Can we keep that promise?
My classes finished off our unit on Night and head into our unit on The Kite Runner this week by watching The Book Thief. I’ve heard wonderful things about the book (still need to read it, but hey, there are so many books to be read). The movie doesn’t disappoint. It’s moving. It captures, through Liesel, a perspective on the Holocaust and World War II that provides necessary contrast to what I’ve had my students read.
There is one scene that I loved watching today, in particular.
A group of SS soldiers are seen leading Jewish prisoners through the streets of Liesel’s city. Having just recently hidden a Jewish runaway in her home, Liesel believes she catches a glimpse of the man her family had been helping to hide. Mistaken, Liesel walks the opposite direction through the crowd of Jewish prisoners and shouts for him, “Max! Max! Max!”
Max is not there, but the camera takes its time in panning to those that are there. We see glimpses of downturned faces. We see the fear and hunger that will be magnified, as we know, by the atrocities to come. As she walks quietly forward, Liesel begins to say something, a phrase that had my heart ticking a little faster:
“I won’t forget you. I won’t forget you. I won’t forget you.”
That was one of the major focuses of our unit. As Elie Wiesel said, “For the living and the dead, we must bear witness.” I wanted my students to understand the role of history and the burden and blessing we have of remembering what has happened, but in this one scene I think that Liesel captures something that is utterly important to the human race. It drives us and often defines us.
We don’t want to be forgotten.
That truth hammered home. So what do I say? What promises do I make? Can I walk bravely, like Liesel, through the crowd of my students and say, “I won’t forget you, I won’t forget you, I won’t forget you.”? I know that comparing my students to the Jewish captives is a stretch… but I do teach the forgotten. I teach students that have been forgotten by their parents. Forgotten by their friends. Forgotten by their society. Forgotten by their culture. I teach students that are told, as Anis Mojgani once put it, to “speak only when they’re spoken to, and then they’re never spoken to.”
It’s funny. I taught a class at Riverside High School that was just nuts. I mean, seriously. I dealt with potential fights every day. I had students reading at a second grade level. I always thought, as I taught that class, that I would always remember these students. I mean… how could I possibly, ever forget them? But as the years progress (and I’m really not that far in yet), and as the class sizes get bigger, and we get deeper into each semester… I find myself forgetting names. I can see the faces clear as day… I mean that, right now my brain conjures up the most stubborn faces they made… But their names… are lost to me. That is a fact that I find just a little bit haunting.
Even today, I try to picture where they are, and in doing so I’m not even sure what to pray for. Do I pray that I can remember them? Do I promise them that I won’t forget, if I can’t keep that promise? As I walk into my classroom tomorrow, am I just getting through another day to get to another weekend? Or am I taking part in a solemn agreement that, every single day of this semester… there is someone that won’t forget them.
Is it enough to promise them that? If I do nothing else, is there something good and right about being the person that acknowledges their existence? So here’s my first step at trying:
I remember DeSean. In a really struggling class, he worked tirelessly. He was a wrestler, too. There were days that he couldn’t really stay awake because he hadn’t eaten that day. Trying to make weight. It’s hard. He always asked me how my day was. Sometimes we forget that the little things mean so much. He always wore a grey hoodie. He had bad days. Either days that he didn’t want to work, or days that he’d start snapping at people. But he smiled a lot. A smile says a lot about a person. His always reminded me that we could do better next time. I won’t forget you, DeSean.