full of brilliant language and poignant observations. But I was stopped in my tracks by a quote from one of the educators in Auschwitz. The quote was this: “Each time someone stops to tell a story and children listen, a school has been established.”

As an educator and historian, this piece of philosophy creates magnificent images for me. The first is an opportunity to create schools wherever we are. No need for brick and mortar institutions – kids are everywhere. We see them in stores, restaurants, parks, playgrounds, museums and anywhere else you can name. And each time we do, there always exists the potential for creating a school. And simply for the sake of clarity, I define a school as an entity where knowledge of any type is transmitted and received.

How about this for an example? You’re in a grocery store and the lady in front of you observes that she left her wallet at home and seeks desperately for a method of payment. You quietly let the lady know that you’ll take care of her groceries. The child in her cart observes, wide-eyed and smiling.

The same grocery store and you’re in line to check out. A lady behind you has a small child and only one or two items. Once again, you quietly let the lady know that she is welcome to get ahead of you in line, for the purposes of getting out of the store with haste.

Those of you who home school your children understand this quote better than most folks. An inherent beauty of home schooling is the fact that the entire day is filled with teaching, from cooking breakfast to cleaning house, to walking the puppy, to communicating with visitors.

For the rest of us, we can find a plethora of teaching moments. Explain to your child that dropping clothing and household items at Goodwill or a thrift store enables those with limited resources to buy those things. Because giving cash to panhandlers can be expensive if practiced constantly, use the periodic donations to explain to children that it’s a good practice to help those in need.

Educating is a privilege and pleasure, no matter where, when or how. Think of it as I do – one more addition you can make to the beautification of the world. Shalom.

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Troubled child

Most of the days of my teaching life are routine and consistently without incident. This day began like most others – kids who needed to be rowdy or disrespectful to the substitute.

But unlike any previous assignments, midday this class will add a potentially violent fourth grader. The instructions are quite clear – carry the walkie, call for help if he shows any signs of acting out or melting down. Predictions are that he will do so.

Two hours before his entry, I’m planning my strategy. For one, I will be extremely positive and reinforcing. With that plan, I hope to avoid conflicts, defensive actions and most of all, needing to call for help.

And then he appeared, rather placid and soft-spoken. Soon I saw him lashing out, bouncing around the room in a position suggesting attack mode. This was followed by his repeatedly slapping his own face and constructing paper airplanes.

For the duration of the day, he was participatory, compliant and almost helpful. He left for a while, escorted by a teacher familiar with him and his previous behavior. My student also mentioned the Holocaust (from a fourth grader!) and was pleased to learn that Zyklon-B was the chemical used in concentration camps.

Based on the commentaries from other teachers, I am certain that this student presents a real, proven danger. Why was he mainstreamed? What was the rationale for putting him in this class? The classroom teacher is quite young. How does she manage this troubled child on a daily basis? One teacher reluctantly offered that this student’s father worked in the district.

Clearly, there are many questions that must remain unanswered. But I learned quite a bit (as always) from the experience. My habit has always been to expect the best and finest from the world and I was rewarded for that perspective.

Teachers around me were supportive, helpful and eager to be summoned in the event that it became necessary. They displayed the sense of community that I often find lacking in elementary school campuses. And I learned that I was sufficiently flexible to handle any situation that I needed to address. Even though I never had any uncertainty about this ability, it’s comforting to know that I could have succeeded. Shalom.

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Words we say

Very often, I have an opportunity to learn from the educators and assistants who surround me. Yesterday was one of those events, where the education assistant was firm and thorough, reinforcing the need for student continuity and consistency.

Halfway through the day, I heard her say something that troubled me. “I’m not here for you to like me. I’m here to teach you something.” Be certain that I didn’t respond visibly; there was clearly no information needed from me and I behaved accordingly.

The first thought to occur to me was how students would receive this information. Does she not want us to like her? If we listen to what she’s saying, should we stop liking her? Is it a choice? Are we not supposed to like authority figures?

Under no circumstances am I overestimating the thinking patterns of our children. In this case, they were kindergarteners. But I do believe that we need to be intentional and judicious about the words we use.

My gut feeling is that asking children to process a choice between liking the assistant and obeying her is not a viable one. From my position as the educator in the classroom, this lady had a pretty short fuse. She became impatient with a number of students and raised her voice quite often.

Yes, I know that I’m not in this class day after day and I don’t see the behavior patterns. I also don’t know what’s going on in this lady’s life. Some of these students must be pushing her buttons every day and the behavior is both unacceptable and consistently annoying. Maybe she’s feeling as though she has the majority of responsibility for these children and is simply tired. There are many facts that I just don’t know.

What I do know is that I would never say what she did to my students. Although sometimes kids don’t like the directions that I give, I don’t want them to view disliking me as an alternative to following those directions. Maybe it’s just the teaching taste fairy. All I know for certain is that being intentional is a much better alternative than saying words that aren’t productive or constructive. Shalom.

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Changing life

Here’s a suggestion from my new book of writing prompts that I’ll paraphrase slightly: Describe something that could have happened in high school that would have changed the course of my lifetime. This is an especially good one, not only because my high school years were full of events but also because the appeal of any of these is quite provocative.

Before I return to my high school days, I am careful not to lapse into the process of catastrophizing those events that did occur. But for the sake of speculation, I can indulge in the process of imagining different outcomes.

The first was the situation I’ll call my first broken heart. During my years in high school, I had two crushes. One was on a friend of my brother’s and the other was a contemporary of mine. In both cases, I was not the designated participant for prom. Mr. First Crush invited one of my best friends to prom. As I remember, she was apologetic but that wasn’t anywhere close to saving my hurt feelings. In the second case, Mr. Second Crush invited a girl who was one year younger. He and I eventually dated briefly, but that ended in nowhere.

What if either of those had materialized into lasting relationships? Most likely, I would still be in Chicago, not having experienced the California, Colorado and New Mexico lives I enjoyed. Reunions would be easier to attend but who knows beyond that.

The second was what I’ll call undiscovered talent. From the beginning of my time in high school, I was a member of the mixed chorus. While content to be merely a singer in the band, what if I had been “discovered.” In this fantasy,  I had someone approach me and say, “Wow, you have the most beautiful voice I’ve heard lately. Let’s talk about voice coaching and eventual recordings.” This is quite far-fetched but an amusing possibility.

Most importantly, my mom died while I was in high school. If she had lived, I suspect that my life would have evolved quite differently and I am certain that I could have benefited from her presence and wisdom. That would be the one change that I would make that far outweighs all others. As in all of our life processes, this is probably the one event that taught me far more than all others. Shalom.

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We deserve it

More often than I would prefer, I hear senior citizens referred to in ways that are far less than positive. This consists of, “Watch out for the old lady in the Honda,” or “Look at the old man on the motorcycle.”

These are not the worst names that abound. Instead of treating our senior citizens with the respect to which they are manifestly due, we hurl insults and slander.

One of the most powerful moments in the recent Super Bowl was the introduction of four 100-year old World War II veterans, one of whom was asked to bring the coin for the traditional coin toss. The crowd displayed the honor to which they were entitled and the experience was quite memorable.

Every now and then, we see 80+ year old competitive swimmers, marathon runners and concerned volunteers. Beyond this, those who have lived long lives were often firefighters, doctors, nurses and police officers who have contributed hundreds of thousands of hours. The good majority have also raised children and grandchildren, and/or provided care for their parents.

Regardless of the fact that the lady in the Honda and the gentleman on the motorcycle can’t hear you, others can and do. Respect is learned both through words and by actions.

When my students ask my age, I quickly respond, “115,” followed by “Haven’t you been taught that it’s bad manners to ask a lady her age?”. My point is two-fold – part one is about rudeness and part two is about judging a book by its cover. How important is my age to teaching a class? Teachers who are older and younger than I am are to be found throughout school districts everywhere in this country, with varying levels of competence and agility.

I’ve talked about this need for honor in the past but it deserves repeating. Age is not justification for slander or for telephone and email scams, identity theft or simple everyday disrespect. Deal with others and with me because we usually know more, have experienced more or endured more than you can imagine. All that aside, it’s simply the right thing to do. Shalom.

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I lost my pencil

Something that makes sense to me is to carry around a bag of mechanical pencils when I am teaching. They’re in my magic substitute bag with pom-poms, stickers, candy and other craft supplies.

What’s funny is the clever methods by which my kids secure these treasured pencils. Can I please have a pencil? I lost my pencil. Can I have one of yours?

It’s a matter of good sense that I don’t announce, “Does anyone need a pencil?” because the entire class would swarm my desk. You could easily make the case that I bought them to distribute but I tell myself that I do so only for emergency purposes. In reality, emergencies rarely involve pencils.

A class of twenty-some students competently does math until I have a sanity lapse and give one away. Then I’m amazed at how many have suddenly lost their only means of doing math. You would never consider using a pen because it deletes your options to correct a mistake.

Don’t ever underestimate the creativity of elementary school students. They help each other log into their laptops. They quickly rush to the aid of a fallen comrade, patting shoulders and assuring the wounded that he or she will be fine. They hurry to remind me exactly what they are required to do at this hour of the day. And they will commiserate about euthanized dogs, a friend who moved elsewhere or stained clothing.

Of course, the pencils require no justification, by the class or by me. It’s simply fun to observe the processes and procedures by which they are secured.

Just for fun, the next day my students were directed to create mazes from a collection of materials. The classroom teacher furnished the idea and boxes while I added ribbon, bows, stickers and felt. One student who had distinguished himself as a troublemaker quickly determined that others had more than he did and he just didn’t have enough supplies. This was a method by which he could make inquiry as to the contents of my magic bag.

Kids never exhaust their energies or creativity. It’s my privilege to watch them create solutions. Shalom.

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Never forget

One of the most recent highlights of my personal and professional life is that of becoming a docent at our local Holocaust museum. Adding this to my teaching, writing and musical commitments is an honor for which I am most grateful.

My responsibilities will include conducting tours of the museum as well as facilitating lectures to local organizations. The only serious challenge that remains is including my students in the process, a requisite action.

Statistics suggest that our US population is seriously under informed about World War II and the Holocaust. As one dedicated, passionate historian, I hope to make my own impact on that lack of knowledge that simply cannot be condoned.

Elementary school children are aware of hatred, discrimination and prejudice. We teach it in other contexts, particularly in a society heavily populated by Native Americans. But the subject of racial cleansing and extermination are foreign to them.

Because I don’t have access to the entire spectrum of history curriculum, I can’t assume anything. One middle school at which I taught years ago had an entire unit on the Holocaust. Out of respect to my classroom teachers, I don’t launch a full-on lesson without specific permission to do so.

If a student notices my Holocaust museum bracelet, what is the appropriate response? There are more questions than there are answers.

Why did the Nazis hate the Jews and want to destroy them? From where does hate originate? What other groups were targeted? How did it end? How many were killed? Why do we need to know about this?

The last question is by far the most important. While there are numerous Holocaust deniers out there, the chances of encountering one in school are probably negligible. If that experience should occur, I’ll handle it with patience and as much objectivity as I can muster.

The answer, as we have heard from so many who have survived the Holocaust, is that we must never forget. If we do so, we make it possible for the horrors of the Holocaust to reoccur. Although we can’t predict the targets of institutionalized hatred, any minority can be next. My intent is not to scare my kids but to educate them on vitally important history.

Under no circumstances will I use my position as an educator to advance my social or political beliefs. When the time is right, my teachers approve and I can educate and inform, this is my most solemn responsibility. Those who came before me and those who follow must be honored. Shalom.

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Birds of different feathers

One of the more subtle advantages of life in New Mexico is that of fascinating bird populations. While we have the traditional pigeons, doves, sparrows and robins, we also have some extraordinary birds that are beautiful and enjoyable to observe.

A good example is our iconic roadrunner. While I couldn’t find any statistics on the roadrunner population, I did determine that it is the New Mexico state bird and is part of the cuckoo family. They are not easily spotted although I had one in my vicinity the other day and was able to see him clearly.

More subtle and arguably more beautiful is the sandhill crane. This must be their time of migration because I’ve seen them in two locations within the last week and they are truly beautiful. We also saw them in Yellowstone but here amidst the cacti, bushes and vast areas of rustic terrain, the crane is a treasure.

There’s a wealth of fascinating information available about cranes. Their youngsters are called colts – apparently horses don’t object to cranes seizing this terminology. They are also very particular about how we refer to a group of them, including dance, sedge, siege, swoop and construction.

So far, I haven’t seen any media coverage referencing our sandhill cranes. Like the cacti, coyotes and chiles, our population may well take their presence for granted. But they are graceful and unique creatures and it appears that they spend every winter here, as well as in Texas, California, Arizona and Mexico. Sadly, they will be leaving in early spring for their breeding grounds.

But for as long as they are here, I will continue to enjoy discovering them on pastures, reservations and other unoccupied spaces. My justification is that we dedicate much of our time to everyday tasks and events. Taking a few minutes to appreciate our visiting feathery buddies is good for the soul and way of life. Shalom.


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If I could

If only I could make difficult things happen in the school environment – my job would be a completely successful journey. That’s quite a request, far beyond the area of reasonability.

One of my third graders sees words that don’t make sentences or sense. If I could, I would inject him or inundate him with remedial reading that would create comprehension.

If I could, I would repair another student’s glasses. It doesn’t matter if they have been broken one day, one week or one month. They are a distraction for him and impede his learning.

If I could, I would make certain that all of my students eat breakfast before coming to school. It’s easy to tell which ones don’t, regardless of the reason. It may be poverty, lack of discipline or simply an unawareness of the importance of morning food. The kids without adequate nutrition can’t wait until snack or lunch and petition for seconds.

If I could, I would be able to see bullying as it takes place, not after the fact. One student accuses another of bullying and the accused denies its occurrence. Do I believe the bully or the bullied? If I could have seen it happen, I could take decisive action.

If I could, I would magically transport my students to other cities, states and countries. We teach history and about cultures other than our own but wouldn’t it be wonderful to take them to Philadelphia and let them touch the Liberty Bell? What about a journey to California to teach them about sea creatures?

If I could, I would take them on a tour of the world’s greatest libraries. It’s one thing to understand the significance of the first printing press but quite another to see a building that contains many historic, irreplaceable volumes. If we need to persuade our students that there are worlds of knowledge out there waiting for them, what better place to start?

And if I could, I would convince my students that the world in which they live is safe. Right now, that’s as easily done as transporting all of them to Paris. The best that we can accomplish is to make them aware of methods to protect themselves and others while understanding the fundamentals of right and wrong. Shalom.

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One of the aspects I like best about teaching is what I call the unknown. While that may seem like a negative, it’s what I consider boundless opportunity.

It works like this: In my first grade class is a young man I’ll call Isaac. For all the time that he and I are in the same space, he utters not one word. I’m not sure if it’s a language difficulty, shyness or something else. It doesn’t matter. Every time we look at each other, he looks me right in the eyes and smiles. Evidently, I’ve made an impression that elicits a smile. The other explanation is that he smiles at everyone or all adults. My preference is the first interpretation.

In a different context, I tell my class that I need to leave because their classroom teacher will soon return. The responses are, “Awwww,” “We don’t want you to go.” Maybe I taught them something important about penguins. Or maybe I communicated that I care about them.

What a happy place to be! We sometimes get only one brief encounter to impact a child and we often don’t know the precise identity of that impact. The only component for which I have control is my teaching and its encouragement.

Try as I may, I can’t think of too many professions that have occasion to dispense care or some other positive commodity without knowing its outcome. Doctors save lives and are rewarded accordingly, both in terms of professional gratification and gratitude. The same can be same for firefighters, police officers and members of the armed forces.

But I like to think of my role as the education good fairy. When I am present in the classroom, I distribute information, compliments, affection and whatever else is required by the moment. If I am very fortunate, I am the teacher that this child will remember in one week or month or year or decade. If not, it doesn’t matter at all. They shared some space with me where I gave them personal attention and a sincere intention to improve their self-confidence. If that’s not fairy dust, I can’t imagine what is. Shalom.