I walked in from February break and immediately heard the news. One of my former students had been killed, an all too often experience at our school. As the rumors started flying, I knew that I had to address my class. My supervisor came down with the guidance counselor, and we let the children know that their former classmate was killed the day before. We talked for a while about how, as a community, we had to “do better.”
In the back of my mind, I kept thinking about the special guest who was visiting the following week. A Holocaust survivor who had been through so many traumas was going to tell his story. I thought “Should I cancel?” So many people had cancelled on visitors like him over the years, and I really didn’t want to do that again. I talked it over with my team and we decided to just leave it as is.
The day came, and the students were super excited because they had done major research on the Holocaust. To be able to meet someone who had experienced it first hand was unheard of to them. I met Sam, an 80-something year old Holocaust survivor, and Elyse Rast, a JF&CS staff member, outside and walked them into the auditorium, hoping the students would show this man the respect he deserves.
As the students started to enter the auditorium, one by one they came up front. Sam started to share his story, and he talked for an hour. You could hear a pin drop in the auditorium. Sam’s tragic and heroic story captivated the students. He told them about losing his entire family, going to jail, and eventually going to Auschwitz. I could see tears in the eyes of students and adults alike during this talk. When Sam told us about meeting his wife and how they recently celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary, the whole auditorium cheered.
In my 13 years of teaching at McKinley, I have been to many presentations with our students; I have never seen anything like this. They respected Sam and his amazing journey and they also identified with some of his losses. Many of our McKinley students have experienced violence, loss, and trauma. For them to hear about someone running from a death march, surviving, and still going on to have a successful life to having a family that he clearly loved very much was something all of their young ears needed to hear.
But it didn’t end there. The students stood up and asked questions. They asked important, thought-provoking questions. Sam’s most profound answer was to share that he has to have hope and he doesn’t have time for hatred. What an incredible way to end a tension-filled week.
Afterward, a 16-year-old young man, wearing a RIP shirt for his friend, said to me, “Burrell, I can’t believe I met this guy. I can’t believe everything he went through, and he still has hope. That means I need to be able to go on too. I can’t wait to tell my grandfather that I met Sam.” Another young lady came up to me and said, “I just can’t believe Sam went through all of that and is able to talk about it.” Many of the students in my class said his story was heroic and that Sam gave them hope.
When Sam left, he grabbed my hands and said, “Your students are amazing. They are wonderful.” And that was something I needed to hear and it gave me hope. When I walked back into the school, it was charged with a respect for Sam and his story. Every student and staff member who attended thanked me. The whole school couldn’t stop talking about it. It was the path to healing that we all needed at that time.
I can’t thank Elyse Rast and Sam Weinreb enough for providing us with this amazing experience. It was a teaching highlight for me and a life highlight as well as a gift that our students and staff will never forget.
Carolyn Burrell is a Special Education teacher at McKinley South End Academy in Boston. She holds a master’s in special education, and has been a part of the McKinley community for 13 years. She is currently an English language arts teacher for 9-12th grade. Ms. Burrell enjoys exploring different topics that involve the human spirit that brings out the best in her students.
Originally published on the JF&CS blog.