In the aftermath of the Sandy Hooks shooting, I find myself concentrating on one of those unexpectedly connective moments that only happen to teachers–a moment where you find yourself grafted to a whole new world through a student–a moment when the student finds you inside a personal space only inhabited by family. This moment was when I found myself only 3 degrees from Oskar Schindler, a failed entrepreneur who managed to be a successful, yet not self-proclaimed, savior of hundreds of Jewish men, women, and children during WWII.
I had been immersed in the last weeks of student teaching at a well-known Georgia public high school, only then becoming relaxed after suddenly taking over my mentor’s 5 classes due to her mother’s unexpected passing only 2 weeks into my visit. I was teaching several eleventh-grade, Honors British Literature classes, which in no way prepared me for teaching in the real world, but which were mostly filled with bright, articulate, smart-asses: my favorite! I loved those students in a naive and collegiate way. They were protective of me, understood my stress, and respected my young exuberance. I took time learning not only every name, but every personality. One student, a student in the overfilled fourth period with several needy and overly talkative students, was a quiet, intelligent, and sociable enigma. He downplayed his witty comments and disliked too much attention, so I would make a point of praising him before or after class, which he seemed to understand and appreciate.
One afternoon another teacher in the English department come into our classroom. She was normally professionally composed and very articulate, but her demeanor this day was that of a wide-eyed Twilight fan who just heard Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson were engaged. She did not come to the front of the class, but stood in the doorway with my mentor teacher and immediately started addressing this enigmatic student, much to his chagrin.
“________, I had no idea your grandmother was a Schindler Jew!”
Apparently this boy’s grandmother had given a survivor speech at a local fundraising event for a visiting African refugee and genocide survivor the previous night. I had seen the email regarding this fundraiser and several teachers’ plans to carpool or attend. Apparently, his grandmother’s story had been deeply affecting on the audience, including several teachers from his school. Apparently this made the boy a celebrity. Apparently, since his grandmother told her story publicly, this boy would want to discuss his relation publicly. Apparently this was not apparent to the student.
“Why don’t you share your grandmother’s story with the class?!?!”
I saw this boy shrug his shoulders in the same manner he would as I praised an intelligent point on his quiz to “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
“It’s my grandmother’s story. She was one of the children that Schindler documented as workers to save from the concentration camps. I don’t know enough about it.”
The teachers wide-eyes closed a little, only a little. They decided to explain the story themselves, as teachers, after all. They told the class snippets from the grandmother’s story and reminded the students of the film Schindler’s List:
“Remember when he rescues the children with the little fingers?”
I must admit I was excited. What a great story! What a remarkable heritage! But I saw the boy seemed neutral and slightly annoyed with the attention, so I segued into my own surprise train-of-thought in order to get back to the train-of-thought narrative in Mrs. Dalloway.
After class I asked this student about the eruption of his family into our classroom, not the Schindler connection.
“I just don’t think I should be the one talking about it. It’s my grandmother’s story.”
We discussed his embarrassment that stemmed from the assumption that he would be as engaging as his grandmother, I think. He thanked me for deflecting the attention in the situation, and I think I mentioned something about how he may find the situation more of a story of heritage than just his grandmother’s story later–silly for me to assume. But I remember thinking about certain lines in the film Schindler’s List later that night. These lines concern the list of Jews that Schindler will employ, and thus save from concentration camps and likely death:
“The list is an absolute good. The list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf.”
These lines reminded me of how close I came to never meeting this student, of how close he came to being in a gulf.
How many students have the same story in their family, but no specially known figure like Oskar Schindler to tie to the survivor’s narrative? How many students’ sit and listen to me lecture on film, or make jokes about cowboys in literature and laugh, who would lie in such a gulf if not for a similar gesture that is long forgotten?
After this incident this student became slightly more outgoing and less apologetic for his comments. He began slowly and slightly to allow his class persona to be unique. It was an unspoken choice, like most teenage choices, but I noticed, and this student knew I noticed. I don’t think anything I said made a difference, nor do I believe it’s due to me. But I do think something personal–his reluctance to tell what he considered his grandmother’s story–shifted our relationship from merely public to personal. I had upheld a personal boundary for this student and he had relaxed some of his to include me inside his personal wall. He knew I would protect his boundaries, and I got to see why he created such boundaries.
Whenever I have a troubling day teaching or a troubling student, I remember my ‘Six Degrees of Schindler’ Student. He’s now well into his mid-twenties, possibly more comfortable with his grandmother’s story, possibly forgotten me and the incident. I like to remember how blessed I was to meet him, and how I was let into his secret about how I almost never met him. I think about him today as I read and watch stories of little children who I will never meet or teach and about little children who I may get to meet and teach due to their teachers’ heroism to save them: of how close those children came to being in that gulf.
Mary Hood wrote a short story where a girl experiences her father’s suicide all through her memories, even though the suicide happens when she’s an adult. She remembers finding his body as a child crawling on the floor, or as a little girl dancing, or as a mother-to-be.
Hood describes the difference between murder and suicide writing, “Imagine a photograph album, with a bullet fired pointblank through it, every page with its scar. Murder attacks the future; suicide aims at the past.”
Perhaps this distinction does not hold true for some, but I find the imagery startling and imaginative. I wonder, “What would the image of that future photo album look like for someone like my student?” Despite my husband’s urgings, I still find that sometimes imaginative imagery is the most logical explanation. Today I imagine my ‘Six Degrees of Schindler’ student with a photo album of his many future events with Oskar Schindler lurking in the background, sometimes as a bothersome burden, sometimes as a laughing gent, sometimes as an angelic force, but always visible. I imagine little 6 and 7 year old survivors of Sandy Hooks with pictures of their weddings and their long dead teacher and principal attending. Most of all I imagine my own pictures in the future and the long line of students around me, some off the path, some further on the path than myself, some burdensome, some laughing, some that I don’t even like to remember, but all of them there–even the ones I haven’t yet met–even the ones I’ll never get to meet.
To me that is every teacher’s future album, even those who are already departed.