by George J Elbaum
In 1908 Katherine Delmar Burke founded her school to fill an obvious need: young women who wanted to be educated enough to attend college faced often-insurmountable barriers. More than 100 years later, her school (Burke’s) still has the same mission: “to educate, encourage and empower girls. The school combines academic excellence with an appreciation for childhood so that students thrive as learners, develop a strong sense of self, contribute to community, and fulfill their potential, now and throughout life.” Burke’s now has approximately 400 students (K-8) and a unique 3.5-acre campus in a residential district of San Francisco with mostly open space: a large grass athletic field, a sports court and two multipurpose courtyards with play structures. Its facilities include a large library, innovation labs, science labs, several art, music and drama studios, and a gymnasium/ auditorium. The faculty-to-students ratio is 1:7, and the average tenure of faculty at Burke’s is 10 years.
Burke’s prides itself in having its students graduate with a strong academic foundation and also a love of learning — not just for the sake of grades. This reflects Burke’s long-standing commitment to preserving the spirit of exploration while students master traditional skills and concepts. Upper School students have a comprehensive program that includes core academic subjects plus art, music, drama, and physical education, while 7th and 8th graders also have classes in public speaking and service learning plus many electives. The teaching of computer skills is integrated into the curriculum.
This was my third talk at Burke’s in 3 years, and it was attended by Burke’s 8th grade students. It was organized by teacher Debbie Yoon, who has enhanced her teaching unit on the Holocaust and Japanese Internment camps by creating a reader which, in addition to Anne Frank’s diary, includes different perspectives from the voices of other youth during times of oppression. Her students thus read not just the critical parts of Anne Frank’s diary, but also about various young upstanders during the Holocaust, some poetry, and other teenagers’ diaries from that time period. The students’ final project will be to write a personal essay about a moment in time when they stood up for what they believed in. This is a way for them to process the essential question for the year: “What does it mean to be human during times of injustice and hardship, and what can I do about it?” The students were very enthusiastic, as in previous years, and during the post-talk Q & A they asked many thoughtful questions, some that I’d not been asked until now, requiring me to stop and think deeply before answering. This was exactly the kind of Q & A that makes it my favorite part of the talks.
My talk was arranged by Brian Fong of Facing History and Ourselves (who also took all photos) and was also attended by Susan Deemer, Upper School Makery Facilitator, and Erica Obando, Communications and Advancement Associate.
Letters from Students
A week after visiting Burke’s I received a large envelope with 40+ letters from the 8th grade students and one from their teacher. 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’ sensitivity, insight and heartfelt honesty, and we felt very gratified by their responses to my story. Those statements in the letters that resonated the most with us are excerpted below. In addition, several of the letters also included a decoration or a drawing, and I’ve added two of these to the photo gallery.
- After you left, my friends and I talked about how lucky we are to never have experienced genocide or bias based on violence. San Francisco is a safe, liberal city, but America as a whole is becoming more and more polarized.
- Just this past weekend there was a terrible shooting at a Synagogue. The hate and ignorance from which the Holocaust was born is not yet dead.
- You are helping America by teaching young people tolerance and love rather than fear and hate.
- Since you’ve come to Burke’s I’ve noticed that I value life more and I try to do things that I hadn’t thought of doing before. So thank you, thank you for making an impact on my life.
- I was horrified to hear about the Synagogue shooting this past weekend. It shocked me to see anti-Semitism happening to that extent in this world today.
- It pains me to think that some people are now scared to practice their own religion.
- I hope you never feel silenced. You voice and your story are powerful. Use them for good during this time of hate.
- Your story inspires me to be the good in our world, standing up for what I believe in. I will always remember to “be for things, not against them.”
- You made me acknowledge the sadness of the past, but you also made me laugh and smile, from your embarrassment stories and your bright, kind smile.
- I hope you enjoyed speaking to us just as much as I enjoyed listening to you!
- I love the advice you gave us: You have the choice in your life to stand up for what you believe in or stand back and watch hate spread. You have the choice of to choose love over hate.
- Thank you again and again, and I loved my hug at the end. I hope that everyone was smiling in the photo!
- I found it truly inspirational how you always try hard to look for the good in things and simply forget the bad. You have inspired me to try that method during my own life.
- I hope you continue to inspire others with your story, for it has already made a huge impact on my life.
- After everything that you lost and went through, you kept walking forward.
- You are working to inspire students to be the change they wish to see in the world, which I greatly thank you for.
- P.S. – I have a ginormous sweet tooth as well! 😊
- I think my class and I didn’t fully understand the magnitude of the Holocaust, but now it is a little bit easier to grasp.
- I love your mother’s strong and brave character. (My mother would be very happy to read this, were she still alive. Thank you.)
- Though I’ve read about the stories of Holocaust survivors in the past, I didn’t realize how impactful hearing someone speak in person would be until you began speaking of your experience. Your speech helped make this nebulous cloud of statistics and words on a page into a real, grounded event.
- It is easy to look past numbers, but the way you connected Holocaust statistics to San Francisco’s population helped me understand how big the impact actually was.
- As you spoke about the people and families who risked their lives to hide you and save you, I realized that it is true: we all have a choice to help others (being an Upstander), or to just watch (being a Bystander).
- I will always remember what you said about remembering only the positive things that happened in your life, and I have started sing this method in my own life.
- I want you to know that your story has touched me so deeply and I will carry it with me as I write my essay about speaking up for what you believe in.
- Your story has inspired me greatly and I have learned how lucky I am because of it, and how it is always important to defend your rights. You have deeply moved me.
- From the teacher: The students are our futures. Thank you again for helping shape them.