by George J Elbaum
Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical School (Southeastern) is a public high school with a high diversity enrollment of 1,416 students in grades 9-12 offering a diverse range of educational, vocational and technical programs. The school’s multi-pronged education takes a hands-on approach to learning, integrating academic course work with vocational and technical education. This approach has proven to be successful in educating today’s youth for tomorrow’s challenges in an environment that teaches through example.
Southeastern’s offerings are divided into Academic and Vocational/Technical Programs. The academic program offers a full and rigorous series of academic classes which are kept small to foster critical thinking and exposure to honors-level content. Academics in a 21st century vocational school are developed to ensure that students have equal opportunities for college and career success. Such offerings include AP courses, honors level courses, dual enrollment courses and virtual high school courses.
The vocational/technical program offers a choice of 22 specialized vocational courses to prepare its students in a wide variety of professions, ranging from Advanced Manufacturing & Welding to Video & Performing Arts; from Automotive Technology to Dental and Medical and Nurse Assisting; from Computer & Electronic Engineering to Natural & Life Sciences; and from Cosmetology and Culinary Arts to Marketing & Entrepreneurship – a truly wide choice for students.
My talk was to 12th graders taking a year-long class of Facing History – Holocaust and Human Behavior taught by Social Studies teacher Amy McLaughlin-Hatch, who expertly organized my presentation (including pre-talk details and post-talk photos). The students have been learning about the Holocaust since September and therefore have quite of bit of background based on Facing History pedagogy plus material from Echoes & Reflections, Yad Vashem, USHMM and many other resources. While Amy’s credentials in Holocaust education are quite impressive (Recipient of Facing History MSS and TOLI Grants, Yad Vashem Int’l and Upstander Academy Educator, Jan Karski Institute and USHMM Scholar, etc ), I was most impressed by her firm yet gentle manner with her students.
Arrangements for my talk were made by Judi Bohn and Jeff Smith of Facing History and Ourselves, whose presence and pre-and-post-talk conversation always add much to my gratification.
Within three weeks after my talk at Southeastern the spreading coronavirus has caused Massachusetts schools to close, and along with other schools Southeastern transferred its teaching from classrooms to online. As an example of this, teacher Amy McLaughlin-Hatch sent me her March 26, 2020 assignment for her students, which she based on my talk at the school. Starting with the link to my web post about the school, she instructed the students to “read about Southeastern, check out the photos and the excerpts from your thank you letters.” Then she laid out a very imaginative assignment that would bring out the students’ creativity. I was so impressed by this assignment that I asked and received her permission to add it to my web post, below.
“Your Assignment –
- Write a response to one of your classmates’ excerpts.
- Write a thank you note to one of your classmates for their insights.
- Write a thank you note to George, especially if you did not write a first one.
- Write a thank you note to one of your teachers.
- Write a thank you to one of your family members.
- Write a note to George about what is happening to you now and connections to his story.
Your writing must be a minimum of 300 words, but feel free to write as much as you want.“
A couple weeks after my visit to Southeastern I received a large envelope with 56 letters from the students. As usual, my wife Mimi and I read all of them, with my Mimi reading each one aloud while I listened and absorbed, and we would excerpt those phrases or sentences that resonated with us. From reading these it was obvious that teacher Amy McLaughlin-Hatch organized an excellent in-depth discussion with her students about my presentation, because the letters were thoughtful and personal and empathetic, and the students were obviously engaged – signs of students responding to an excellent teacher! Our excerpts are below.
- Even at such a young age you were so brave when you spoke about repressing sad memories. It made me think about how optimistic you are, how you only focus on the good. You inspire me!
- I know you have spoken tons of times to share your story, but I could hear the sadness in your voice, and once again thought back to what you really went through, and I want to say I’m sorry.
- Even with such a traumatic experience at such a young age, you flourished and made the best out of your life, and that makes me happy.
- The world can be cruel and people can be thoughtless, but there are people out there who are willing to do anything just to make the world a better place.
- I really enjoyed your presentation and how you made your experiences come to life.
- The photos that corresponded with your story were just as heart wrenching as the story itself.
- I thank you for answering my questions and how you answered them. I learned so much from you. You are a true role model.
- The part that put things in perspective is when you said don’t ever let someone ruin your dream. If you want something in life you have to work hard for it. I will always keep that statement in my life because everything in life doesn’t come for free and you have to work for what you want.
- Being able to see you and hear your story affected me on a whole different level. Because I was able to see you, being tangible, I felt as if I was there with you when the Germans invaded.
- I thank you for what you do. I hope you continue to touch the hearts of everyone you speak to and help them experience life from your shoes through your powerful story.
- Going through and making your dreams come true is inspiring.
- You taught a great lesson to not give up and to follow your dreams no matter the time or what others say.
- Your question was would you take in a child or someone that was Jewish during the Holocaust. For a second I thought: would someone do it for me? To be honest, who knows!
- I wish things went differently with your family members, wish they could see how much of a success story you became.
- Even through you are from a completely different era, I was still able to connect with you and them as if you are our age.
- It felt like I was able to take a journey in your shoes.
- It doesn’t matter what skin color I or people are, or what religion everyone is, at the end of the day we all pee and bleed the same.
- I would risk my life to save a Jew, because if it ever came down to it, I would want someone to do the same for me.
- Empathy is something everyone should practice – that was my favorite take away from everything you said.
- I have had moments where I just felt like giving up and that there is no life at the end of the tunnel, but you were in a horrific situation but you stayed strong, and in the end you survived. So thank you for that.
- Your story makes me think about how lucky I am that I have everything I have now.
- You spoke very little about your father. I’m so sorry that you didn’t have the chance to get to know him and have him teach you the things a dad would.
- I’ve always wanted to go hang gliding, but after what happened to you I’m terrified to go now because I’m extremely clumsy.
- I’m so happy with what you do. Speaking out from school to school, people to people, sharing your personal moments. That’s a big deal. You change people’s lives, your story opens their eyes.
- We owe a lot to the people of the past.
- You touch people’s hearts and change people’s mindsets and ways of thinking.
- Your book was very emotional to me, but extremely motivational because it helps me not to take things for granted. I’ll gladly say that you’ve inspired me to do all it takes to be the best man I can be.
- Thank you for opening my eyes about myself and how you can save a life.
- People tell me to never let what people say put me down, and it never really meant anything to me. But when you said it, it had weight to it. Thank you.
- You are one of the few people who faced a horrible thing and turned it into a dream, such as seeing the Nazi plane. You wanted to be free and fly and you made it happen.
- My great-grandmother served in the war as a nurse. I remember hearing stories about the way that soldiers and civilians were treated and vowing to myself to never treat another human the way they were treated. It is something I have lived by.
- I encourage you to keep sharing our stories to other people. This helps the world to think about their life choices and how to not repeat history.
- I loved how personal and one to one you wanted to get with all the students, how you kind of instantly became everyone’s friend.
- P.S. If you ever go hang gliding again don’t hit the mountain, and remember that there are 3 strikes in baseball 🙂