Atrium School, Watertown, MA – January 26, 2021 via video

by George J Elbaum

Atrium School is a progressive, independent co-ed day school, grades pre-K through 8, with 121 students.  At Atrium, an emphasis on collaborative, balanced, hands-on curriculum enables students to gain and exercise critical thinking and problem-solving skills across multiple curricular areas.  Students develop strategies that nourish their intellectual, emotional, social, and physical self-confidence and growth.  In all of their interactions and studies, Atrium students are given time to question, explore, experiment, and reflect both independently and cooperatively.  I particularly liked the following two statements from its excellent website:

“Founded on the principle of respect, Atrium School is an innovative and collaborative place where children can listen, question, challenge, probe, and thereby make sense of their world.  When children graduate from our independent school, we hope they will carry with them a strong sense of their identity, a willingness to see the common threads which run through all our lives, and a high regard for the value and breadth of differences.”

“A ‘social curriculum’ doesn’t come in a binder. By noticing details, moments, and effort we cultivate a culture of caring. Our community is dedicated to this effort, and it is the daily work of our teachers to be agents of “noticing” and to support and guide children’s interactions.”

Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, my presentation to 18 8th grade students was via Zoom rather than in person, so I could not witness and feel the school’s atmosphere.  However, I was definitely impressed by the few interactions I did see online between Social Studies teacher Paul Capobianco, who organized the event, and his students, and especially by the extent of their knowledge and interest as evidenced by their questions: the Q&A extended long after the expected ending time.

The event was also attended by several other Atrium faculty and staff, and it was arranged by Jeff Smith of Facing History and Ourselves.  Judi Bohn of Facing History also attended.

Letters/emails from students

In the pre-Covid days and pre-Zoom talks I would often receive by mail a few weeks after a talk a packet of letters from students.  Whereas I much prefer those days and talks directly to live audiences with direct, face-to-face Q&A’s, there’s a silver lining, even a small one, in all storms.  Thus only 2 days after my Zoom talk at the Atrium School I received an email from the organizing teacher, Paul Capobianco, entitled “Words of Gratitude” and containing a note from each of his students attending my talk.  As has been our custom for years, after dinner my wife Mimi read aloud each of the notes and highlighted the statements or phrases that resonated with us, and these are shown below.  Thank you all for your thoughtful and sensitive statements.                     

  • Thanks for helping us face history, and through that ourselves.
  • This was my favorite quote of yours from yesterday: “There are no very fine people on the side of hate.” I can’t wait to read your book!
  • I feel so lucky to have heard you speak in person….. You have overcome so much, and I will never forget yesterday.
  • I can’t imagine the surreal living conditions you were in throughout those extremely terrible years. It made me a bit emotional.  I’m glad you’re living a much better life and being so brave to share your experience with others.
  • Your story was incredibly inspiring and had a great impact on my outlook on the Holocaust. Please continue to do this
  • I’ve heard a few other survivors speak, and each time I hear a new story it changes my perspective on Judaism and the Holocaust. Hearing stories like yours encourages me to continue pursuing Tikkun Olam (repair the world) and social justice.
  • Your story greatly changed my perspective when learning about the Holocaust and it is an experience that will stick with me for the rest of my life.
  • I admire how, even with everything that happened, you were still able to see good in people, that you think optimistically when it comes to human beings.
  • Personally, I believe that without empathy people can’t evolve as a whole. Without understanding why something happened you can’t prevent something like it from happening again in the future.  When I put these two beliefs together I saw a connection: without optimism, empathy, and belief in change, humanity won’t evolve, or at least it won’t evolve to its true potential.
  • Maybe one day humanity will run more in that direction; we’ll just have to wait and see.
  • One thing that baffled me during your story was how some people don’t believe in the Holocaust.
  • I loved hearing about how amazing you mom was. She sounds like she was the most incredible and smart woman.  Thank you for openly answering our questions and talking to us.
  • I learned a lot not just about facts of the holocaust, but how it felt for you to experience part of it.
  • One thing that you said which lingered was that to do good in the world “you must be for things and not against things.
  • Thank you so much for telling us your story. It was incredibly inspirational, and I will never forget it.            

About gelbaum

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