Category Archives: Holocaust

New Class Idea: The Ambiguous Hero

I’ve been captivated, almost forever, with the ambiguous hero; the good guy who does bad things (and, conversely, the bad guy who does good things) and what role he plays in our psyche and, in a larger sense, in our culture.

A friend of mine wants to teach a summer class with film, and we were talking about this idea over dinner the other day.  I haven’t been able to let it go, and here’s what I’ve come up with.  I’m going to need some help zeroing in on the specifics – the assignments, the competencies and objectives, that kind of thing –  but here’s what I’ve got for materials so far:

The Dark Knight: the second of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy – this is the one with Heath Ledger as the Joker.  Christian Bale’s Batman is the perfect example, I think, of the ambiguous hero.

A Dry White Season:  This is based on a novel written by a white South African who gets involved in the anti-apartheid movement after someone he knows personally dies in police custody.

Gandhi:  You know this story, and I keep coming back to it as a conversation about civil disobedience and the question of how resistance is characterized on the different “sides” of the debate in question

Gone Baby Gone:  PLEASE tell me you’ve seen this movie!  It’s about a kidnapping, and centers around HUGE issues of “right” and “wrong” and where the law clashes with morality

Harry Potter:  I want to investigate Snape.  The idea of the double agent is always an interesting one.  I’m not sure which film I’d use, though; likely the last one.

Iron Jawed Angels: Another civil disobedience film – this one focuses on women’s suffrage and the outrages that some women suffered at the hands of law enforcement.

Milk:  About Harvey Milk and the early struggle for GLBTQ rights and recognition

Mississippi Burning:  This remains one of my MOST favorite films, mostly because of Gene Hackman’s REALLY complex character.  This scene alone is worth the film:

The Negotiator:  This is the story of a cop who takes hostages in order to reveal corruption in his department – a good guy doing a bad thing for a good reason.

Leon, the Professional:  A hit man who adopts his 12 year old neighbor after her family is killed by a corrupt cop (played terrifyingly by Gary Oldman).  He’s a good guy who does bad things, and we have to reconcile his work with his personality.

Schindler’s List:  You know this one, too, I’m sure.  I think that Schindler started out as a bad guy doing a good thing (though for selfish reasons) and evolved into a good guy.

Shawshank Redemption:  Andy as a wrongly convicted man who becomes a criminal in prison, but who never gives up his humanity.

Tsotsi:  I haven’t seen this one in a LONG time, so I’m not sure if I’m remembering it correctly, but I think it’s about a boy who steals a car and discovers that he’s also stolen a baby.  The film tells the story of what he does after he realizes he’s got a tough choice to make.

Unforgiven:  This is a Clint Eastwood western.  Eastwood is a retired gunslinger who gets called back into the life of crime for reasons that he thinks are honorable.  His character is a tough one to suss out, and the film really makes the viewer work for the payoff (plus, it stars Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman, which makes it that much better).

I was also thinking that I would have the kids read Bel Canto (which asks the “terrorist or freedom fighter” question) and, if they’re given permission from their parents, to look at a couple of episodes of Dexter (a serial killer in a Showtime series who only murders murderers who get away from the legal system).

I think there’s a lot of richness to be mined in this “good guy doing bad things / bad guy doing good things” question, I just need to think about it a bit more before it takes on any kind of substance that resembles a for-credit class.

What do you think?


Filed under colleagues, critical thinking, doing my own homework, Dream Course, film as literature, fun, GLBTQ issues, Holocaust, lesson planning, Literature, Mrs. Chili as Student, politics, Teaching, winging it, writing

Living History

I’m getting ready to start The Book Thief with my freshmen.  Today, a very dear friend of mine came to talk to my babies about his childhood in Nazi Germany.

Martin was born in 1935 to a family of well-to-do Germans.  His father was a chemical engineer and was well placed in the German industrial culture.  Dad’s job during the war was to see to the acquisition and absorption of foreign companies into the Nazi complex, and he was, by Martin’s assessment, very good at it.  He was also involved in the I. G. Farben operation at Auschwitz, though at the time, Martin was unaware of his father’s work there.

Martin grew up perfectly at ease with the kind of rabid antisemitism that the Nazis propagated.  He believed all of the lies that were told about “undesirable” people because everyone he knew, loved, and respected – his parents, his teachers, his clergy – never challenged those lies; in fact, they worked diligently to cement them in Martin’s mind.  It wasn’t until he moved to Canada in 1952 that Martin began to question the assumptions with which he’d grown up.  Once he started questioning, though, he never stopped.

The kindhearted, soft-spoken gentleman has made it his mission to go out into the world to talk about his experience of wrestling with the legacy that his father, his family, and his people have given him.  He speaks with a sometimes shocking mixture of quiet eloquence and bitter ferocity about the atrocities, the hatred, and the lingering effects of that period in our history continues to wreak.  Martin believes that talking about these things, especially to a generation who has never known the kind of pernicious malignancy that characterized his own childhood, is his duty; he could no sooner remain quiet than he could stop breathing.

I have a profound and complex affection and admiration for this man.  He represents for me an example of what a fully engaged, compassionate, and thinking human being should be.  Martin’s willingness to look the ugliness of his own past full in the face is something that takes a staggering amount of courage in private; that he does it in public – and often behind microphones and in front of audiences packed with survivors and the children and grandchildren of survivors – defies my ability to name it.

My usually boisterous and difficult to focus freshman class was held in absolute thrall for an hour and 15 minutes first thing this morning (those of you unfamiliar with freshman during first period should know that this is no small thing).  Martin has kindly agreed to come back on Wednesday so the kids have a chance to process some of the things that he said enough to formulate some questions; my goal is for them to have some idea of what it was like to be a young person in Nazi Germany before we begin reading Zuzak’s gorgeous novel about a family’s efforts to survive during that time.

I am quite certain that my students are only marginally aware of the incredible gift that Martin offers them, and that they are even less cognizant of the enormous fortitude and commitment that he demonstrates every time he stands up to tell his story.  I am aware, however, and I am moved beyond my ability to express every time he agrees to share his time, his compassion, and his friendship with me.


Filed under admiration, compassion and cooperation, history, Holocaust, I love my boss, I love my job, Mrs. Chili as Student, out in the real world, politics, success!, the good ones

Wish Me Luck, Please?

I just postmarked my application for the Teacher Fellowship Program at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

I’m not overly confident that I’ll be accepted – the competition is pretty fierce – but at least I got my application in.  I’m sending out all the good vibes I can with it; I really, really want to be chosen for this.

I’ll keep you all posted!


Filed under compassion and cooperation, Holocaust, Holocaust fellowship, Mrs. Chili as Student

The Average Russian Doesn’t Take a Dump, Son, Without a Plan…*

…and boy, oh BOY!, have I got a plan!

I’ve been given the official word that I WILL be taking the English III/IV class next semester (which starts on February 1st.  Yikes!).  To say that I’m delighted would be an understatement, though there is a fair bit of discomfort that’s attendant to this in that the teacher who was planning to teach it… well… isn’t.  I’m going to keep focused forward, though; the decision wasn’t mine to make, so I’ve nothing to feel guilty about.

Anyway, I’ve decided that I’m going to center my class around the observances that we make during the months we’ll be together as a class.  Since the school-wide theme this year is tolerance and social justice (I can SO work with that), it is terribly convenient to match up my reading list with the things that we pause to remember and consider as we make our way through the rest of the school year.  I’ve decided I’m anchoring the class with a single, thematically-appropriate novel for each month.  Let me know what you think:

February is Black History Month – I’ve totally got that knocked; we’ll probably be reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X (which I’m 99.9% sure none of my kids has read, though they may have seen the movie, but I doubt even that), but I’m still waiting to hear back from Carson about whether or not he thinks we should read Native Son together.   We’ll probably watch Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, or maybe Amistad… or maybe Mississippi Burning… and we’ll likely see scenes from Denzel Washington’s stunning portrayal of Brother Malcolm, whether we read X or not.  I’ve also got plenty of primary source documents to go over (like, you know, the Constitution and speeches from Reconstruction to President Obama.  I just bought a GORGEOUS tome full of Dr. King’s writing that I can’t wait to have a closer look at).  I’ve also got relevant poetry up to hereDone!

March is Women’s History Month, and I struggled a bit here.  I was thinking of having The Secret Life of Bees as the novel, interspersed with some short stories and poetry and, probably, some primary source documents, too, but I was not confident about my novel choice and I really needed some guidance on how best to represent women’s literature (and not just women writers, either, but works that show women as something other than a victim or a showpiece).  I’m about 90% convinced that I’m going to go with Khalid Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns (even though I’ve not read it yet, people whose opinions about such things I trust have told me to go for it).  The other 10% is resting on The Handmaid’s Tale; I’m still waiting to hear opinions on which I should put on my reading list before the syllabus is final.

April is Genocide Remembrance month (Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day – is usually celebrated in April; I’m making it a month-long theme).  I’ve decided that I’m going to read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee with my students.  I’ve never read it before, and *I* want to; plus, I like the idea of looking at the American genocide (I also really like the idea of approaching the material fresh with the students.  By the time we get to this unit, we should be a pretty cohesive community and they’ll trust me enough to let me lead them through something that’s new to ALL of us).  I’ve got MORE than enough resources for this unit from my work with the Holocaust center, so I’m all set here.

May is Mental Health Awareness month.  The novel will be The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and I’m probably going to look at The Yellow Wallpaper, too.  I’m also interested in dissecting Poe’s Raven, and maybe Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde… or Hamlet.  There are plenty of poems about insanity (or, at the very least, mental instability), but I’m looking for suggestions here, too; I THINK I have enough material for the month, but I’m open to more.

June is Gay Pride Month and, believe it or not, I had a really hard time coming up with the novel to anchor this unit.  I didn’t know of any YA / high school-appropriate novels with GLBTQ themes – I CAN’T teach Brokeback; even though my school is pretty liberal, I’m pretty sure I can’t squeak that by – so I turned to NPR and found a review of Gay Pride Month reading, where I found out about Bow Grip.  A copy is coming to me from Amazon as we speak.  I’ve got plenty of novels by GLBTQ AUTHORS, but none that come to mind that have the themes I want to talk about; I’m hoping that this novel hits my proverbial spot without poking too many parents in uncomfortable places.

I’m TERRIBLY excited for the new semester to begin.  I’m sure I’m going to be documenting this adventure pretty carefully; I’m betting it’s one that I’m going to want to come back to in years to come.

* In case you were wondering about the title of this post, it’s a quote from one of my favorite films, The Hunt for Red October, and is one that my husband and I trot out quite a bit.  It fits in a lot of places, and it fits here.


Filed under book geek, colleagues, concerns, critical thinking, Dream Course, film as literature, great writing, history, Holocaust, I love my job, lesson planning, Literature, parental units, reading, rhetoric, success!, Teaching

Research Paper

*Chili’s note; Grammar Wednesday is being postponed this week; I’ve got bigger work to do*

I had an uneven number of students in my morning class, and I didn’t expect that they’d be able to give me a whole lot of productive feedback anyway (yes, I’m being pessimistic, but I’m also a realist), so I didn’t get my paper workshopped.  My hope is that I’ll be able to participate in the big-kids’ workshop next period.

Regardless, I wanted to put this out for you, dear readers (well, for those of you brave enough to get to the end of it, anyway) to see if I can get some peer feedback on the thing.  Remember that this is a first draft; I’m entirely dissatisfied that I’ve properly addressed my major question.

I’ve included my own questions at the end; I welcome any and all suggestions you care to make.


Mrs. Chili
English I/II, III/IV
November 9, 2009
Research Paper

Shards of History: Kristallnacht, Memory, and Racial Unrest

When the sun rose over Germany and Austria on the morning of November 10, 1938, much of its light was filtered through the smoke of still-burning synagogues and Jewish homes across both countries.  What light shone past the haze sparkled over perhaps billions of broken shards of shattered windows and illuminated the faces of Jews both dead and stunned living alike.  Those who survived the night had endured an unprecedented, targeted, and deliberate riot perpetrated by the German government, the police forces, and ordinary German citizens against their Jewish neighbors.  Homes and businesses were looted and destroyed, synagogues were burned, and thousands of Jews suffered arrest, rape, and murder at the hands of their countrymen.  The riots came to be known as Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, and the memory of that night is still alive in the consciousness of survivors and scholars.  Kristallnacht stands as a warning against the violence and destruction that racial hatred can bring.

As soon as Adolf Hitler assumed the chancellorship of Germany in January of 1933, he began implementing programs meant to limit the freedoms and infringe on the citizenship of German Jews.  As early as April of that year, a boycott against Jewish-owned businesses was called for by the Nazi government, and the call was made on April 1st in a rally by Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister.  Though the boycott was largely unsuccessful – the German people were not yet ready to follow Hitler in his hatred of their Jewish neighbors – it was, nevertheless, a warning sign of things to come.

Antisemitism and the persecution of Jews represented a central tenet of Nazi ideology (USHMM).  The adoption of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935 announced the public intention of the German government to marginalize German Jews and to limit their participation in civic life.  Among the many restrictions imposed on Jews was the denial of positions in civil service, limits on the numbers of Jewish students allowed in universities, and restrictions on the practices of Jewish doctors and lawyers.  The ban on Jewish participation in German life even extended to the entertainment industry; Jews were no longer allowed to act on stage or in films (USHMM) and, eventually, were forbidden to attend plays and films as patrons, as well.

Life for Jews in Poland wasn’t much better.  Poland, too, had become increasingly hostile toward its Jewish population, and was unwilling to allow Polish Jews living outside of the country to return to Poland.  In order to return, foreign residents needed to obtain a special stamp on their passports.  When these people went to their consulates in Germany and were refused the vital stamp, the purpose of the Polish government became clear. Poland did not want them to return (Schleunes, 237).

Along with the restrictions Germany put on Jews came many mass, forced deportations of foreign Jews from Germany.  Soviets, Poles, and Austrians who were identified as Jews were forced to leave Germany and German occupied territories, regardless of whether these deportees had anywhere to go; in many cases, these people had lived in Germany for decades and, in some cases, generations, though sometimes without ever obtaining legal citizenship.

One such deportation was the mass expulsion of Polish Jews in 1938.  The group were rounded up and shipped to the border, where Polish officials denied them entry into the country, a move which forced the deported Jews to live in a refugee camp between the two countries.  Two of these refugees were the parents of Herschel Grynszpan, a 17 year-old illegal immigrant living in France.  Seeking to avenge the cruel treatment of his parents, Grynszpan sought the audience of a German official at the embassy in Paris on November 7, 1938; it is suspected that he asked to see the ambassador, Count von Welczek, but was received by the third secretary, instead.  Ernst vom Rath, a minor figure in the embassy, had the unhappy luck of answering Grynszpan’s request to meet with a German official and was shot  by the teenager.  He died of his wound two days later.

Vom Rath’s death was the pretext under which the Nazis launched a widespread riot in Germany and Austria against Jews.  An article in the New York Times reported that the shooting in Paris was linked to a “world conspiracy” and warned Jews of certain retaliation.  The official German response was that Grynszpan’s frustrated attempt to find justice for his parents was, in fact, “a new plot of the Jewish world conspiracy against National Socialist Germany, an attempt to torpedo Franco-German relations, and a plot against European peace.”  The article went on to quote Der Angriff, the German newspaper founded by the Nazi party in 1927, which called for “the nations of Europe to unite for ruthless war against the international Jewish menace and against Jewish murder and Jewish crime”(Tolischus).

The German government wasted no time in organizing retaliation for vom Rath’s shooting.  In orders transmitted at 11:55 p.m. on November 9th, 1938 to all Gestapo offices, Heinrich Muller, the chief of the Gestapo, ordered that “Actions against Jews, especially against their synagogues, will take place throughout the Reich shortly.”  Jewish homes, shops, and places of worship were targets of violence, though the Gestapo’s orders made clear that action was to be taken against these places “only if there is no… danger to the surrounding” German-owned properties and there was no risk of harm to other, non-Jewish citizens.  The orders went on to clarify that looting and “other significant excesses” were to be suppressed, though it clear from eyewitness testimony of people who lived through the pogrom that those orders were not conscientiously followed by officials.  Further, Heinrich warned that “Preparations are to be made for the arrest of about 20,000 to 30,000 Jews in the Reich. Above all well-to-do Jews are to be selected.”  As many Jews as could be accommodated were to be arrested, particularly the “healthy, male Jews, not too old” were targeted.

What is interesting here is that while the pogrom was not discouraged by the Nazi government, many elements within the Nazi leadership took pains to distance themselves from the more radical elements of the SA, sometimes called “Brown Shirts” or storm troopers, who were originally organized as Hitler’s private army and whose purpose was to disrupt opponents to Hitler and to influence the populations by intimidation and violence.  While Hitler’s sympathies were clearly with the SA’s proposed method of dealing with “the Jewish problem” (Schleunes, 236). he was forced to concede, after the Kristallnacht riots, that a more rational approach to Jewish marginalization was required.

The German government was not above letting the radicals do some of their dirty work, however.  At a rally on the night of November 9th, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, a chief instigator of the pogrom, intimated to the convened Nazi ‘Old Guard’ that ‘World Jewry’ had conspired to commit the assassination and announced that, “the Führer has decided that … demonstrations should not be prepared or organized by the Party, but insofar as they erupt spontaneously, they are not to be hampered” (USHMM).  The regional Party leaders took this as a command, however, and issued orders to their offices and to branches of the State Police, SA, and Hitler Youth.  Many of the perpetrators from these organizations dressed in civilian clothes, however, to perpetuate the myth that the riots were sparked spontaneously by ordinary citizens outraged by the assassination of vom Rath.

Ernest Günter Fontheim, a young Jewish boy at the time of the pogrom, remembers going to school on the morning of November 10th and being told of what happened the night before.  “In a tense voice Dr. Wollheim announced that school was being dismissed because our safety could not be guaranteed,” Fontheim says. “This was followed by a number of instructions which he urged us to follow in every detail” (Fontheim).  The students were told to go straight home and to not walk in large groups so as to avoid the attention of others.  Fontheim and his class was told that school would be closed for the foreseeable future.

On his way home, Fontheim walked past the synagogue where he was made Bar Mitzvah.  He watched a “thick column of smoke rising out of the center cupola. There was no wind, and the column seemed to stand motionless reaching into the heavens” (Fontheim).  He also witnessed a mob dragging a Jewish man from his apartment and beaten bloody.

Joanna Gerechter Neumann was also an eyewitness to the morning after:

“What I saw was hordes of people standing in front of a beautiful synagogue, and         throwing stones through these magnificent colored windows. And as we arrived, of     course we ran past place itself, the noise, the shouting, the screaming. I suppose         there was an, an aura of, of eeriness about it, because we still didn’t know what was     happening, but I suppose just the mere fact that so many people were there and         were screaming and shouting and, and throwing stones into the stained glass         windows was enough to make us run.”

The final tally of destruction is not clearly known.  The number of synagogues destroyed varies depending on the sources consulted, ranging from about 270 to more than 1,000-2,000 (Bard).  At least 96 people were murdered, nearly 30,000 were arrested and sent to concentration camps, and upwards of 7,500 Jewish homes and businesses were destroyed.

Adding insult to grave injury was the fact that, three days after the riots, Herman Goring, Hitler’s acknowledged second in command, held a meeting with the top Nazi leadership to assess the damage done during the night and place responsibility for it (JVR).  In this meeting, he issued an edict stating that Jews themselves were to be made responsible for the damages inflicted against them.  Realizing that the cost of insurance claims for damages to Jewish property would certainly cripple insurance companies, Goring mandated that Jews “be held legally and financially responsible for the damages incurred by the pogrom. Accordingly, a “fine of 1 billion marks was levied for the slaying of Vom Rath, and 6 million marks paid by insurance companies for broken windows was to be given to the state coffers. (Snyder, 201).

The Reich saw the pogrom as a perfect opportunity to truly begin addressing the “Jewish question.”  Goring was concerned, however, about the loss of property due to violence against Jews; he wanted for the Jews to suffer, certainly, but he wasn’t willing to have property and materials that he deemed valuable to the Reich destroyed in the process.  In the meeting, Goring warned his subordinates that any property that could be seized for the benefit of the German cause should be, and that actions should not be taken that would “hurt” the Nazi party.

Further,  Goring made perfectly clear the intention of the Nazi leadership toward Jews going forward.  “I should not want to leave any doubt, gentlemen, as to the aim of today’s meeting,” Goring is quoted as saying.  “We have not come together merely to talk again, but to make decisions, and I implore competent agencies to take all measures for the elimination of the Jew from the German economy, and to submit them to me” (JVL).

International reaction to the Kristallnacht pogrom was mixed.  The German Ambassador to the U.S. , Hans-Heinrich Dieckhoff, reported that the attitude of the U.S. toward Germany took a decided turn from neutral to somewhat positive to decidedly hostile after the Kristallnacht pogrom.  In a report sent to the Nazi government on the 14th of November, five days after Kristallnacht, Dieckhoff wrote:

I believe the storm now raging over the United States will calm down in the
near future. As for now, a hurricane is raging here and no regular work can be
done. It is well known that a large part of the American press has been
attacking Germany in the most hateful and vicious way, and that this
incitement has become widespread. Until 10 November, large and strong
parts of the American people were still indifferent to the propaganda
campaign, partly because of indifference in what regards European matters,
partly because of skepticism concerning the newspapers, partly out of
sympathy for the Third Reich… Today this is no longer the case… There are still wide circles that are indifferent, and many individuals who are maintaining their calm, but as far as public opinion is being expressed, it is without exception enraged and bitter against Germany (Yad Vashem).

My research question is “How does (does?) understanding Kristallnacht help us to understand other incidences of racial intolerance and violence (i.e. the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Rwandan genocide, etc)?”

My concerns for this paper are:
• that I’ve not included enough background information about the political, social, and economic conditions imposed upon the Jewish population of Germany leading up to Kristallnacht
• that I’ve not made clear enough the internal power struggles between Hitler and his radical SA and Goebbels and Goring’s more systematic approach to the “Jewish question,” and how that affected both official policy and conditions on the ground.
• that I am unsure of how to make the leap from 1938 to the present time (though I think I’m going to tie it in to Kristallnacht commemorations that will happen on Monday night).
• that I have to have a far broader understanding of psychology in order to make the connection between my research and its application to my guiding question.

Aaaaand, GO!


Filed under about writing, analysis, colleagues, composition, concerns, critical thinking, Holocaust, Holocaust fellowship, I love my job, Learning, self-analysis, Teaching, writing

I Take It Back…


Remember how my kids pissed me off yesterday?  Well, they kinda made up for it today.

I started reading The Book Thief with my first period class last night.  These are my freshmen and sophomores, and I’ve got a pretty wide range of abilities in the class, so I was excited to choose this novel to work first.

I knew my lower-level kids could handle it.  Zusak’s writing is easy, easy; while there are one or two “vocabulary words” in the text, the novel is entirely engaging and accessible.  The characters are beautifully described and the story lines are pretty easy to follow.

For my higher-level students, though, there is much to be mined beneath the surface of Zusak’s deceptively simple text.  The narrator of the story plays with time and the senses.  There’s a very strong undercurrent to the story that is almost impossible to ignore, but is only ever hinted at in the actual story.

We were talking this morning about the tone of the story thus far (they’d only read to page 55).  “What’s the deal,” I asked, “with this narrator?  What’s he about?”  The kids determined that he’s very observant, exceedingly careful about how he’s perceived by others, and is more than a little sarcastic.

“YES!” I said, “He IS!”  Then I asked the question they all KNEW was coming, but were dreading, I think, nonetheless.


There was a bit of silence in the room, but that doesn’t scare me; I don’t fall for the “if we sit in awkward silence long enough, she’ll tell us the answer she’s looking for” trick.  I can sit in awkward silence for FAR longer than they can.

Then, one of the kids nailed it.

“Hey, wait!” he said (I LOVE it when kids start sentences like that – you can practically SEE the lightbulb going on over their little heads).  “The guys in The Things They Carried were the same way, joking after Lavendar died.  I think the narrator is sarcastic and snarky because he’s just as uncomfortable with death as humans are, even though it’s, you know, his job.”

THIS is what I’m talking about.  It’s those connections the kids make that send me right over the giddy edge and keep me getting out of bed in the morning.

On another, related note, I had mentioned that a kid made a glorious connection a week or so ago, and Falcon asked me in a comment what it was, but I never followed up (sorry, Falcon!).  Here’s what happened:

We had just finished watching The Last Samurai (in both of my classes, but this story involves my III/IV class) and were discussing the “big idea” themes of the story; honor, self-discovery, patriotism and service, that kind of thing.

One of my students – a sweet, bubbly, kind-hearted girl – is just about as enthusiastic about The Sons of Anarchy as I am.  In fact, I practically have to come to class on Wednesday mornings with my fingers in my ears singing “la, la, la” so that she won’t spill Tuesday night’s episode to me, and it makes her jitter to have to wait for me to watch it on TiVo so we can talk about it.

So we’re talking about “honor” and what it means, when this delightful child’s face lights up.  “OH!  Mrs. CHILI!” she says.  “What about JAX?”

“What ABOUT Jax, Kiki?”  (I’m already grinning.)

“WELL,” she starts, “remember the episode where they’re going to avenge Donna’s death by killing a Mayan, even though Jax KNOWS that the Mayans didn’t kill Donna (at this point most of the class is completely lost, but are entirely entertained watching me geek out at where I KNOW Kiki is going with this)?  So Jax goes to Clay and says he’s got no problem with the hit… as long as the guy has it coming anyway.”

While the connection is a bit tenuous – most rational people would have a very big problem with the hit, and for a number of different reasons – Kiki WAS circling around the idea of honor and how, depending on one’s circumstances and upbringing and culture (like the Samurai notion of suicide as an acceptable, often desirable answer to shame or failure), honor can mean very different things, and she was using examples available to HER to make those connections.

THAT’S what I’m in this for.  I want my kids to see those connections.  I want them to think critically about their world.  I want them to be observant and careful and thoughtful, and my boy this morning – and Kiki last week – offered me beautiful proof that I’m doing something right.

I love, Love, LOVE my job!


Filed under critical thinking, film as literature, fun, great writing, Holocaust, I love my job, out in the real world, popular culture, success!, Teaching, the good ones

The Way We Think About the Struggles of Others

I’m hoping that you’ll all be open to engaging me on a question that I’ve been pondering for a while now.  I’m pretty sure you are all aware of this by now, but I am an GLBTQ ally and have been for years.  I’m also a fellow at a center for Holocaust studies and am actively involved in outreach and education about the Shoah.  These two activities have given me the opportunity to contemplate issues of equality, personhood, and compassion, and I find that the question of how people understand the struggles of others continues to come up as a primary element of the work that I do.

My husband returned home from an extended business trip last month.  When he’s away on business, he tends to read a lot of USA Today.  This trip was no exception.

One of the first things we talked about over his welcome-home dinner was the question of the intersection of gay rights and civil rights. Mr. Chili got all worked up about these pieces in an issue of USA Today and made sure that he set them aside for me to see.

This is the first article, an opinion piece from November:

Black leaders called on to confront homophobia

Gary E. Kaminski – Buena Vista, Pa.

My great joy at the election results has been severely tempered by California voters’ passage of Proposition 8, which effectively denies gays the right to marry (“Where’s the outrage?” The Forum, Wednesday).

(Rights fight. In Los Angeles this month, 10,000 same-sex marriage supporters march to overturn the state’s anti-gay marriage law Proposition 8.David McNew / Getty Images)

What makes this so tragic? Although many whites opposed the measure, blacks supported the denial of an existing right. It’s appalling that a group so familiar with discrimination could vote to strip rights from another minority.

I urge leaders of the black community to face head-on the blight of homophobia that, as we see in California, has real-world consequences. I urge our new President-elect, Barack Obama, who is uniquely qualified to confront issues of bigotry, to do so strongly and emphatically.

This was a response to that piece, and the article that got Mr. Chili (and me) all worked up:

Race, gay rights don’t mix

Paul Scott – Durham, N.C.

James Kirchick questioned the lack of support among African Americans for gay-rights issues. As an African American, I am tired of folks who seem to think that black civil rights issues should be mixed with the issues of others. To compare gay rights with the transatlantic slave trade is an insult to the millions of my ancestors whose bones rest at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

It must also be noted that since the civil rights era, our movement has been hijacked by every other group that has a beef with America — from gay-rights to animal-rights groups — so much so that many issues that pertain specifically to black people get lost in the shuffle. The freedom of African Americans has been paid for with our own blood, sweat and tears. We do not need gay-rights activists or any others to co-sign.

Okay, so here’s the thing; I’m coming to you with my thinking about this because I feel under-qualified, as a white woman who was raised and continues to reside in a predominantly white environment, to speak with authority about the intersection of race and GLBTQ rights.  Does Mr. Scott, in your opinion, have legitimacy in claiming that “our movement,” as he calls it, has been co-opted by others seeking equality and justice?  Does his argument have firm foundation in the legacy of slavery, or is it less a question of the (relatively) distant past and more about the efforts of recent leaders (and, not for nothing, ordinary people of literally every race, creed, color, gender, sexual orientation, and faith) who stood up and spoke out?  I would hasten to remind Mr. Scott that Dr. King’s widow spoke often of the very solid connection between the work her husband did and the work that GLBTQ activists are doing now; her premise was that the oppression of ANY group dehumanizes and degrades us all.  That, of course, is the message that all civil rights leaders, past and present, highlight in their work and is, I think, the foundational idea of any struggle for equality.  Race has nothing to do with that; it’s about humanity.

I understand, as a Holocaust scholar, that a lot of people who have been brutalized and dehumanized and denied their basic rights by a larger and more powerful group feel an ownership to that crime.  It is true that a great many Jews will still deny the importance of the other minorities who were victimized in the Shoah – that countless Gypsies, handicapped people, political activist, gays, lesbians, and trans people and who knows who else were slaughtered with the same vileness of spirit that the Jews were is secondary to THEIR suffering.  I understand that they feel that to acknowledge the suffering of others somehow diminishes their own.  I do not understand WHY they feel this way, however; I just know that they do.  My thinking about this as it relates to the question of gay rights and race is centered around this idea; do you think Mr. Scott is operating from a presumption that “his” movement needs to be kept separate and inviolable from others; that to open the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement to encompass the struggles of others for recognition of equal personhood somehow diminishes the work that was done in the 50s and 60s?  Does equating gay rights to civil rights – or, more specifically, to the capital-letter Civil Rights Movement – somehow erode or threaten the progress that’s been made on the issues of race?

I would appreciate anything you can offer me in the way of furthering my thinking about this.  I recognize that there’s a big piece of this puzzle that I, by virtue of the nature of my environment and upbringing, can’t come to on my own.


Filed under colleagues, compassion and cooperation, critical thinking, ethics, Gay/Straight Alliance, GLBTQ issues, Holocaust, Holocaust fellowship, Learning, out in the real world, politics, Questions, self-analysis