by George J Elbaum
Thornton High School is a public, alternative school with current attendance of 121 students, primarily in grades 11-12, and its continuation program is designed to provide the opportunity for students to earn academic credits and meet the requirements for a high school diploma. In a broader sense, Thornton’s mission is to build an educational community which would reintegrate at-promise students into educational, social and community activities and to develop feelings of self-worth, tolerance and community awareness, thus becoming productive and responsible citizens. To foster community involvement, for example, students must complete at least 75 hours of community service and earn elective credits. Students are referred to Thornton for a variety of reasons; each has his or her own story on what obstacle(s) got in the way of staying on credit track to graduate on time. With collaboration between the students themselves, families, staff, and community, the majority thrive at Thornton and earn enough credits to graduate on time. Several even end up graduating early, helped by smaller class sizes, increased teacher-student-family contact, individualized instruction, and the ability to earn credit in a variety of ways.
My presentation was organized by English teacher Fernanda Morales for 11th and 12th grade students, and she preceded my talk by leading the students in reciting the Daily Affirmation (see photos below). Attending my talk were also Karla Talkoff, Guidance Counselor, Ki Gaines, Social Worker, and Thornton’s Principal, Dennie Marenco. Arrangements for the event were made by Adrian Schrek, Director of Educator Development at the Jewish Family and Children’s Services.
Letters from Teachers and Students
A few weeks after my talk at Thornton High School I received a large envelope with Thank You letters from Thornton teachers & students. Before reading these, however, we left for 2 weeks in Boston where, in addition to other functions, I gave 9 talks at Boston area high schools & events, so only after returning home and working thru the stack of accumulated mail & bills could I read the Thornton letters. Finally this evening my wife Mimi and I read these letters together, with Mimi reading each letter aloud while I listened and absorbed it mentally and emotionally, and we jointly chose the statements that particularly resonated with us, excerpting and inserting these below. One of the teachers’ letters in particular touched me very deeply, and it made me feel simultaneously very humble and very gratified.
- Thank you very much for the gifts of your time, openness, genuineness and kindness. It was truly a special and memorable experience for myself and for my students.
- I have to tell you that after you left I looked at all the photos taken while you were here. I was touched, not only by your story but by your presence as well. I just sat there reflecting and could not help but weep, and to be honest, that surprised me. I came to the conclusion that I wept for you, for myself, for some of my students, and for all who have or are going through a time they would rather not go through. It definitely was a reminder to be thankful in all things and live a life of compassion towards others. I promise to never let anyone forget and to do what I can, big or small, to speak up for injustice.
- Thank you for choosing to make a difference and being an example of strength, resiliency, and passion. I hope we meet again.
- Your story was so powerful and meant a lot to all of us. Please come back again.
- Your words and experience delivered hope and inspiration.
- I am grateful for the lessons you taught us in your speech.
- I am thankful for you opening up to us about the hardships you went through in your life and telling us how you overcame them.
- When you said that the entire city of San Francisco would have been killed off entirely in just 8 months at the rate Jews were being killed by the Nazis, that really put into perspective how many people were brutally murdered for no reason, and just how large this tragedy was.
- I felt inspired because I’m the type of person to let one minor inconvenience hold me back or let it ruin how I see certain things. But hearing how you kept pushing and didn’t let what happened to you define your whole life made me see how maybe some things shouldn’t affect my whole mood or perspective. I learned that I shouldn’t let things that happen to me define who I am or who I will be, to always just keep going and learn from them.
- You told your story so well that I felt like I was you with the Polish family hiding from Nazis.
- I can make a connection with George and Elie Weisel by comparing how they both grew up, both had single parents, how it was adjusting to new environments, and especially how the Holocaust effected both of them.
- Your story opened my mind and my heart. It made me hear and feel the emotion while you were talking.
- I felt what you were saying personally because I know how you feel. My country is going through a disastrous war that’s killed millions of innocent civilians. I relate to you losing family & friends because I have lost a lot of them.
It’s important to tell your story because what happened should never have happened. That’s discrimination to all people and degrading to all human kind.