by George J Elbaum
This was the 3rd time I spoke at St. Luke School in the last 6 years, and I truly looked forward to returning. My key memories of both previous visits were of an inspirational teacher, Rosemary Conroy, and her 8th grade students who reflected her enthusiasm. My visit today only reinforced those memories, especially of Ms. Conroy’s infectious enthusiasm and her efforts to help her students become good citizens of the world, especially in today’s environment of growing intolerance, discrimination and xenophobia toward the “others.”
St. Luke School teaches more than 300 students in K-8 grades based on the belief that “quality Catholic education teaches the whole child spiritually, emotionally, academically and socially.” The 8th grade Social Studies Curriculum, as organized and taught by Rosemary Conroy, is very intensive as it covers U.S. history, Washington State history, geography, economics, politics, and current events. The curriculum highlights the formative periods of U.S. history: Revolutionary War, development of the Constitution & Bill of Rights, Civil War, WWI and WWII, and it includes an in-depth look at the Holocaust. Where possible, Ms. Conroy invites outside speakers who witnessed first-hand the events being studied, such as the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, the Nisei relocation program, WWII POW camps and the Tuskegee Airmen.
Rosemary not only teaches but “walks the walk” in her role on the Teacher Advisory Board of the Holocaust Center for Humanity as well as her 3 months of volunteer work in Cambodia. In her thank-you note to me she wrote: “I won’t feel too badly if my students can’t name the first 10 Amendments when they leave my class in June, but I will be devastated if they can’t accept others and treat them with dignity, respect and kindness.” The world needs more Rosemarys!
The event was attended by 41 eighth graders and numerous teachers and parents of St. Luke School, and it was arranged by Julia Thompson, Education Resource Coordinator of the Holocaust Center for Humanity.
Letters from Students
Several days after returning from Seattle we traveled to New York for a week, and on our return the mail included a large envelope with a wonderful note from teacher Rosemary Conroy and letters from her students. As has become our habit by now, after dinner my wife Mimi read each letter aloud as I listened and absorbed it mentally and emotionally. We were touched by the students’ openness and sensitivity as reflected in their letters, and we felt very gratified by their responses to my story. There were very many statements from these letters that particularly resonated with us, and these are excerpted below.
- After you hugged a friend of mine and were laughing over it you told us something very important: that if people hugged more they would fight less and the world would be a better place. With all the current events going on in the world this advice is important to my friend and me. I hope I get to see you again, maybe one day I will bump into you at a gigantic dessert buffet.
- You said a phrase during your presentation that stuck with me. “Be for things, not against things.” To me this is a life lesson that you have taught me. You can either be the bully or the commendable person, and I never want to be the bully.
- Watching you tell your story in person opened all of us to a new view on the reality of this disaster. The biggest knowledge I took away from your presentation was: Be For Things, Not Against Them. It truly resonated with me and has given me a new and more positive view on life in general.
- One statistic that struck me was how many Jews were killed each month. The image of the entire Seattle population being wiped out every 6 months made me sick.
- I also really enjoyed how much detail you spoke in. It gave me the ability to actually picture what situations you were in.
- You made me feel like I was there with you… and I could see the color of the plane and could sense the fear that everyone had.
- You were able to paint a clear picture in my head and heart of what happened to you during and after the war.
- Not too long ago I lost my mother, and you taught me that even in times of despair there is room to grow. Thank you for speaking to my class and opening my eyes to a new way of thinking.
- I will carry your message of being for, not against, with me forever, along with your story as proof that hope can be found in even the bleakest of places.
- One takeaway I have is that you need to stand up for people who are being bullied.
- You have inspired me to live life everyday to its fullest, because you don’t know if or when your life will take a dramatic turn.
- I was very inspired by your ability to remain grateful to everyone who helped you even when they weren’t entirely nice to you. Thank you so much, and I hope I can hear you speak again sometime.
- I know some people would never be able to smile if they have gone through what you have, but you were able to make a joke and not only laugh at yourself but make others laugh also. It shows that not only you have overcome your past but also came to terms with it.
- After hearing your story I now realize how lucky I am by getting to live peacefully with almost no threat. You have survived what many don’t want to know.
- I think you really showed all of us how the best version of us can be.
- We are in an IB school at St. Luke, meaning we have attributes we hold our entire community and student body to. These attributes include Risk-Taker, Communicator, Thinker, Reflective, Principled, etc. I think you exhibited all of these in your life.
- I really hope you come back to our school to share your incredible story with the younger graders when they are in 8th I want you to inspire others in St. Luke like you did me.
- After hearing you speak I discovered how truly oblivious I really was to this awful tragedy. What I took away from hearing your story was that we should “be for things, not against.” Hearing this really did make me reflect on my life and how I could apply these words to it. I now have a new perspective on life.
- Life can be hard to explain, especially for me. My takeaway from your childhood is that I should be thankful for what life is for me today.
- Even though it was a sad story you still managed to find the humor and happiness. Instead of simply focusing on the bad you chose to remember things like the sugar cube miracle. You chose to focus on the good and not let the bad dominate your memories of your childhood.
- You posed a hypothetical question about whether we would help someone else at the risk of ourselves. Teachers have posed questions similar to this but I never truly thought about my answer until you asked it. Seeing how Leon and his family affected you makes me want to say yes, to be able to have that same affect on someone else.
- Even with the horrors you went through you still chose to be grateful, happy, and enjoy life. This helps me understand that I shouldn’t dwell on the past but instead look to a better future. This inspires me to pay more attention to what is happening around me to try and make a difference, however small, in the lives around me.
- I deeply reflected on how you said that everyone chooses a path in life, whether good or bad. You helped me realize that life can be good, bad, happy, or sad, but in the end it’s us who decide if we will be changed by these outside forces.
- Your story helped me to connect because you were so young when it all started, whereas reading about the story of an adult didn’t help me fully comprehend what happened.
- Your story taught me a valuable lesson: to appreciate my life and not complain about what I don’t have, and focus and appreciate what I do have, which is my family, a beautiful home, and a great school.
- You inspired me to read your book but I never read books. You made me want to read your book. Not many people can do that.
- I will forever remember when you said “I hope you choose fairness and wellness over conflict” and also “Do onto others as you want them to do onto you.” I have been told that my entire life and I thought it meant include others and be nice (and it does) but you gave it an entirely new purpose.
- Your speech inspired me to do good things to other people and not to hurt them.
- My biggest takeaway is when you talked about people only believing what they want to believe, and your luck. Thank you for the hugs at the end!