Posted by blk1 on 25th July 2008
A Circle of Tears
I was and will always be an 8th grade English teacher in my heart of hearts. Even though I’ve taught grades 7-12 and an array of electives for 30 years, I hope I’m remembered for my work with 14- year- olds. I loved the way that they bounced, like magical jumping beans, into my room each day and kept on bouncing with an honest spirit, spontaneous, authentic.
I was bouncing with them, into their writing, reading, and sharing as a community of learners and as we got closer to the spring and the annual Holocaust unit, I wanted their bouncing to take on an even deeper dimension.
The year that Schindler’s List came out I was on line on a cold Christmas day to see it and much to my frustration and pleasant surprise, I didn’t get in on my first try. But I was persistent and did get a seat in another sold-out show the next afternoon. I sat for 3 1/2 hours watching a movie in black and white and crying often. Steven Spielberg moved up dramatically on my list of heroes.
When we returned to school after winter break, I shared my movie experience with my 8th graders and a number of them, deeply moved, came to me after class wondering and hoping that I would take them to see it. I hesitated. It was hard enough to sit through it the first time. As a Jew, I grew up with Holocaust family stories of loss and as I sat in that audience, listening to a chorus of whimpers and walked in the shoes of the dead.
But as a teacher, how could I say no to the very students that I loved. I opened an informal invitation to their whole class and 12 kids met me for a Saturday matinee at the theater. As we sat waiting, Michael asked if it would be correct to get some popcorn. I didn’t feel much like eating, but left it up to him. No one moved. No one moved for the next three and 1/2 hours, not even to go to the bathroom.
I watched them; they watched me. We cried together and as the movie ended and we moved next door for coffee; no one eat anything, but we all needed this period of transition before parents arrived for pickup.
When we were back in class on Monday, my movie band began to share our experience with their peers and soon they were all urging me to begin the Holocaust unit earlier than I had originally planned for it. I was relieved that no one else asked me for another field trip to see Schindler’s List, but I’m sure that many in the group found their way to it without me. My Schindler band filled our conversations with lots of empathetic connections and I promised them that I would show the film to future 8th graders when it was out on video.
The following year, I had my own copy and even though it would probably fill a week of class time I didn’t hesitate to build it into my unit plan and reserve the VCR from the library for an entire week. We had had no English department head for years and each of us did our own thing, especially with honors sections and who really cared about the 8th grade in an 8-12 building.
It was a challenge for me to watch it twice a day, but the responses from the kids were filled with the honesty I loved about them. We ended the week, the unit, and moved to spring and to the final work of 8th grade.
Just before Memorial Day weekend. my principal stopped by to see me. He looked concerned. “Did you show Schindler’s List to your 8th graders recently?”
“Yes, about a month ago as part of our Holocaust unit. The kids were moved.”
“Did you have parents sign consent forms?”
“No,” I still didn’t know where this was going.
“Mrs. Roberts called about it. Did you know that the movie has an R rating?”
“I would figure that.” Duh! I kept to myself.
“Bob come on, it’s the Holocaust, and Schindler’s List was Best Picture of the Year, Steven Spielberg Best Director, etc, etc.”
“I know, but why didn’t you let me know you were going to show it? I don’t like surprises. (pause) You can’t show it again!”
“What?” Never? Bob, we both know this is not about an R rating.” I was furious. I wanted to say more, but I knew better. I would wait. I’m patient, sometimes. Bob had nothing more to say.
It became our running joke. Every year I would ask, every year Bob would say no, reminding me that I should have gone through the proper channels.
Finally, when it was out on TV, I did get the green light, and I did send out a parental consent form and Bob was prepared to support me when some parents objected. He created a community committee for controversial materials. I knew the committee members and they knew the parents who were fighting against it. I spoke with passion and educational support and it was trying, but at least Bob had stopped blocking me at the door and was now pulling the strings he should have been pulling years before.
Now I was showing the film to three classes each day for the full week and my eyes were redder than ever. I watched my groups watching me. They knew about the battle I had to fight to experience this film together and as the week ended, that last conversation with each group in a Socratic Seminar circle stiffened my resolve to love 8th graders forever.
As I walked to the library with the VCR, Bob met me at the door.
“I think you’d better let me return that for you. Some of your students are in the nurse’s office. You need to see what’s going on.”
I ran to Pat’s office. The receptionist ushered me in.
Six of my kids, boys and girls, were standing together in a circle, hysterical. Pat with her wide, flabby grandma arms had them all wrapped in an enormous hug. As I joined the circle, we cried together, passing around a box of tissues.
Pat smiled and gently whispered, “ These tears are good. We are crying tears of humanity.”