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A profound and unexpected correspondence

By Katy Murphy
Thursday, March 10th, 2011 at 2:55 pm in high schools, students, teachers.

Life Academy students watching Dora Sorell. Photo courtesy of Annie Hatch.

Annie Hatch, a teacher at Life Academy, writes about a letter her class received from a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate. Above, the students listen to another speaker on the subject. – Katy

The letter arrived on a cold, rainy day in late January. I saw it sitting there, unobtrusively, in my box in Life Academy’s main office.

I examined the return address closely to make sure it was real. My heart started beating faster as I realized what had happened. My students had written letters to Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel three months earlier, and he had written back.

Back up to the beginning of September.

Before beginning this school year, the majority of my tenth-grade students had never heard of the Holocaust. They had seen countless images of Hitler, but many couldn’t tell me if he was a “good” or “bad” leader. They had no idea what a Jew was. And World War Two was some distant battle, fought eons ago for some obscure reason.

After I had them read Wiesel’s autobiographical book Night, my students were bursting with questions and insights. As an in-class assignment, I asked them to write a letter to the author.

The letter was meant to be just a warm up activity to begin the class, but my students’ responses blew me away. Some expressed humility and empathy I wasn’t used to hearing among 15- and 16-year-olds. As one articulate young woman wrote, “I appreciate that you went back to where it all happened to tell us the story that many still can not take in, even after reading your book. I personally thank you for that, even though it must have been very hard to do.”

Still other students made startlingly poignant connections between Wiesel’s autobiography and their own lives. As one of my undocumented students wrote, “I relate to you in a way by feeling unwanted in a place. I am a 16-year-old girl who wants to live in the United States to work hard to be someone in life but because I am an immigrant my dreams are hard to reach.” Another student wrote, “People where I come from go through hardships such as being jumped for wearing the wrong color or being a certain race. I can’t compare my experiences to yours, but I relate to the violence and hatred you witnessed.”

Some of my students seemed to engage with Wiesel’s writing in a way they had never done with a school text before. One student wrote, “I would like to say again that Night is one of the few books that have inspired me and it’s something that has taught me a lesson in life.”

I was proud, humbled, and impressed by the depth of the responses I received about a topic my students had until recently known so little about. Their letters were so good I decided to send them to Wiesel, who is now 82 years old and still works as a professor at Boston University. Still, as I packed all their typed, polished letters into a big manila envelope, I never expected a response. My students said things like, “C’mon Ms. Hatch. You know he’s never going to write us back.” And although I agreed with them, I put on my optimistic teacher voice and responded, “You never know…”

Three months later, letter in hand, my heart was racing at the prospect of showing my students the letter that was addressed to each and every one of them—and signed by Wiesel himself. The first reaction of many of my students was to deny it could be true. A few even accused me of writing a fake letter. It was as if they couldn’t believe their words were worthy of a response. Yet gradually, Wiesel’s shaky scrawl and my obvious excitement, helped them accept the fact that this author was a real human being who had really taken the time to write them back.

Wiesel wrote that he was “deeply moved” by the students’ letters. He answered their painfully personal questions about whether he had wanted to kill himself or exact revenge. “We must continue to struggle against the rise of hatred,” he wrote. “Your letters reflect your resolve to be sensitive and kind to those who are different. I have hope because of young people like you. By your example, you can make a
difference: start somewhere, anywhere.”

I printed a copy of his letter for each student, and many told me they were going to frame it. One told me her mother had filed it away in a safe place, along with her sister’s diploma.

As for the original, I keep it above my desk at school as a reminder of a great educator who is still counting on young people to make the world a better place.

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  • Nextset

    If only more secondary school teachers did more of this – to expose the students to historical figures in person, in correspondence and reading the biographies.

    History can be stranger than fiction. it does put one’s own life in perspective.

    This was a fantastic day’s work.

    I was rather amused by the observation that her students “had no idea what a Jew was”. In the Brave New World people are born into a caste and live, work, reproduce & associate only with their own caste – the segregation is maintained by different language & tribal dress as well as zip codes. Ability to cross caste boundaries will be useful for upward mobilities. A good school will keep the kiddies from settling into their comfort zones and expose them to life on a broader scale.

    We need more stories like this please!

  • Anne

    Did they really have no idea what a Jew was? My family is Jewish, and my two children attend Oakland public elementary schools. Is this what it will be like in middle schools? At our elementary school, my kids have experienced all sorts of cultures, and shared foods and customs with each other– Chinese New year, Ramadan, Kwanza, learning about Taoism- just to name a few. I am stunned that living in the SF Bay Area there are students that truly don’t know about Judaism.

  • Anne

    I also wanted to add that I am thrilled this kind of learning and curriculum is taking place here in Oakland- kudos to Annie Hatch!

  • Oaktown Teen Times

    Annie,

    Would one of your students like to write an opinion piece or a news article about this for the next issue of the Oaktown Teen Times? We haven’t had any contributions from Life Academy this year, and this would be a great first!

    Here’s a link to our website, which contains a PDF of our latest issue for those of you who haven’t seen the paper — http://www.oaktownteentimes.org.

    Lisa Shafer
    Co-Managing Editor, Oaktown Teen Times
    Teacher, Media Academy

  • Lara

    Anne, as another public high school teacher in Oakland, I have also taught many students who are unfamiliar with Judaism or Jewish people except in the context of WWII and the Holocaust. While it’s true that there are a bunch of Jewish kids in Oakland public elementary schools, I doubt that many stay in the public school system into high school.

    As a fourth-year teacher, I have not yet taught a single student who identified as Jewish (or as White). Though students have learned about Jewish holidays and traditions, they don’t consider Jewish people a part of their everyday lives.

    When I begin to teach the book Night each year, I’ve learned to talk about my own Jewish heritage. I find that this helps my students see the people in the book as humans, not as a phantom group of others.

  • Nextset

    “As a fourth-year teacher, I have not yet taught a single student who identified as Jewish (or as White). Though students have learned about Jewish holidays and traditions, they don’t consider Jewish people a part of their everyday lives.”

    The sad thing about this is that these students who escape underclass and actually work for a living are going to encounter Jews as landlords, as superiors at work, as professionals such as Drs and Lawyers. On occasion some of the students might actually on occasion compete with Jews for position or be involved in contracts with them. Good luck with that.

    Darn right it would help to have some classroom exposure to Ethnic America. (They can start by reading Thomas Sowell’s book of that title.)

    While they’re at it they might do well with Stephen Birmingham’s “Certain People” as a class assignment – so they can read about the “talented tenth”.

    In the Brave New World children are born into social and economic castes and kept in their place by language and “culture” (and the schools attended). In the mid 20th Century we tried to minimize that using Public School Education which was carefully designed to integrate Americans by application of a common foundation. That’s gone now. It’s still here in the form of “good” schools.

    We need more good schools and black folks need the option to attend them if they are so inclined. Some will, many won’t. Still it would be best if at least the opportunity were still there. That opportunity has been taken away by leftist and liberal policy.

    A good teacher in a bad school can still so something for her students. Not as if the school will support her in the process, but.. Hope springs eternal.

  • seenitbefore

    “A good teacher in a bad school can still so something for her students. Not as if the school will support her in the process, but.. Hope springs eternal.”

    Nextset….Thanks for the reminder….. I just wish it weren’t so very true. A lot of good teachers leave Oakland due to the lack of support and appreciation. Many find happiness, support and appreciation in neighboring school districts or private schools.

    It would really make a difference for Oakland students if good teachers were valued by OUSD instead of being persecuted, harassed, burnt out, or driven from the district.

  • Annie Hatch

    Seenitbefore and Nextset: I think I’m one of the lucky ones as I’m a good teacher in a great school. My principal and coworkers provide nothing but support and encouragement, and all of them make me want to work harder and be better (in a realistic and sustainable way). I really don’t think I could do this challenging work (at least not for very long) if I didn’t feel tremendous support from my school community. It makes all the difference.

    Lisa: I would love to have one of my students write something for Oaktown Teen Times. What a great opportunity– thank you.

  • VM

    We are so happy and proud that you are a member of our Life Academy family. We appreciate you and your amazing and positive energy you bring. Keep up the good work our students are so lucky to have you, enjoy the moment. You go Annie Hatch!

  • Jeanette

    The sad thing about this is that these students who escape underclass and actually work for a living are going to encounter Jews as landlords, as superiors at work, as professionals such as Drs and Lawyers. On occasion some of the students might actually on occasion compete with Jews for position or be involved in contracts with them. Good luck with that.

    ^^^ Wow, someone missed the point of Annie Hatch’s class’s exercise and Wiesel’s experience and message. Scary and pitiful that Nextset feels comfortable even scripting the above.

  • http://modernmsbarrett.blogspot.com/ Modern Ms. Barrett

    Nice work, Annie! I have said it before, but I’ll say it again: you are an outstanding first year teacher. I can’t wait to see the things you’ll pull off in your fifth year. I am so grateful to have you as a colleague.

    I would say at our school in Oakland, kids have more exposure to Islam than to Judaism, for sure. I find the above conversation an interesting commentary that seems to presume that by the time people reach their teenage years they should know about all the various cultures and religions of the world. This is a little ridiculous. They learn about these things as they grow up and hopefully each year get exposed to more and more that is different from what they’ve known.

  • http://kurtwootton.wordpress.com/ Kurt Wootton

    Annie, What I particularly like about your article is how you include the quotes and the voices of your students. It feels like you are creating an atmosphere in your classroom where students can eloquently express their ideas and opinions. Thank you for teaching your students how to write in meaningful ways, and sharing what happens in your classroom with the larger world.

  • http://www.writercoachconnection.org Robert Menzimer

    Those of us who work with high-school students, in Oakland and elsewhere, have learned to not be surprised about what pours out of them when they are given the opportunity, and the tools, to communicate. But what you’ve led your students to express, Annie, really stands out. A tremendously moving experience to read about this.

  • cranky researcher

    Lisa, thank you for sharing! The Oaktown Teen Times is a great paper! The article on homocides and the small high schools has great coverage of the Fremont and Castlemont situations.

  • Nextset

    Jeanette, can you explain your post?

    My point is that public schools – urban public schools anyway – tend to “graduate” students woefully unprepared for the Brave New World.

    When this happens the students have to learn everything the hard way – by painful experience and loss.

    Contrast this to good schools whose products are fairly and fully coached about this country, it’s history, economy and it’s people.

    So exactly what’s your point?

  • Jesse James

    Just my two cents: I went to “good” Catholic schools. In the ninth grade, a first year teacher read us Night. We good middle class Catholic kids spent the time ridiculing him and making his life miserable. We were awful, all of us. In my time in those “good” schools, I can’t remember one great project that affected me, one moment where I thought “Wow! School is awesome.” Later, I and most of my classmates went to UC’s or higher. When I went to college I was shocked to learn that not everyone was Catholic, Irish or Italian. What a closed yet “educated” world I lived in. So I commend you Annie Hatch. Despite the fact that some commenters keep beating Oakland and OUSD down, really they are ready to rise to whatever challenge given the slightest chance. Thank you Katy for sharing and Annie for making it happen.

  • Dave Fort

    Good for you, Annie! This is an incredibly touching piece to read. Proud to know you. Anna says hello.