In the fall of 1968, Margaret Michaels stood in front of her middle school American History class and shared a difficult truth: her 99.99% white school district had accepted its first Black teacher from Central State University in nearby Wilberforce. At the time, the Beavercreek School District covered fifty square miles of suburban and rural families in the southwestern portion of Ohio. Over seven thousand students filled the high school, two middle schools, and seven elementary schools, and most of the faculty, staff, and administration lived in the community. Some of these individuals still carried the names of the founding families who settled in the area as Ohio emerged from the unexplored west. Parents worked in major industry, owned mom and pop businesses, and farmed the land, and raised the livestock. Busing was a topic of discussion, usually out of earshot of children, as demands for desegregation for the students of the West End of Dayton grew. The West End was home to most of the Black community members, while the North Side housed the synagogue. Unspoken yet clearly understood lines had been drawn long ago. Parents worried that forced busing would send their children to the questionable neighborhoods just outside the township’s borders.
Margaret Michaels, one of the most honest and courageous people I have ever known, explained to her students that day that she was prejudiced. She related how her family ardently believed in the inferiority of Black people. She explained how having a Black friend or dating a Black person was completely beyond the realm of reality in her community and would have resulted in being disowned by her family. She described her qualms about meeting this student teacher and working with him. Mrs. Michaels went so far as to admit that she asked him if she could touch his hair since she had never come in physical contact with a Black person before that moment. Then, Mrs. Michaels explained that although her family would never understand or accept her changing attitude, she was admitting her prejudice and taking responsibility for letting go of the hatred and seeing the individual human, as well as the greater Black community, for who he is: a person deserving of respect and equal rights and access; a person with hopes, skills, and ideas just like anyone else in the world.
Margaret Michaels opened my eyes and my mind when she bravely explained that she chose to change the way she judged people. More than fifty years later, I can still see her standing there telling us that we alone are responsible for our thoughts, actions, and beliefs. We may choose to use the excuse of our upbringing, our families, our friends, our religious institutions, or anything else, but ultimately, we must own our stance in this world.
It is difficult, uncomfortable, and even embarrassing, at times, to speak out when family, friends, or colleagues disagree vehemently. But we must. We must hold up the mirror as individuals and as a country to see honestly why we are where we are in 2020. This requires ongoing reflection and learning and is a fundamental principle that has guided me throughout my personal and professional life. Our responsibility as educators is to show our own discomfort with past and present decisions and actions and impart this value to our students. We must also admit our failings, our moments of hesitation, our fear of speaking up, and speaking out. Just as we admit when we do not have an immediate answer, one that requires additional thought or research, we must admit that we are humans who have and will again fail our fellow humans. That does not excuse our shortcomings; it makes us work harder to acknowledge our own prejudices and fears of peer pressure.
As a Holocaust educator, I could not discuss the prejudice and hateful actions of the Nazis and their collaborators without discussing other examples of hatred around the world and throughout history in the U.S. Pointing a finger at Germany in 1944 is easy; but looking honestly at ourselves and our past is immensely uncomfortable. Yet, we must own that while we may not have personally forced Native Americans to walk the Trail of Tears, or forced those of Japanese descent into internment camps, or enforced the Jim Crow Laws, or supported the sundown laws for People of Color, or denied women equal pay, and the list goes on, we are obligated to fully acknowledge how these pieces of history have caused damage to both the human spirit and body and have consequences that continue to impact us today. It is long past time to stand up for what we know is right in this country.
When I speak with groups about the Holocaust, I do so not just to teach history, but to show the power of one individual. One perpetrator, one victim, one rescuer, one bystander – each has the power to change the world at that moment. The survivors I have met have talked about spiritual resistance which might have included practicing their religious beliefs in Auschwitz, listening to a scholar in the Warsaw Ghetto, or sharing food in hiding. One person can make a difference, and one person can change the world.
Margaret Michaels made her choice and accepted the consequences. When I look at my grandson, I try to see the legacy I will leave for him as a citizen of this country and of this world. I think of my paternal grandparents who decided to travel to Nazi Germany to bring one orphaned Jewish child to the safety of their home in the United States. I believe that most people are loving, caring individuals with the capacity to make the world better, but I also know that our voices and our actions are the only tools that can make long-lasting and positive change.
About the author: Lynne Rosenbaum Ravas retired from teaching and began presenting with the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh's Generations Program. In addition to serving as a facilitator for Echoes & Reflections, she volunteers with the Federal Executive Board's Hate Crimes Working Group, FBI's Citizens' Academy, and other organizations in the area.
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