Oceana High School, Pacifica, CA – January 13, 2021 via video

by George J Elbaum

Oceana High School is a small public high school in Pacifica, CA, with a high diversity student body of 622 students, of which 79% are minority and 34% are economically disadvantaged.  Nevertheless, it has a 4-year graduating rate of 94% and academic scores significantly above state averages: English proficiency 70% vs. CA average 50%, Math proficiency 48% vs. CA 39%, and UC/CSU entrance requirements 75% vs. CA 50%.  Oceana has accomplished this impressive educational performance by having special teaching programs, exhibition projects in each grade, and a community service requirement for all students. 

This was my 4th visit to Oceana since 2015, except this “visit” was unfortunately by Zoom rather than in person because of the still-raging Covid-19 pandemic.  It was organized by Stephanie Sotomayor, Chris Korp, Leigh Poehler and Alyssa Ravenwood, the Humanities 10 team, with the support of Bjorn Wickstrom, the Vice Principal.

The audience was approximately 150 10th grade students who have been learning social history and concepts, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Universe of Obligation, the stages of genocide, the Armenian Genocide, Eugenics, and the Nazis’ rise to power. Their year-long study is based on Facing History and Ourselves’ focus on oppression and resistance, causes and consequences.  Also attending the presentation via Zoom were staff members including Erin Peters, Humanities 12 teacher and Nico Storrow, Wellness Counselor.  (Stephanie’s German shepherd also had a cameo appearance on the Zoom photo matrix 😊.)

On my previous visits to Oceana I was quite impressed with the colorful student art on its concrete walls, and since this visit was by Zoom only I asked Stephanie if there was any art that I could add to the post on this virtual visit.  Stephanie contacted Graham Cruickshank, Oceana’s Visual and Theatre Arts teacher, whom she described as “responsible for all the student creativity around our school” and was the key to placing student art in Oceana’s hallways.   Furthermore, because “we are running out of space, he is now having students paint on wooden pallets and he hammers them around the school and rotates them out.”  Per my request, Graham supplied the art shown below.

Arrangement for this event were made and carefully guided by Brian Fong of Facing History and Ourselves – thank you, Brian!

Letters from students

A week or so after our session at Oceana I received 3 packs of letters from the students.  As I was very busy with business matters into early February, it was only afterwards that I with my wife Mimi started reading the 110 letters, excerpting statements or phrases that resonated with us by the feeling or thoughtfulness they conveyed, and these many, many excerpts are shown below.

  • I would have liked to meet with you in person and talked after class more, but that connection was lost over Zoom.
  • It’s always interesting to hear how people saw things when they were children.  Kids have a completely different perspective than older people do, and your story is so important in understanding the Holocaust in its entirety.
  • These days, I feel like there are so many people trying to rewrite history in order to erase their bigotry.
  • I apologize for not being able to come to your presentation because I had to go to work and provide for my family.
  • You shared how your mother was brave and intelligent, and how she wanted to protect you, even if it meant sending you away. I made sure to give my mom a big hug after because your story helped me realize how important family is.
  • It makes me sad knowing that there are so many people who cannot see the evil that can be a result of hating others for no reason.
  • I want you to know that what you said is so important to me, I promise you I will always remember what you said and I will carry those words that you spoke to me with me forever.
  • I can’t imagine what it would be like to grow up with different families than your own.
  • Your message of working hard and putting your all into something that you’re passionate about, it really means a lot and inspires me to do the same.
  • You describe the settings that you lived in in such great detail that I could really feel myself situated in a room filled with strangers that I did not know, hurriedly coming into my house with fear and confusion.
  • After coming to the US you worked hard and kept inspiring yourself. This really encourages me to keep persevering in my goals.  I learned that we have to believe in ourselves even when others keep trying to tear us down.  
  • I was thinking of mainly talking about this with my Grandma because she probably knew he most about effects of the war had on people with my Grandad, because he was one of the children who were evacuated from London when the bombing happened.
  • What really stood out to me was when you said you saw a Nazi warplane fly above you and at that moment you knew you wanted to learn about aviation.
  • Your talk has changed my thinking about life on how you should love your family and spend time with them as much as you can in the moment because anything can happen at any time. I have already told my mom about your story, specifically the parts about the ghetto
  • I was talking to my parents after you talked to our class and we were just saying how grateful we are that survivors like you are willing to share their stores so that this horrible tragedy is not forgotten and we can remember those who lost their lives. Your talk helped me understand how damaging something so traumatic really is and how it stays with someone forever.
  • I shared with my family about how touching and real your story was.
  • I find it uplifting how you wee able to use your story to inspire so many people of all ages and how it has impacted so ma people.
  • Your story made me realize that you did all of this as a young kid. It made me think of my little cousin who is about the same age and if he would be capable of doing the same thing.
  • I am also a boy of Jewish descent, and your story inspired me and gave me hope that our people can stay strong even through the toughest challenges across the world.
  • Your recounts as living as a child really struck me, as the lives of the individual don’t really come to mind when thinking of such an event. It always seems about the bigger picture, but often times we forget about the smaller details.
  • Your talk inspired me to look at life in a different way. I’m thankful to just be here, to be free in whatever I do.  I’m grateful for what I already have, even if it may not seem like much to me.  I’ll be sure to tell my family and friends all about you and your story, so that I may be able to touch their lives in the way you touched mine.
  • You went through a horrible time and enlightened me more so, feeling-wise. I am sure to tell my family your story, specifically my mother.
  • Something you said that really stuck in my head was that it’s better to be for something than against something and I’ve been thinking about it a lot.
  • Your talk gave me a new appreciation for the importance of speaking out against hate and oppression around the world, as well as in my life.
  • Your story helps us understand what happened as well as make an emotional connection to it. Thank you so much for sharing.
  • Taking the time to share with us your experience of the war, what you do, educating people about the horrors of what happened is very noble, reliving your experience so that we can make sure it never happens again.
  • I am thankful that I was able to learn about such a serious and important point in history from somebody who experienced it so that I can make sure I never forget about what happened. Once again, thank you for speaking to us yesterday.
  • I truly feel that your talk changed my way of thinking, and I will remember your talk for the rest of my life so that I may recall your experiences to my children so that they understand the history of our world.
  • Your talk made me understand that being for things and not against them can change the outcomes of our lives forever. Your talk also helped me realize that I need to cherish my moments with my family and friends, especially now more than ever.
  • (Your story) showed me that I need to talk to my parents more and bond and connect with them before they are gone. I’ve already told my family about your story and they’re so glad people like you are still alive to carry on history.
  • Right after your talk was over, I immediately had a more positive mood. It made me appreciate what I had, and showed me how much value every little thing had in my life.  I will definitely be telling others about your baseball story.  It played out like something straight out of a comedy show!
  • What really stuck out to me was what your mom did for you. She was your hero.  She timed everything perfectly, and what she did for you shows how much she cared about you.
  • Your talk has made me believe that there is still hope out there.
  • Your story brought me to tears and helped me understand the holocaust emotionally from a child’s perspective.
  • Before, I was a person who would always live in the past or worry about the future, but I have never tried to live and cherish the present. Throughout your seminar I learned the importance of living in the present.
  • After your talk with us, I learned to appreciate and cherish everything that I have, including those around me. I began to live in the present and I began to share your story with my parents and my sister.
  • My mom works at the Jewish Home of San Francisco and takes care of many other Holocaust survivors. While listening to your talk, I reflected on your story and some of theirs that my mom has shared, and it gave me a whole news perspective into the generational impact the Holocaust has left on the world.
  • My mom and I are extremely close and I cannot imagine being separated from her for years, and I admire your strength for persevering through this. Thank you so much for sharing you unfortunate experience, and for continuing to do this very important work during this challenging time.
  • Your talk left me thinking about a variety of things, like how much you would need to push someone to commit certain things to harm others and or survive. For some people, it doesn’t take a lot to harm others or commit things so unimaginable.
  • What do you think gave you the drive to keep going? I was listing possible answers like maybe it was your naivety as a child that kept you sane or maybe you were a lot more sophisticated and understood what your end goal was, I’m still not sure.  (At first it was naivety, later it was focus on the goal.)
  • What struck me is that you smiled toward a German soldier; that was crazy, and what’s even more crazy is that smile protected you from death. Your talk gave me an inspiration to believe even more in faith.
  • Right after the zoom call I went upstairs and told my mom your story. She said, “Wow, I wish I would’ve have been on that zoon.
  • Ultimately, your story has really taught me that being hateful and negative will get me and anyone else nowhere in life, rather it will cause more unneeded destruction to this fragile world.
  • Despite everything you went through, you are here today alive and healthy, you are living proof that anything is possible. … It inspires me not to give up on anything I want to do, and at the end of the day I have no excuse to give up.
  • After the webinar I talked to my friends about it and we all collectively agreed it was such a great experience and something we are proud to be able to grow up and say we experienced. I hope one day my class will be able to possibly see you in person so we can all have a group hug.


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