I used to be a fourth grade teacher at a local Jewish day school in Houston. I loved every minute of teaching those kids, and thoroughly enjoyed watching them acquire the skills to succeed.
But as I’ve told repeatedly to anyone who asked, the most challenging aspect of my job, even tougher than dealing with the parents (don’t worry, I can say that now that I am one), was teaching the topic of the Holocaust.
I struggled tremendously with how to accurately depict the atrocities that took place. I sought balance between exposing these nine and ten-year-olds to something they weren’t emotionally capable of comprehending, or, conversely, watering it down too much to the point where they missed the gravity of the subject. While many educators may choose to skirt around the topic, or just skim the surface, I felt strongly that since they were Jewish children, it was important that they knew their history.
Today, a non-Jew named Ray Allen made me realize I was completely wrong in my approach.
Allen, a former NBA player, wrote an article this week titled, “Why I Went to Auschwitz.” It moved me to my core. Not because of the subject matter, not even because of the reminder of those lost in the Holocaust, and not because of the current political climate we are living in (I’ll bite my tongue before I say more), but because of his intention. He wrote:
“When I returned home to America, I got some very disheartening messages directed toward me on social media regarding my trip. Some people didn’t like the fact that I was going to Poland to raise awareness for the issues that happened there and not using that time or energy to support people in the black community.
I was told my ancestors would be ashamed of me. I know there are trolls online and I shouldn’t even pay attention, but that one sort of got to me. Because I understood where they were coming from. I understand that there are plenty of issues in our own country right now, but they were looking at my trip the wrong way. I didn’t go to Poland as black person, a white person, a Christian person or a Jewish person—I went as a human being.
This is why Allen’s words spoke to me. You see, in all my years of teaching, I stressed to my students the importance of learning about the Holocaust because it was their history.
Turns out, I was wrong. Utterly and completely wrong.
Sure, they needed to know the history, and I am not discounting that. The difference is that they needed to know it not because they were Jews, but because they were citizens of the world. Because they were budding readers, potential role models, future voters, and maybe even future parents.
They needed to know this horrifying history because they were human beings.
There is a part of me now that wants to go back and shake every one of those kiddos (they aren’t necessarily kids anymore) and take them back to the classroom so I can revamp my lesson. I need to tell them that their history is the world’s history, and the world’s history is their history, despite their color, race, religion, gender, and so forth.
I need to tell them that they have a responsibility to make sure it never happens again—not just to us, but to any people. Never again is the phrase we commonly use, and that mentality doesn’t have to change. What needs to change is the thought process behind it. Never again means not just for the Jews, but for everyone.
Ray Allen isn’t an educator, though he taught me an immensely valuable lesson. Ray Allen isn’t a historian, though today I viewed history through his eyes. Ray Allen isn’t a Jew, though he values the history of the Jewish people, because they are people.
So for that, I want to say “thank you” Ray Allen. You showed me this week that how we define ourselves or how we’re defined by society shouldn’t limit the lens through which we see the world.