I sent the following letter to students in grades 7-12 in the aftermath of the October 7th terrorist attack on Israel.
Sunday, October 15, 2023
I thought I’d share two very different stories that end up having a similar message - a message about listening to and connecting with people you may not understand but from whom you can learn a lot. At the end of the two stories, I’m inviting you to do something.
Long before I was a superintendent I taught English at a boys’ Catholic high school in Watts, a long neglected section of South Central Los Angeles often overrun by gang violence. Some of my students had never really traveled outside of South Central LA and rarely did they have the opportunity to go on a field trip.
But after studying literature related to the Holocaust, like Elie Wiesel’s Night, I decided to take my class to visit the Simon Wiesenthal Center near West LA. I thought a visit and tour of their Holocaust exhibit would allow them to learn more about what happened to the Jewish people during WWII.
They were excited on the bus on the way to the Center. Of course, being sophomores, they were loud, raucous, and teased each other mercilessly. I couldn’t wait to get off the bus and away from all that noisy chatter!
Once inside the building, as soon as they saw an old and tattered prisoner uniform in a glass case with a faded yellow star sewn on the chest, the mood shifted. These smart, strong, boisterous young men became silent and quietly observed their surroundings as a petite and elderly woman, no taller than five feet, approached and welcomed us. The woman, I recall that her name was Abigail, told us she would be our host for the visit; she explained that she was a Jewish Holocaust survivor and had been a prisoner at one of the many Nazi concentration camps. The boys were in awe of this tiny woman’s heartbreaking story, including the murder of her family and her survival in a camp.
At the end of the tour and sitting quietly in the Center’s chapel one of my students who was next to Abigail reached out and pointed to the tattooed prisoner number on her forearm and asked her why she didn’t cover it. She had been tattooed by the Nazis when she arrived at the camp as a child. Didn’t it bother her to see it all the time, he asked? Abigail took up both of his hands to allow him to touch the tattoo on her arm and she stared right into his eyes and said: “I look at it every day as a way to remember my family who perished in the camps. And it also reminds me how strong I am to have survived. It is a sign of love and hope.” In the quiet of the chapel, other boys rose to come and touch the tattoo on her arm as if it was an ancient talisman.
The ride back to school was subdued, practically silent, as the boys looked out the bus windows thinking about what they had just experienced. These young men, some of them from very difficult family situations, thought they had a challenging life and reason to be anxious and angry at the world. But that day they met someone who helped them to see a new perspective; they had connected with a stranger whose powerful story helped to shape their understanding of themselves and the world around them.
Years later, and on the other side of the country when I was a high school principal in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, I can recall the morning of September 11, 2001. I had just finished making morning announcements on the PA and was settling down for a meeting when a student knocked on my door and said I needed to come to the school’s TV studio.
There in the TV class students had their faces glued to the monitors in front of them, watching the first of the Twin Towers to burn. Soon it became clear that what we were watching was an attack, and our lives were about to change.
In the hours and days after the 9/11 attacks, the nation was afraid and anxious. My students were also fearful and wondered if even our small community and high school was a safe place. Our students and teachers were on edge and worried; it was hard to concentrate on studies. Throughout the community students and adults alike soon became suspicious and pointed out and harassed darker skinned people, including students, some wearing head scarves.
Eventually several Muslim students, who had been afraid to speak out and mostly just dealt with the rude hallway remarks and taunts, came to see me and asked for something I was unprepared for: They wanted to have a place in the school where they could lay down a small prayer mat and conduct their prayerful ritual at certain times during the day. I was not expecting that, and I immediately worried this would just further inflame passions and bias. The students pleaded with me arguing that the only way other students could begin to understand them is if they saw them as people who also pray, just like their Jewish and Christian friends who went to temple or church; they wanted their friends back, and they wanted to help them understand that their religion and their beliefs were not the same as the 9/11 terrorists.
We identified a quiet place for Muslim students to pray, and, eventually, tensions and emotions eased; friendships renewed, science lab partners chatted it up again, teammates sat together on the bench at basketball games. It took some time but students renewed connections to one another. They were simply teenagers trying to enjoy high school - pursuing music, athletics, and studies in hopes of attending a good college. They were just kids hanging out at lunch, making fun of the substitute teacher, telling bad jokes, goofing off at band practice. It took an enormous tragedy inflicted upon the United States and far away from our high school, but it resulted in students learning from one another, sharing their stories, and realizing they had more in common then they ever realized.
As you begin a new week of learning with your friends I’m going to ask you to do two things:
First, recognize that some friends and classmates are still processing what has happened in Israel and Gaza and others aren’t really sure what to think or do. That’s OK because we all need time and space to work things out, especially things that are scary and uncertain. Be careful, too, about what you read, see, and post on social media; there is a lot of misinformation and a simple post can spin out of control and hurt someone. Be patient, caring and understanding with your classmates.
Second, do something that might be hard for you: I want you to take a moment to reach out to a student you don't know and simply smile or say hello. Sit down next to someone new at lunch or maybe with the kid in the back of your science class. And if you have more time, ask them about what classes they take or sports they are interested in. Maybe you’ll share a story.
It’s often through listening to another’s story that we deepen our understanding of the world around us. I’ve learned that if we make human connections, especially with people we don’t know well, we can see our differences as strengths and make our school and this world a better place for everyone.
I look forward to seeing you in your classrooms, in the hallways, and on the fields in the days and weeks ahead.