Arroyo High School, San Lorenzo, CA – May 26, 2016

by George J Elbaum

Arroyo High School in San Lorenzo, across the bay from San Francisco, has a high diversity student body of approximately 1,900 students. It is organized into several “schools within a school,” and this is the 5th consecutive year that I have visited and spoken to its Future Academy for Social Change.  The audience was approximately 125 10th grade students taking the Facing History-based unit taught by teacher Jorja Santillan, who again organized my visit.  Based on my previous 4 visits, I knew that the students would be enthusiastic and well-prepared, and I was definitely not disappointed – once again I observed how Jorja Santillan’s enthusiasm and energy transfer to her students, whom she prepares and guides through the various aspects of the Holocaust.  In her own words: “It’s so important that they understand how complex the Holocaust is through different stories, and how crucial it is that this history be kept alive.  I tell my students that now it’s their responsibility to carry it on along with their own histories.”  What particularly struck me and pleased me about this visit was the lengthy Q & A and the number of questions that have never been asked of me in the 100+ talks I’ve given so far during the last 6 years – the Arroyo students were thinking!

Each such positive interaction emphasizes for me that it is the dedicated, enthusiastic, energetic teachers such as Jorja Santillan who truly teach our next generation, and thus on whom America’s future depends.  Thus it is ironic that our public officials, while lauding in speeches and proclamations the critical value of education, do so little to provide America’s teachers a compensation that’s commensurate with this value to the nation.

My visit was again arranged by Jack Weinstein of Facing History and Ourselves, who gave his usual excellent introduction plus skillfully expanded on some of my answers during the Q & A when the questions went beyond my focus on the Holocaust.  Attending the event were also Arroyo teacher Jess Vaughn.

Letters from Students

We were away for several weeks, and several more weeks after we returned a large envelope arrived in the mail with 80 letters from Arroyo students.  As has become our habit by now, after dinner my wife Mimi read each letter aloud while I listened and absorbed it, mentally and emotionally.  We were touched by the students’ heartfelt openness, sensitivity and thoughtfulness reflected in these letters, and we felt very gratified by their responses to my story.  Statements from these letters that particularly resonated with us are excerpted below.  Furthermore, the sheer number of such statements spoke of active and penetrating discussions that teachers Jorja Santillan and Jess Vaughn must have conducted with their students after my talk.

  • Hearing your story filled me with many emotions, some indescribable, some not. I couldn’t help but feel sad, amazed, angry, but also hopeful that we’ll never let such a tragedy happen again.
  • You asked us to really think if we would risk our lives to house a Jewish child. I thought that was a really powerful question, and I makes us think.
  • I learned that a tragedy should not define who you are.
  • I hope to make a promise with you, a promise that will forever remind me that I can make a change. I will fight for what I believe and be heard.
  • I had always considered myself a kind and tolerant person, but hearing you speak has sparked even more of a fire in me to fight for others, fight for what is right.
  • Your story makes me want to be a better person, honestly. There is so much hate and bad vibes in the world and I don’t need to add to it.
  • I hope above all in life to keep a fair attitude and to grow up in a functional society, or at the very least be able to help fix our society & make it a better place to live.
  • I will pass this experience onto my children, so they can pass it onto theirs.
  • Because of your “lecture,” I have become a different person. I think about your story all the time, and it affects my thoughts positively.  I have learned to feel thankful for all the things I have, because life here in the U.S.A. is a blessing.
  • Although pure luck definitely helped you survive, I feel that you should also give credit to your bravery and ignorance. (Thanks for the drawing!)
  • Although you say that you are here because of luck, I want to tell you that you are here for a reason, not just because of luck.
  • I learned a lot from you, that it’s important to treat everyone with respect and kindness, even if they are a little different.
  • I hope you continue changing the views and perspectives of young minds as long as you can.
  • You said that speaking to people about your story takes a lot out of you. I am so, so, so happy to say I got this wonderful experience.  My heart is full of gratitude that people like you still actually exist, so thank you again, very much.
  • Hearing your story made me really thankful for what I have. Thank you for opening my eyes and seeing things I didn’t before.
  • I’m blessed to live in my generation and I’m blessed to live in America. It’s important that my generation doesn’t let history repeat itself.
  • I admire your attitude and will strive to live with the same outlook, always keeping equality and love alive as much as possible.
  • It is up to us to keep your story alive and to choose who to be in life.
  • Now that I know about your history, it’s my turn to continue keeping it alive.
  • I will try to maintain positivity and be FOR something rather than AGAINST something.
  • What really struck me in the heard was when you described the photo of a Nazi soldier aiming a rifle at a woman’s head while she was holding her baby. All of your anger and sadness flowed into me.
  • Honestly, there were a few times during your talk when I definitely started tearing up.
  • I aspire to be a film maker one day and WWII is one of my favorite topics. I hope to make a movie depicting the devastation and atrocity of the Holocaust.  You have really inspired me to do this.  (Thanks for the flower you drew!)
  • You are right, it is important to stand up for what we believe in and what is fair and right, and to hold onto your humanity.
  • I realize that education is very important, but that doesn’t matter if you don’t have any kindness in your heart.
  • I wish I had the power to go back in time and erase all of it from history.
  • Your speech reminded me how our daily choices can change the future.
  • My mind has been opened with your guidance, and I’ve learned to put more value into the things I have taken for granted.  (An airplane, I think?)
  • You lost your family but you didn’t lose yourself.
  • I know myself and I couldn’t endure that kind of situation – I get very anxious when a teacher walks beside my chair.
  • I don’t think you lived just because of luck, but because you were meant to live your life the way you are right now.
  • Your story really inspires me and makes me feel grateful for the things I have and the life I live.
  • On the photo you showed of you and your mother, she was a very beautiful woman. May her beautiful soul rest in peace.
  • I wish you nothing but love and happiness for the rest of your life.
  • It is not easy to talk to anyone about these sort of things, especially to teenagers who do not know how good life is for them, so you coming and telling us really shines a light into our eyes and lets us realize how life was back then. I want you to know that I really appreciate you.
  • Your mom left you at a very young age and later came back. I could really relate to that because my mom left to give us a better life and provide for me and my brother.
  • Another thing I took away from your talk was that your mom was very resourceful and smart. That reminded me about my mom.  She is like my Google, whenever I need something I just call or ask her.
  • Family is a once in a lifetime thing, it’s part of you. It is also quality time that you can’t take back.  Family or family time is precious.
  • Not being able to see your mother for such a long period of time has made me appreciate the moments I have with my mom.
  • You have motivated us to make good choices.
  • I hope you come back next year so I can hear your stories once again and reflect again on what you said like I’m doing now.
  • I will never forget your story about going to school and having to speak a new language and having an accent, because I can relate to you.
  • I know this letter will get lost, with all the other letters being sent. (Your letter didn’t get lost, and my wife & I read every letter!)
  • You truly are an inspiration to not give up and not to focus on so many negative things, even if they are all around you.
  • I learned a few new things from your discussion, but more importantly, I experienced more of an emotional connection. Seeing you speak about this issue really affected my viewpoint.
  • Hearing your experience has not only changed the way I view the Holocaust, but it has also changed the way I see people in general. Throughout your presentation there were many times when I caught myself reflecting on my own life and musing about what I would have done if I were in your shoes.
  • People forget that the past is something like a lesson; however, it is a lesson too often ignored. From listening to your presentation, I learned just how important it is to learn about world history and the impact it can leave on a person.
  • Every time I learn about the Holocaust and what happened my heart breaks a little bit more.
  • I believe because our generation is so young, the Holocaust does not directly affect us, therefore we have to learn even more from survivors. It is our job to honor and retell their stories.
  • You said that your past is not your life now. That is what I usually tell myself: don’t let the past wrap you around your life.
  • When you told us about a school counselor saying you were not smart enough to pursue your dreams, it really inspired me. Although you heard those words, you did not let it shake you.  I will also do my best to chase my dreams, just as you did.
  • My parents were part of the time of the Khmer Rouge, and a lot of family members were lost. I strongly agree with you that these stories must be shared because they are true and should never be repeated in history again.
  • It was horrible how our human race became like that. As a future generation we will try to live up to our worth and promise that this will never happen again.  Alas, history does repeat itself though.
  • I hope your story never gets forgotten and that those who hear it pass it on so that what happened in WWII does not repeat itself, but even with these hopes it is hard to think someone who is speaking like such a fascist is running for the presidency of the United States. How could someone, after so much pain that hating others has caused, continue to speak like that.  I hope that future people do not grow up blind and ignorant but open their eyes and ears and look at the truth of what hating someone for their race or their religion does to the world, because all it does is cause pain.
  • Thank you again! I truly appreciate your selflessness, taking out a piece of yourself to give to the community.
  • You’re a good man – be proud, be brave, be happy (followed by a GIANT happy face)
  • I was not able to hear the story of your experience in the Holocaust, but I heard that it was an amazing story and would love to hear it myself instead of hearing it from other people.

About gelbaum

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