Published in Storytelling Magazine, December 1999
In the Spring of 1999, at the height of the Kosovo “ethnic cleansing,” I was invited to teach the Holocaust in the schools of Palm Beach County, Florida. (Florida is one of seven states that mandate Holocaust studies.) This was an amazing invitation, or as I saw it, “assignment.” I created two different programs, one, a poetry process for classrooms and the other, a storytelling assembly.
In preparation, I searched for folk tales and other stories that dealt with themes I might address. I read a lot of material on the Holocaust, talked with a survivor from the Warsaw Ghetto, and forced myself to look at photographs. On the plane to Florida, I read Yaffa Eliach’s Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust. I arrived in Forida two days before the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. The day after the shootings was my first day in the schools.
Between the ongoing images from Kosovo, my immersion in the Holocaust, and the news coming out of Littleton, my heart was torn open. I found myself crying suddenly, at odd moments. I was working principally in Middle schools and on wide open campuses. There were bomb threats at a couple of the local schools and feelings were running high, both of sadness and apprehension.
I questioned myself, “What are you doing in the schools at this moment?”
My answer was, “Doing something for the kids.” I was wading into the situation; introducing a topic hard and painfully relevant; bringing information, metaphor, opportunity to question; offering a means of expression and a chance to be heard.
In my classes and assemblies, we looked at the need to stop hatred and violence before it gets out of control and affects the whole community (see “The Duel of the Cat and the Mouse” , Tales of Mogho, Guirma, ed.); we looked at strength and power vs killing (see “Strength” in Margaret Reade MacDonald’s Peace Tales); we looked at megalomaniacal leaders (see H.C. Andersen’s “The Wicked Prince”). In the poetry process I led the students through, we looked deeply at personal loss. I then shared with them the history of Terezin concentration camp and the art and poetry created by the children imprisoned there. (See, …I Never Saw Another Butterfly… Volavkoya, ed.). We talked about prejudice, inclusion, compassion. We talked about whatever the students brought up.
The students’ responses were varied…as varied as the schools and grades I was working in. In my three weeks residency, I taught in grades 4-10 in private, public, and an alternative school for potential drop-out children of the sugar cane workers out by Lake Okechobee. Many of the young people wanted to share things they knew about the Holocaust. Some asked really good questions. One seventh grade student asked about how much the United States knew and what did we did to stop the killing. “That’s a very good question,” I replied…. and before I could find my way in and out of that enormous topic, another student brought up the incident of the St. Louis, the ship filled with refugees the United Stated refused entry to. (It returned to Europe and most of its passengers perished.)
One of the poems about personal loss, written by a tenth grader, was about losing the “ground beneath my feet.” What an incredible springboard from which to talk about what happened to the victims of the Nazis! The discussion in that class about losing everything in one’s reality… physical, relational and even personal identity…was rich and deeply serious.
The stories, too, were marvelous springboards for discussion. With “The Duel of the Cat and the Mouse,” the discussion led to the many excuses we make not to get involved, the “bystander” issue. The fact that we often equate bullying, hitting, and even killing with “power” and “strength’ is shown starkly in Mac Donald’s story. After my telling of the Andersen story, there were discussions not only about Hitler, but other historical tyrants, the situation in Yugoslavia, and how sometimes young people follow the wrong leaders.
A number of the students brought up Kosovo. And sometimes the topic of the Littleton killings, which hung around the edges of our discussions always, found its way in to the center. In one “gifted” class, it surfaced after a rather lengthy discussion of Holocaust issues brought up in our story/poetry session. I left them with their teacher, hotly debating the role of the media in reporting school violence. They needed to talk about it, and our session had provided a forum.
To be in the schools, at that moment, was an enormous responsibility and a grand opportunity. Without talking directly about Littleton, a minor incident in the history of the world, but, at that moment, a major incident in the world of America’s schoolchildren, we addressed some of the issues swirling around their reality. And I was there not simply with hard facts, endless statistics, and terrifying images, but with stories and poetry. I was there with images that touch the soul, spark the imagination and invite compassion.
The week after I returned to New York City, at a New York Storytelling Center Board meeting, we began talking about the Littleton, CO massacre. Mike Seliger’s son had shown him something from the internet about how young people feel we grownups would do as usual: agonize over the Littleton incident and then forget about it…and them.
“Let me speak to that,” I said. Having just returned from my experience in the Florida schools, I spoke about the opportunities we storytellers have to address, both indirectly and directly, the serious concerns with which our children are wrestling. Indeed, we storytellers are a blessed group. Through image and metaphor, through the seemingly simple vehicle of story, we have the chance to address the BIG themes of the human soul. As always, I am grateful to be working with story.