Aug 21, 2011

The Power of a Symbol

Several years ago I had a group of students who thought it was "cool" to draw swastikas everywhere. They drew swastikas on their schoolwork, on their clothing, and on their skin. I was horrified. When I asked them to stop, they questioned my motives. "We don't have any Jewish kids here. It's not offending anyone!" I told them it was offending me, and I wanted them to stop.

They did not stop, however. Swastikas continued to appear on their schoolwork and on their skin. One boy used a permanent marker to draw a swastika in the middle of his forehead.  He wore it with pride. He made sure to take off his hat when facing me so that I could see his open defiance of my request. When I looked at him questioningly, asking, "Why did you do that? I asked you to stop." He recited to me the thousands year-old history of the swastika, and assured me (with his blonde hair and blue eyes) that he did not intend for anyone to take it in an Aryan way. He was not a racist or a Nazi, he said.

Flickr Image Credit:Wm Jas 
I was deeply disturbed by his insistence that wearing a swastika on his forehead is something to be proud of. The previous year, a different group of students had gone with me to the local nursing home to interview residents about their experiences in WWII.  Their pain was palpable. To have this young man not show any regard for the memory of that pain bothered me immensely. I could only conclude that my student did not know the more recent history of that symbol well enough. As his teacher, it was my job to teach him. I could look at him and say, "YOU are a racist," which would cause him to become more defiant and angry. Or I could try to get him to see things from another perspective.

While thinking about how to approach the subject, I realized that the biggest challenge would be getting these rural, poor, white kids to put themselves in someone else's shoes. I thought about just showing them a movie like Schindler's List.  But that is just a movie. It is so easy to dissociate one's self from a movie; that's not real--it's Hollywood. Instead of a movie, I got the documentary World War II -- The Lost Color Archives. Even with its gut-wrenching scenes from the concentration camps, I didn't think that my students would find much reason to relate to the footage on a personal level.  I struggled to think of a way to make them aware of what the swastika symbolizes to so many people.

My students have all experienced pain. Some of them have experienced so much pain that I am amazed by their ability to survive. The boy with the swastika on his forehead was one such person. His history involves both physical and sexual violence, both of which deeply affected him. Many of my other students had similar backgrounds.

Two days after discovering the swastika-on-the-forehead , I told my students that we were not going to complete any of our regular schoolwork. "We are going to have a discussion. It will be a really serious discussion and I will be sharing some very personal information with you. It is my hope that you will feel comfortable enough to share some things about yourself, too. Because it is so scary to share such personal stories, I need you all to agree to treat each other with respect. If you cannot handle that, you may leave right now. You will not be penalized for leaving. But you will be penalized if you are disrespectful to anyone sharing their personal stories." No one left.

After sharing the story of one of my darkest memories, I asked my students if they had any similar memories. I was shocked by the number of kids who had been living with immeasurable pain. Rape, physical abuse and mental abuse are far more common than I'd ever thought they were. After an intense period of sharing and tears, I asked those who had been brave enough to share, "Are there things that you see, hear, or smell that seem to send you back in time? Do you have flashbacks?" Each one of those kids could name a scent, an object, a song that froze them in fear, making them return in their minds to the time and place they were hurt so profoundly.  I asked a girl who admitted to flashbacks  how she would feel if I played the song that triggered her flashbacks each day as she entered our classroom. I asked the boy with the swastikas how he would feel if I presented him with the trigger to his pain each day. I told them that while the swastika does have an ancient history as a symbol of peace, there are people alive today who will not see it as such. For those people, wearing a swastika is like forcing them back in time to their moment of pain. Then we watched the documentary together.

We wept together. All of us.

At the conclusion of the film I asked them if they now understood why I was so upset by their casual display of swastikas. With red eyes, they all nodded. The boy with the swastika on his head got up to scrub his face in the bathroom. When he returned to the classroom he said, "This was an intense day. Can we have a group hug?" We all stood at the front of our classroom hugging each other for a long time.

That was the single most powerful day of teaching/learning that I've ever experienced in my career.

For the past week, two things have been on my mind: the movie The Help, and the start of the new school year. The story I just told brings together my thoughts on both subjects.

On The Help:There has been much controversy over both the movie and the book.  I didn't quite understand the controversy until I read this post by Ann Freeman (via Nordette Adams.) I am left wondering: if I read the book, if I see the movie: will I be wearing a proverbial swastika on my head? Am I perpetuating the pain of the past?

On the start of the school year: There is more talk now than ever before about teacher accountability for the learning students do in our classrooms. I just wrote about my most powerful teaching moment--one that deeply affected both me and my students. Yet none of what was taught or learned that day is considered of value in our current educational system. There is no bubble test to measure a student's growth in her/his ability to feel empathy. How do we balance this need for accountability with the need to ensure that kids learn more than just reading and math? For it is my opinion that they also need to learn more about what it means to be human.


  1. Jen, this is a wonderful and moving post. You effectively broke down a symbol of hate into its most basic elements and illustrated to your students how and why it was offensive to you by relating it to their personal triggers for trauma. You taught your students empathy and touched their hearts. Simply, wow.

    You ask an interesting question about The Help. I've been mulling it over the last couple of days. Why do we read? Why bother with something written from an opposing perspective? I don't discriminate, period. I want to read all perspectives and learn from them, because in reading the book, you're learning about the author (whether they like it or not). A lot people may not like to, but I do.

    I still love the novel, but now have a better understanding of how important it is to know a little about the author's experience while reading their work. I just think its a shame that publishers and film makers would aggressively promote a Southern white perspective, when there are so many others the public needs to hear.

    Hope your first week back has been great. Your students are blessed to have you. Teach them to be human.


  2. Thank you, Ezzy, for your feedback and for your thoughts on The Help. I think you're right--I need to read both from all perspectives, and I try to teach about as many perspectives as my students can handle. Sometimes that is very uncomfortable. It isn't always easy to see things from another perspective, but as a teacher I know that the greatest learning comes from those uncomfortable moments when we push ourselves.

    I want to read the book now--especially after watching those author interviews. I was really stunned when she stated that she didn't really understand her privilege until she was 35. I'm glad she got the chance to get out of Mississippi, and into an awareness she didn't have before, in order to write this book. 

    TGIF on my first week :-)

  3. Wow!  Jen, what an amazing teacher/woman/mother/wife!  I am so glad you took the time and energy to educate these kids in a way they could relate to.  Our educational system would benefit having more teachers like you!  My brother is a teacher and just from listening to his experiences, I realize that teachers have an extremely tough but so important job.  I totally commend you on your actions regarding this matter!

  4. Thanks, Tara. I appreciate your comment. I hope your brother has a great year teaching this year! It's always an exciting time when we start a new year :)

  5. As a student, the most profound learning experiences I can recall have been those centered around a group discussion. There is so much power in empathy. Beautiful post, Jen...but then again, you are just a beautiful person {not to mention an astounding teacher!}.

  6. Thank you, Vanessa! Group discussions are so much more valuable than the traditional "I teach, you take notes" style of education. I am blushing at your praise, amiga. Thank you. You are so beautiful too--inside and out.


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