Sixty five years after the anniversary of Anne Frank’s death in Bergen Belsen, the young girl remains a teenager forever, her memory kept alive by the millions who read her story.
My 9th grade English class try to comprehend the atrocity of world history. We not only analyze the Holocaust ; we also visit a concentration camp. « It is so depressing, » Invariably students say, « why do we have to study. This ? » Yet, painful as it may be a young minds, we must bear witness to the past.
I told the class that they could ever play a game by my rules or take a test. « The game starts when we walk outside this door. No talking. If you speak, you will be sent back to the class room. Bring your journal and a pen; leave everything else in the room. »
Single file, 18 students followed me down the hall, up two flights of stairs and down a narrow passageway under the sloping roof of the old building. I unlocked the door to an empty room, no bigger than a boxcar. When I close the shutters on the dormer windows, I say, »This is like the black out of houses during WWII bombings. We are in the secret attic of the school. Write a descriptive piece using all five senses. You can imagine you are writing a journal entry during the Holocaust, you can invent a story of the Swiss hiding from their French neighbors, former oppressors, or you can pretend the teachers turned against students and I am hiding you to save you from being taken away. You have to survive one class period in without a sound. »
Students slouched against the sloping walls.
A couple boys scuffled over the three wooden chairs. Others lay on the floor. Only the rustle
of paper and pens scratching across the lines breaks the eerie silence. No one spoke. Even my hyperactive drummer boy stopped tapping.
The air was hot and stuffy from too many bodies crowded into too small of space, squeezed
so close together our elbows touched. I felt like I was suffocating.
My thirteen-year old students were the same age as Anne Frank when she went into
hiding. How different their lives? Affluent kids from privileged backgrounds dressed in designer jeans and shirts, feet clad in various name brand of tennis shoes in rainbow colors. My six girls, a minority, stopped writing occasionally to brush their long, luxurious hair from their bright, inquisitive eyes.
I glanced around the room at my students -American, British, Czech, French, German, Guadamalean, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Scandinavian, Swiss , Trinidadian, -not long ago we were divided by ideology in a world war. Allies vs. Nazis, the axis of evil, set to annihilate all but the Aryan race. Today we are classmates and friends at an international school without walls in Switzerland, a neutral country without borders.
« I feel locked, not in a room, but within myself, » one Israeli student wrote. « Even though we are not alone without communication we’re not together. The intense atmosphere of silence can quickly make the toughest mind fragile. »
« I feel oppressed. » wrote another. « My back hurts from sitting on the floor.»
I cannot help but compare these kids to those of Anne Frank’s time or to my generation coming of age at the heels of the Civil Rights and Women’s movement. I pods, I pads, Internet, cell phones,
television, today’s teens connected 24/7 by instant messaging and the world wide web. When was the last time these children listened to silence, turned out the universe and tuned into the self ?
These multi cultured, multi ethnic, children are our future. They are the ones who will stop nuclear war, negotiate peace, end terrorism, prevent oil spills and contain other man made disasters with more cooperation, better technology, brighter minds.
And I the aging teacher will become a shadow of the past, a faded memory of an era when I
tried to change lives the old fashioned way, one idea at a time.
In theory, teaching looks like the ideal job. All those school holidays. In Europe, every six weeks we have vacation. We even shut down for the week long ski break to hit the slopes. But there is no escape. Even on mountaintops, teachers obsess about how to reach kids. For today’s students, conditioned by instant gratification in a society wired 24/7, attention spans last no longer than 15 seconds, the time it takes to microwave a muffin.
Academic staples like reading, writing, ‘rithmetic? Forget it. Kids learn grammar off twitter, spelling by MSN, and math on calculators.
At conferences, parents plead, “Rescue our child.”How do you save a kid that hates to read and write? Fill the house with books and unplug TVs.Students that read the most, write best.Children who were read to in homes with books learn to value the old fashioned printed word.At the rate we are going, I fear that reading, like letter writing, will become a lost art!
At my school, report writing requires a special language degree.Every trimester, teachers write novelettes on each child’s progress in all disciplines. Between marking periods, we remain on call available round the clock via email and cell phones.
Teaching is tougher than ever.Even once loved courses, like physical education, are a hard sell.Getting kids to move these days is like pulling teeth. Why put one foot in front of the other when the world beckons at one’s fingertips without budging an inch? Competing with Internet, wifi, and 1001 channels on television screens the size of football fields; teaching has become a losing battle.
In real life drama, people relocate, families’ collapse, loved ones die; educators deal with the fall out.Sh** happens.
Educators fill gaps in a world gone wild. As kids whiz through childhood at a reckless pace during rapid social change, teachers’ roles altered drastically.Information abounds.Yet kids still need adults to help interpret the « info-net. » With more attention deficit kids (i.e. regular children craving adult attention not ADD), never has the need for good teachers been greater, the kind of teacher that lies awake at night concerned about students’ well being.There is no time off.Teachers are always updating lesson plans, grading papers, counseling kids, answering late night phone calls and early morning emails.
Yet the worst part about teaching is not the day, but the night. In endless nightmares, I thrash about, looking for classroom doors, searching for mid term papers, forgetting locker combinations(I don’t even own a locker!) One night I dream that I lost control of a classroom full of ADHD kids while my new principal observed. The next, I am scribbling on the board with my hand severed at the wrist. Then, I wake up and start over again.After a gulp of coffee, I head back on the front line, saving lives, one lesson at a time.