by George J Elbaum
Monte Vista High School (MVHigh) is a 9-12 public school with a student body of almost 2500 students which is 61% Caucasian, 21% Asian, 9% Hispanic, and 9% for all others. The school has a strong focus on academic excellence, which results in significantly increasing SAT scores for the last 3 years consecutively, and in recognition as a 4-time California Distinguished School and a National Blue Ribbon School. MVHigh even has College Connect, which allows students to enroll in a shortened high school schedule to attend college courses in their 11th and 12th grades and complete up to 30 units aligned with UC and CSU requirements. Thus 73% of graduating students attend a 4-year college and 23% attend a 2-year college. Athletics are not short-changed by academics, with MVHigh teams winning league and even state championships in 2016-2017 in football, baseball, women’s tennis, volleyball and swimming, and men’s golf.
MVHigh is also responsive to student initiatives, as I witnessed regarding my talk. One of its students, “Sasha,” attended a talk I gave last year at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, and afterwards he contacted me and asked if I would be willing to give it at his school in Danville. I agreed, and he took it upon himself to bring it to MVHigh. Relying on his energy and diplomacy, he obviously succeeded, convincing his History teacher, Alison Perruso, to organize the event, which she did expertly and smoothly. My genuine thanks to both of them, also to Tracy Johnson, MVHigh staff, for her timely “guidance” of a traffic-worn traveler, and to student Hannah for many of the photos she took (see below). Other Monte Vista teachers and their classes attending the talk were Jennie Drummond, Gina Henehan, Tommy Greenless, Kristina Zhebel, Bill Powers, Chris Connor and Irene Hashimoto, as well as Assistant Principals Liz Pagano, Kenny Kahn, and Cheryl Di Grazia.
Several weeks (Spring Break, etc) after my talk at Monte Vista the mail brought a large envelope with dozens of Thank You notes from its students. However, we had just left for 10 days in Boston and New York, followed by a week with 4 talks in the San Francisco Bay Area, so a month+ passed before I opened the envelope. Then, as has been our custom, my wife Mimi and I read the letters together, with Mimi reading each letter aloud while I listened and absorbed it mentally and emotionally, and we would jointly choose the statements that particularly resonate with us and excerpt these – see below. We also appreciated the artistic creativity of the “Thank You” on the front of many of the notes, and several of these are shown on the photo (see last photo below).
- This story truly inspired me because it taught me to believe in myself and to believe that I can do anything if I set my mind to it.
- I now have someone to look up to who pursued their dreams. You didn’t give up.
- Thank you for making a positive change from a terrible experience, inspiring and motivating myself and others.
- Hearing about how people helped you really inspires me and gives me hope.
- It inspired me to see how you continued living and fulfilling your dreams despite the hardships you faced as a child.
- I am forever changed because of you. Thank you.
- I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to see a survivor and actually be able to hear your stories. It was almost unreal.
- It was surreal to hear another story from an event that my grandfather lived through as well.
- Every single one of your stories was worthy of goosebumps.
- The story of you being in that shed and you looked up and saw the airplane really stuck with me. It helped me see the world through your eyes.
- The story that really stood out for me was about the dog that its owners had to strangle during the night. It was very powerful and helped me understand the desperation that people had.
- One of the stories you told that I found very interesting was about the dog. It showed me how much of a big deal it was to stay protected & safe, and to do that there were sacrifices you had to make.
- Yours was the most eye-opening speech I have ever heard. The idea of having to suffocate my own pet in order to survive was stuck in my mind all through spring break.
- The story of you in the shed was interesting in how you still felt wonder despite the circumstances.
- I really, truly appreciate that you took all the horrible things you experienced & found some good in it to teach to us.
- It was especially interesting when you described your mother, every time you talked about her your face was lit up.
- Your mother tried so hard to keep you safe, even if that meant having to give you up for a while.
- The way you spoke about your mother was especially moving to me because I only live with my mom & we share a strong bond.
- My mom teaches the history of World War 2 to her middle school students, so I shared your story with her and I’m sure she will share it with them as well.
- Your message of anti-hate was very noble and especially important in this day-and-age when every young person is exposed to some sort of hate daily.
- I am grateful that you survived to share with us the tremendous life lessons you have that many may never acquire, like the part about being “for things” (not “against things”). That is something that many may not strive for, but it is for me.
- I sincerely thank you for sharing your life with me, and for the generations that will hear my telling of your story.
- One thing you said that particularly hit me the most…. that if someone puts you down, they’ve most likely been put down by someone else.
- When we read about the Holocaust in class it is easy to forget that people just like me were suffering to the worst extent possible. When you spoke it made everything we have learned feel almost personal.
- You were able to tell your story in such a pure and relatable way was truly amazing. Thanks again for speaking at Monte Vista and I hope you continue to have a lucky and happy life.
- Even though I wasn’t there, I heard it was pretty good and I am sad to have missed it.