Last night was the final showing of our Holocaust exhibit, and I have many mixed feelings.
Last Tuesday our exhibit opened to our students from grade 6-12, as well as teachers, and parents. Additionally, members from the Jewish community were invited to attend. The only word I can use to sum it up is stunning.
Strategically placed around the exhibit were students who provided the viewers and guests with information about the portion of the exhibit they were looking at. Naturally, I have extroverts in this class for whom this is as simple as breathing.
However, I have other students who rarely say a word in class, and yet there they stood explaining a portion of the Holocaust to people and students, many whom they didn’t know. They were scared out of their minds, but did it anyway. One of my students excitedly came up to me and exclaimed, “I talked! I talked!” This was a huge accomplishment for her.
I had two young ladies, who originally had planned to be greeters and welcome people to the exhibit. At some point, they began giving a portion of the tour themselves, explaining the first few exhibits when life was normal for the Jewish people, and Hitler’s insidious plans were still hidden. This led the groups to the student at the exhibit about the politics behind Hitler’s rise to power.
The greeter then returned to the door to begin again with the next group of visitors. It wasn’t planned. Instead, this was a role they serendipitously chose, even though they are naturally quite shy. And they were visibly proud because they stepped out of their comfort zone. Again, at last night’s showing, they did they same thing.
An incredible defining moment
I had the privilege of leading a Jewish couple from our community through the exhibit. It was incredibly emotional and wrenching to do so. I wasn’t expecting that. This couple spoke of their families as we walked through the exhibit, those who spent time in concentration camps, and those who were able to flee. While we were looking at the ghetto display they commented how they have pictures in photo albums of relatives wearing the yellow stars. There were many times I was on the verge of tears during this tour.
One of the defining moments of this particular exhibit day was when I led this couple to the Eugenics display. One of my students started to explain the program, and she mentioned a particular doctor’s name who was involved with the experiments. The Jewish woman said, “ahhh, that is the doctor who experimented on my sister for 8 months.” Shock, and silence, from everyone. She then proceeded to tell us the story and teach all of us. All of a sudden the Holocaust, and the tragedy of the eugenics experiments, became very real.
That afternoon, when I got home, I sat on the edge of my bed and cried. I had to. There were so many emotions that I felt overloaded. The pain of the Holocaust and how real that wonderful, gracious Jewish couple made it. And yet the excitement and pride in my students was juxtaposed to this tragedy.
Many of our guests were stunned at the depth and beauty of the exhibit. When you think class projects, guests rarely expect walls of the quality of these displays. But the comment that I heard over and over was that it was extremely powerful because of the pictures. It gave faces to those who were persecuted and murdered. Many adults were overcome with tears and pain because of their experience in our museum.
Afterwards, one of my colleagues jokingly saying, “It’s going to be hard to top this next year.” But for me, it’s not about that. I don’t want my classes trying to top one another. Instead, it’s about creating a culture of excellence, and showing the world what teenagers can do, if given the chance.
Magic and grieving
This morning I woke up with a very heavy heart. Today we dismantled our exhibit. Over 50 hours of work taken a part in less than an hour. And the thing that shocked me is that I’m grieving. I’m grieving the end of this exhibit. I’m grieving the loss of what we’ve created together. I wish we had some place to put it, so that many others could see it, but we don’t have the space. Three of the canvas pieces I have kept and will be using next year when I teach the unit. I already know how I’m going to be using them.
This morning as we were pulling the exhibit down the room was quiet. The laughter that was present while we were building the exhibit was gone. Instead, the mood seemed very somber. I think many of us are grieving. And in all my years of teaching I’ve never grieved the end of a unit. In fact, most years I was glad to be finished the Holocaust unit because it’s 2 months of heaviness and death.
It’s interesting how when you shift your role as a teacher, to co-learner and facilitator, the emotions that accompany teaching change as well, at least that’s my experience.
Before we went to dismantle the exhibit, I asked my students, “Two months ago when we talked about creating a museum, did you ever think it would look like this?” They didn’t. “Did you think this was even possible.” They didn’t. “Did you think I was crazy?” They did. And yet, there the exhibit stood.
I think as teachers we need to reimagine what education looks like in a way that stretches our students imaginations and our own. We need to imagine it with them. And we need to be willing to slosh through the muck when none of us quite know where we’re going. The results can be truly wonderful.
Read my other posts about our Holocaust project: