by George J Elbaum
Methuen High School (MHS) is a public secondary school serving grades 9-12. It has an enrollment of 1950, of which 46% is minority and 47% from low-income families. The Holocaust is taught at MHS as part of English Department studies by teacher Jackie Rubino, who organized my presentation at MHS and uses educational materials from Facing History and Ourselves and other sources.. Approximately 80 of MHS’s 9th grade students attended today’s presentation via Zoom, and the materials they have already studied include much of the Holocaust and Human Behavior book from Facing History, “Schindler’s List,” selections from the The World Must Know, Night by Elie Wiesel, plus supplemental materials.
In the 10 years of presentations I have noticed that the quality of students’ questions during the Q&A depends on the quality of student preparation, and thus the quality of teaching. Enthusiastic teachers such as Jackie Rubino result in enthusiastic students, and that resulted in our Q&A lasting 40 minutes after my almost an hour presentation. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of her students’ questions, and some of their most thoughtful ones had been asked of me only once or twice in the 260+ talks I have given to date. I’ve long felt that the Q&A is often the most important part of my talks because it represents our 2-way communication, and I was very pleased and moved by today’s session.
Attending the presentation (by Zoom) were also 13 MHS teachers and the head of the English Department. My participation was arranged by Judi Bohn and Jeff Smith of Facing History.
Letters from students
Two weeks after the Zoom “visit” with Methuen, I received two memorable packages: the first was a box of wonderful sweets from teacher Jackie Rubino, visually colorful and oh-so delicious! Kept in the refrigerator and partaken judiciously, it will keep my sweet tooth happy for some time. 😊
The second package was an envelope with a pack of neatly typed letters from the students. As has been our habit, my wife Mimi and I read these letters, highlighted the sentences or sections that resonated with us because of their thoughtfulness or sensitivity, and these excerpts are listed below.
- Thank you for sharing your beautiful story and sharing it with the world too.
- Even though I don’t know you personally, I feel as if I do after learning so much about you and your childhood and early adulthood.
- It’s very inspirational that you were able to look back on your past and accept that it was a part of you despite all of the terrible things that have happened to you. I hope that you live for many more years and that you continue to spread your story.
- I feel very much influenced by your good energy and positive attitude. Over the past few months our country has been hit with a lot of terrorizing news changing everyone’s lives. Change for me is never easy. Subconsciously, I chose to make the worst out of it. I wasn’t doing any of my school work. I hadn’t talked to my friends for weeks. I was surrounded in a bubble of negativity and I didn’t know what to do about it. About two weeks ago I realized I was tired of living this way. I finally realized I have to make the best out of a bad situation. Your presentation gave me a sense of clarity. The way that you make the best out of a negative experience is truly inspiring, and it’s because of people like you that I continue each and every day with an optimistic outlook on life.
- Your story was really touching and when I could really feel your pain, especially when you started to tear up, I felt more touched.
- I loved the reasoning behind your book title “Neither Yesterdays Nor Tomorrows.”
- It was very special to see you talk about your mother. It was very visible that you are proud of her, and hearing about her strength to keep you and herself safe during the Holocaust was very inspiring.
- I will use your message of standing up against discrimination to face situations that may need it in my future.
- I love the fact that you didn’t let him (a vocational counselor) discourage you and instead thought, he’s probably discouraging you because that happened to him. That really stuck with me and showed me that I should never let anyone discourage me from something I really want to do.
- It was very inspiring to hear you, who has gone through so much in their life, to be so determined and not give up on what you wanted to pursue. Even though the odds were against you, you worked hard and got to where you wanted which is something I will definitely remember and hope to do that in my lifetime.
- Even in dark times you were able to find joy by looking at the airplane flying in the sky through the hole in the roof, and now you are doing what you love.
- I feel very relieved that you didn’t have to go to concentration camps, but I see that you still go through pain from the tragic events that you’ve seen and felt. You have inspired me in many ways from your story.
- Your words about never letting anyone tell us we cannot accomplish something or go into a career we chose are very motivational. It showed me that if I put my mind to something, I can make it happen. Even though you grew up in such a difficult position, you still made a wonderful career and life out of it.
- Overall, your words made a huge difference in my understanding of the Holocaust and how I think about discrimination of many kinds.