Ever since I can remember I have identified as a human being who was raised as a Jewish American. The first time I can recall feeling ostracized was in late second grade at my class lunch table: “Ew, what’s that???? Why are you eating crackers and meat for lunch, weirdo. Is that like a JEWISH thing?” I had never felt so uncomfortable in my life. I didn’t know how to respond, I felt ashamed, I felt confused, I just sat there and stared. I listened to the snickers and laughter around me. I wrapped up my food, threw it away, and went to the bathroom. Later in that same year my teacher announced that I could make a puzzle wreath and paint it blue for the Jewish Christmas. This was in response to when I had just told her, “I don’t celebrate Christmas, is there something else I could make for my parents?”
In high school my sister received a permanent marker swastika drawn on her locker. She felt paralyzed and didn’t know what to do. However, Debbie was blessed with the gift of a remarkable friend and it was her friend who informed teachers, and took it upon herself to back that fellow peer up to a locker and confront his foul decision herself. She is still a heroine in our family’s life today. The student who attacked my sister’s locker was given a specific amount of hours of course work, videos, and lesson work all completed at school on the Holocaust. He was provided with the opportunity to learn about the hatred he had been taught, and reflect upon it.
Later in high school during, “American Studies,” history class work in 2000 I questioned my teacher about why our text book had no reference to the Holocaust. She promptly replied we could discuss that more later. When we moved past 1945 in our course work I asked her again, this time after class and she replied, “If you want to learn more about WWII or the Holocaust than you’re welcome to take the next history course after this required course, but we don’t cover that in depth. We discussed the dates, the events that transpired in American history, but we don’t go in depth about what happened to the Jews.” I told her that I felt, personally, that it was shocking and greatly concerning that a part of world history was not being covered in a history class.
One of the most memorable teachable experiences I have had with a student was the following:
I used to pass out math designs as enrichment work after an assignment was completed. There were multiple options for students to work through, throughout the course of a math unit. I handed a child a decimal worksheet that was next in the unit and I moved along checking in with other students. The next morning, one of the tasks for morning work I had assigned was to pull out their math design and get started. This particular child refused, the table team members at this child’s desk started talking about the reason why, the child’s neighbor responded with, “Just pull it out and work on it, it’s not a big deal.” I respectfully asked them to focus on their task at hand. I knelt down next to the child and asked if they wanted to talk about it later. I received a nod.
One on one in discussion the child revealed the following, “My mom said that I’m never, EVER, allowed to like that symbol, it’s a bad symbol, that’s what is on the worksheet Mrs. B. That’s why I don’t want to do my work.” I said, “What symbol?” “The star, the Jews, or the Jewish people star, or whatever it’s called is bad!” I looked at the child and took a slow breath. “What do you mean it’s bad?” I inquired. “Well, in my religion, we don’t believe that the Jews should like, I don’t know how to explain it, I just know that I can see that symbol in that worksheet and I feel uncomfortable.” To which I replied with, “Ok, I hear what you’re saying, let’s have you put that worksheet aside for now and we’ll have you think about it. As for Jews being bad, can we talk about that?” “Yeah!” the child replied. She continued, “Well like my people, or my mom told me that they are not nice, they don’t like our religion, we don’t get along, and that it’s a bad group or something, I don’t really know how to explain it.”
Now, I have to pause here, in my head, as Jewish person, I was extremely torn. I really wanted to respond with, “Did you know that you’re teacher is Jewish. Am I a bad person because I’m Jewish?” However, I stopped and I reflected that I did not want this to become a personal battle, I wanted instead for this to be an opportunity for learning and growth in perspective for this child.
Over the next few weeks, into months, the discussion continued. When the opportunity arose to tie in WWII, the Holocaust, and the President Roosevelt leveled reader book together into a literacy study, the opportunity for more teaching evolved. This child became intrigued by the idea that Jewish people had been persecuted. This child and their friend requested literature about WWII and children during the Holocaust. I provided more children’s literature to which they chose to read during independent time.
Later the following transpired, “Mrs. B. I had no idea that the Jewish people had been killed during WWII. I ….did you know that there were 6 million people that were Jewish who were murdered??? Why would that happen?” Staring at me with wide eyes and astonishment, the child continued. “It’s like in my religion, being a Muslim, I get really upset when people say that all Muslim’s are bad, because, I’m not a bad person! I love Islam. My family are good people.” I nodded my head and replied, “So then, I guess there was a lesson to be learned, we can’t always judge someone based upon what religion they believe in or practice?” To which the child quietly looked down at the book and whispered, “Yeah,” followed by, “Did you see the books we got at the library?” This child and friend proceeded to pull out multiple books on WWII, the Holocaust and Anne Frank.
The purpose for me sharing these encounters is this:
Through education, through discussion, through reading, through dialogue, bridges can be built in our understanding of one another. Human beings can connect and unlearn the hatred they have been taught.
Hatred is taught.
Hatred is learned.
Hatred is not an innate ability.
Love is an intrinsic response.
Love is a natural desire.