Islander Middle School, Mercer Island, WA – April 24, 2017 (AM)

by George J Elbaum

Islander Middle School (IMS) is the only public middle school (grades 6 thru 8) on Mercer Island.  Its enrollment is approximately 1100 students with 28% minority.  IMS utilizes district-adopted curriculum as the foundation for its core classes as well as offering a variety of engaging learning electives, and it clearly succeeds in this task as it’s ranked an impressive 10th of 441 Washington middle schools.  The school’s mission statement, “We strive to ensure a challenging, relevant and engaging experience where every student is able to advance to a greater level of understanding, ability and performance,” clearly extends beyond only academics, as it prepares its students to “thrive in today’s cognitive, digital, and global world while sustaining their passion and inspiration for learning.”

In addition to academics, IMS has a strong social and societal focus, presenting and promoting subjects such as race and equality, civil rights, and other current issues of our society.  The monthly Principal’s Message on its website also includes down-to-earth advice for students, such as use and misuse of social media, and a monthly Character Trait Dare, such as honesty, forgiveness, etc, with specific suggestions for students to test themselves on that trait.

As part of the school’s societal focus I was invited to speak about my Holocaust childhood to the entire 8th grade class (approx. 350 students).  The event was organized by Language Arts teacher Joseph Gushanas and introduced to the audience by Co-Principal Mary Jo Budzuis.  After finishing my talk I was approached by Charlene Steinhauer, a parent of one of the students, thanking and urging me to continue spreading the message.  Many friends and acquaintances have urged me to do the same, referring primarily to today’s political climate.

As such a large audience prevents a truly effective question & answer session, it was held immediately after the talk for several classes (approx. 80-100 students) in another room (see photos below).  Then teacher Gushanas invited me to hold a 2nd Q&A session with his class of 2 dozen students, a more intimate venue (see photo) which resulted in more questions than the much larger previous group.

My presentation at IMS was arranged by Julia Thompson, Education Associate, Holocaust Center for Humanity.

Student letters and notes and cards and…and…and 🙂 

A few weeks after my talk at IMS I received in the mail a thick packet with a clear window showing that it contained papers of many sizes and colors.  Medical issues kept me from opening it for a week or two, but when I did open it I was amazed by the diversity of its contents: some typed letters on standard paper, some folded into customized notes, some small notes with artistically cut or torn edges on white or colored stock, some with very imaginative designs or ornate lettering, some multi-page arrangements of text with hand-drawn art or “feel-free-to-draw-on” instructions, lots of hearts, one card with multi-color paper clips glued to its outside (per the “Paper Clips” documentary which inspired me to write my book) and inside a folded “sugar cube” as given to me by a Soviet officer in 1945, some done individually or in groups of two or three, some containing confetti glued on the outside or plastic-encased inside, or a heart that pops out on opening, or a creative map/flag of Poland, or a collage of text and Star of David, or a heartfelt poem (below), or a multi-fold paper arrangement, or even an origami bird – all home-made and all saying “Thank You”.  What an imaginative and wonderful present!

In addition to the descriptions above, some of the touching messages and the poem are below.

  • I’m so grateful that we have people like you to educate us about the Holocaust. I hope you keep doing what you’re doing, because I know if it touched me it touched others, too.  Thank you.
  • It was so inspirational to hear your story during the Holocaust. We all can listen to documentaries and videos but we’ll never know what it was like in person.  It takes a lot of courage to tell your story.
  • My favorite story of yours is the one about the sugar cube. It made me cry because it was so heartwarming.
  • I’m so thankful that you came to talk to our school. It is a memory that I will never forget.
  • The way you presented and told your story will forever change my perspective on life.
  • You shared memories that came from pain, loss and luck.
  • I learned so many new facts and the heavy impacts it had on your life. You were funny, kept us entertained while still telling us about a hard, rough time.
  • I really found it amazing yet awful, all the hell you went through.
  • I can’t believe how long you were without your family. I wouldn’t be able to be without my family for that long.  If I had to do that I would be so scared.
  • It’s nice to hear a person’s experience from themselves instead of a movie or a book. It makes you feel like you’re experiencing what the person has.  You can relate to one of their experiences.
  • I appreciate your courage for standing up in front of a big crowd talking about a difficult topic.
  • I also have problems speaking in front of crowds.
  • I appreciate that you don’t blame all Germans for what you went through, just the Nazis. Thank you!
  • It was such a great experience for me to learn more on this subject – I was interested the entire time! Thank you once again and I hope you continue giving talks and being awesome!!
  • The poem
  • I hear your story
  • How you felt
  • How you told people how you dealt
  • Someone speaking for the ghetto
  • Someone speaking for the dead
  • You saw it with your eyes and the words came out of your mouth
  • How you smiled and survived when everything went South
  • People say it never happened
  • Which I wish were true
  • But it was real and you faced it
  • What I never knew
  • I will never understand
  • What happened in the war
  • But what you did and what you said
  • Shook us to our core.

Thank you, Islander Middle School!

with the whole audience

with first Q&A group

with teacher Joseph Gushanas and second Q&A group, his 4th period Language Arts class

About gelbaum

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