What can one person possibly do in this large world? How can one person, or one small group accomplish anything significant to help bring people together in understanding and peace? Listen to this true and moving story….
In 1998 deputy principal and football coach David Smith, at Whitwell Middle School (Whitwell, Tennessee) attended a teacher training course in nearby Chattanooga. He came back and proposed that an after-school course on the Holocaust be offered at the school. This — in a school with hardly any ethnic and no Jewish students.
English and social sciences teacher Sandra Roberts was selected to teach, and in October, 1998 she held the first session. She began by reading aloud from Anne Frank’s DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL and Elie Wiesel’s NIGHT. She read aloud because most of the students could not afford to buy books.
What gripped the eighth graders most as the course progressed, was the sheer number of Jews put to death by the Third Reich. Six million. They could hardly fathom such an immense figure.
One day, Roberts was explaining to the class that some compassionate people in 1940s Europe stood up for the Jews. After the Nazis invaded Norway, many courageous Norwegians expressed solidarity with their Jewish fellow citizens by pinning ordinary paper clips to their lapels, as Jews were forced to wear a Star of David on theirs.
Then someone had the idea to collect six million paper clips to represent the six million Holocaust victims. The idea caught on, and the students began bringing in paper clips, from home, from aunts and uncles and friends. They set up a Web page. A few weeks later, the first letter arrived — then others. Many contained paper clips. By the end of the school year, the group had assembled 100,000 clips. But it occurred to the teachers that collecting six million paper clips at that rate would take a lifetime.
The group’s activities have long spilled over from Roberts’ classroom. It’s now called the Holocaust Project. Across the hall, students have created a concentration camp simulation with paper cutouts of themselves pasted on the wall. Chicken wire stretches across the wall to represent electrified fences. Wire mesh is hung with shoes to represent the millions of shoes the victims left behind when they were marched to death chambers. And every year now they reenact the “walk” to give students at least an inkling of what people must have felt when Nazi guards marched them off to camps.
Meanwhile, the paper clip counting continues. Students gather for their Wednesday meeting, each wearing the group’s polo shirt emblazoned: “Changing the World, One Clip at a Time.” All sorts of clips arrive — silver and bronze colored clips, colorful plastic-coated clips, small clips, large clips, round clips, triangular clips and even clips fashioned from wood. The students file all the letters they receive in ring binders.
Their plan is to obtain an authentic German railroad car from the 1940s, one that may have actually transported victims to camps. The car will be turned into a museum that will house all the paper clips, as well as display the many letters received from around the world.
When the project is finally completed, for generations of Whitwell eighth graders, a paper clip will never again be just a paper clip. Instead, it will carry a message of perseverance, empathy, tolerance and understanding. One student put it like this: “Now, when I see someone, I think before I speak, I think before I act and I think before I judge.”
Can one person, or one small group, truly do anything to help bring humanity together in understanding and peace? Just ask the students at Whitwell and all of those around the world who are helping them to collect paper clips!
POSTSCRIPT: You may go to http://www.Marionschools.org for more information on the Holocaust Project, and check out the latest paper clip count. Would you like to help the students? Paper clips are gratefully accepted by: Whitwell Middle School, Holocaust Project, 1130 Main St., Whitwell, TN 37397. Almost four million paper clips have been collected. Let’s help bring them over the top!
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