“It is one thing to read about hateful actions in other cities across the US, but this is different. This hits too close to home. Hate is in our backyard.”
Anyone who knows me would say that I am infrequently at a loss for words; however, the events of last weekend have caused me to struggle with a way to verbalize my feelings and process the images. On Saturday and Sunday, and several times since then, I have opened my social media accounts, determined to write an impassioned post about the events that touched our neighboring community and came up short each time. The only thing I could think to say is that these events are not what real Virginians stand for and the fact that I had just spent the concluding two days of our first week back-to-school discussing antisemitism and hatred made it unfathomable to have such a local and contemporary example. In my heart though, these words were not enough.
Charlottesville is a “big sister” city to the small city of Staunton that I have called my home for the past five years. Like Staunton, it has many traits that are more small-town than truly city. The downtown areas of both are dotted with locally-owned restaurants, boutiques and antique stores set against the backdrop of historical architecture, and the footsteps of a rich and sometimes challenging past. Like Staunton, it is a place where history is always present, sometimes taken for granted, but frequently a topic of conversation. Both cities are composed of moderately diverse populations; populations that have had their struggles, but who have, at least in recent years, dealt with them largely through peaceful discourse.
For me personally, Charlottesville holds a special place in my heart. It is the city where our daughter was born, six weeks early with a team of doctors on standby at the University of Virginia hospital. It wasn’t part of our plan, which didn’t include anything except our local hospital closer to home, but for the rest of our lives and hers, Charlottesville will always be a part of our story. It is a city I visit frequently for other reasons as well, to socialize with my friends, to utilize their airport, and to seek out its stores. Now, it will also be a location that I think of in other ways—as the home to events that will be ingrained in the minds of Americans for a long time to come.
As the weekend drew to a close, I found myself grappling with what to say and do when students arrived in my classes on Monday. In the back of my mind I was in “teacher-mode,” but like the social media post, clear answers were not forthcoming. I knew that our class discussions on Thursday and Friday had provided them with a foundation, but giving them both space and guidance to process the events was of foremost concern.
Going into Monday, I will say that I was thankful for incredible colleagues and friends who were available to bounce ideas off of as we collectively searched for ideas on how to aid our students. I was also grateful to have many resources available to help get the conversation started. Between Echoes and Reflections, USC Shoah Foundation’s IWitness, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), there were options for each of my classes for Monday and the days to come.
I began each class on Monday by allowing students simply to speak out, question and share. The one theme that resonated through and through was the discomfort of proximity—these hateful acts occurred in a place where my students eat dinner with their families, where their parents work, where older siblings attend college, and where many of them hope to find themselves post-high school. Over and over, I heard variations of what Henry, my first student of the day, shared, “It is one thing to read about hateful actions in other cities across the US, but this is different. This hits too close to home. Hate is in our backyard.”
Throughout the day, we talked about respectful discourse utilizing the framework of a mini-lesson created by USC Shoah Foundation’s IWitness entitled, “Promoting Effective Conversation Skills.” This lesson proved powerful not only for its fostering a skill that is sometimes overridden by emotion, but also because it includes the testimony of Henry Oertelt, who is also a featured survivor in the Echoes and Reflection’s unit, “Contemporary Antisemitism.” His words are powerful and need to be shared:
“…it is time for people to recognize that the world is made out of many, many different people, different colors, different sizes, and all kinds of differences…. it’s about time that we recognize that. It’s about time that we learn to live with it. And one way to learn to live with it is…we start to learn about each other, and while we may not agree with the ideology, and the lifestyle of other people, it is time to know about them, to respect them, as I expect them to respect me.
And if this can come done, and I think we’re making some progress, not a lot, but I see some progress here and there. If this can come about, then I think the world can be a much better place….That’s basically, my main message is because I tell them I am the prime example of what can happen to people that are suffering under prejudicial circumstances and biases and when nobody speaks up…we have to learn to speak up when we see prejudice and hatred.”
In the days since, we have talked about white supremacy more extensively than I have in years past. I have shared with my students the USHMM “Voices of Antisemitism” podcast by former Neo-Nazi Frank Meeink to show students that there is a path forward, even from the pit of hate. Students have discussed, debated, and respectfully disagreed as we have talked, and there is no doubt in my mind that this will continue for days and weeks to come; something I view with optimism. Although it feels at times like a small step, we as educators must firmly keep in mind every single day that our students truly do have the power to change the world. They are on a path to discovering how to be responsible citizens and it is our job to guide them. During a week such as this, it may be hard to come up with the right words, but we trust in the process, and we find the way.