Grammar Wednesday is being postponed for this week. I’ll have something cute for you next week, though – I passed a sign on my way in to Not So Local College this past weekend; I’ll get a picture of it on my way back home and post it for you next week.
Something I’m very much enjoying about this program is that it’s taking a multi-disciplinary approach to the Shoah and to the practice of teaching the Shoah to our students. As someone who has been practically soaked through in English classes – literature, literary criticism, deconstruction – it’s wonderful to take a couple of intense sessions in hard-core history, philosophy, and political theory.
Here’s the thing, though; I discovered, a long time ago, that my experience of literature is richer if I understand the history of it – not necessarily the history of the writing itself (the background of the author or the ways in which the piece has been recieved through time) but certainly about the time period during which the piece was written or when the story takes place. I understand Dr. King’s writing much better because I’ve done some research into the Civil Rights era and have (what I’d call a rudimentary) understanding of some of the personalities, issues, and conditions of the time that help me to navigate the literature of the period. My experience of literature is made richer with this kind of knowledge, and I’m able to help my students better understand the work that I ask them to do through a brief history lesson relevant to the piece we’re investigating.
The Shoah is an absolutely overwhelming topic. How anyone can even begin to understand the thing without losing their mind is a wonder to me, truly; I’m not sure it’s possible for one person to fully comprehend the scope and impact of this period of time.
Several of the professors have offered up a really useful way into (or, perhaps I should say around) this problem; take it one story at a time.
There is a story – and I’m not sure of its origin, but I know I’ve mentioned it before – about a boy who’s tossing starfish into the sea after they’ve been spit up onto the shore after a storm. There are thousands of starfish stranded on the beach, and the boy is throwing them back into the surf one by one. Eventually, an old man comes upon the boy and chastises him. “Look at them all,” the man says, “you can’t POSSIBLY make a difference.” The boy picks up a starfish and throws it into the water, then turns to the man and says “I made a difference to THAT one.”
There’s a saying in Judaism: Whoever saves a life saves the world entire. Rabbi Sarah told us, on the first day of this program, about a verse in Hebrew that says: Lo aleha hamlaha ligmor. Velo ata ben horin lehibatel mimena. It’s is not up to you to complete the work; neither are you free to desist from it. I think these sayings are very much like the starfish story – one doesn’t HAVE to do EVERYTHING; the recognition is that one can’t save the world, but one is obligated to do whatever one can to save one’s corner of it.
The work that we do – as teachers and, for me, as a parent – is vital. I may not be able to reach all of my students. I may not be able to save the kid who’s grown up believing that gays are an abomination or that it’s necessary to “protect the white race” (and yes; I’ve got students who believe those things, and lots worse, too), but I might reach one who’s on the ledge. I might be able, though my example and my teaching, to bring a little bit of light into the world. Learning about how these things happen – being educated in the history and the politics and the psychology – will help me to do that work more effectively. It’s possible that I might just make a difference.