Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Story about Darkness, Light and Faith

This past week, the grade ten students heard some stories about light and darkness that they will not soon forget.  Mr. Fellner, a holocaust survivor and grandfather to one of our students, spoke to a group of 40 students and had their spellbound attention.  He was accompanied by his wife who spoke for him when his emotions, even after 66 years, choked his voice.  The students freely questioned Mr. Fellner and he candidly answered.  I took notes and recorded the presentation with my smartpen, (in order to remember the details for this post), but it was completely unnecessary as I will not soon forget his stories.

One student asked about making friends in the concentration camp at Birkenau (Auschwitz).  It was an innocent question from a teenage mind incapable of grasping the enormity of the suffering and cruelty that Mr. Fellner had lived.  He answer stunned me  because I had never considered its obvious truth; no one lived long enough to make friends.    
Mr. Fellner and his family
He spoke of the dark horrors he had witnessed and of suffering we can not begin to fathom.  He recalled the inhumanity, animal-like conditions and the imaginative brutality of their captors.   But he also spoke of light and faith.  The day the camp was liberated by the Americans, his emaciated 54 pound body (he entered the camps at 14 years of age weighing 173 pounds one year earlier) had been 'discarded' atop the heaps of the dead.  American physicians, under orders to 'take anyone with a pulse' miraculously found Mr. Fellner and immediately transported him to a hospital, where a doctor sat vigil by his bed until he regained some semblance of health.

I asked Mr. Fellner what he thought about the sentiment sometimes expressed that G-d should be put on trial for what happened to the Jews in the Holocaust.  His answer was one I will not soon forget.  "I can't answer you that.  How can I answer?"  And then, he touched his chest and said, "I suffered for my faith.  I will never lose it."

Suffering confers a priceless value to our lessons learned.  Mr. Fellner learned about the dark face of humanity and 66 years later, he taught the young teens the generation of his granddaughter about the light that is also a part of our human face.

Christmas lights in front
 Christ Church
downtown Montréal
On this fifth night of Hanukkah and Christmas Eve,  people all over the world celebrate the light that we believe is also a part of the human experience.  Mr. Fellner's story of incredible survival against the odds ended with his affirmation of the light.  His unshakeable faith is a light for our students, and to me.  Thank you Mr. Fellner for sharing your stories.  Thank you for reminding me, us, about the light that comes from faith.  Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas to all.   May your story be a light to someone as his were to us.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Do You Leave Your Mark or Model Your Passion?

The highest praise a teacher can receive generally comes years after the students have graduated and left the building.  Sometimes it finds you in an email when the ex-student, now an accomplished adult, reaches out to say thank you.  Another more serendipitous context finds teacher and ex-student together on a street corner, with the now young adult 'confessing' that the teacher was the reason for their life's career and intellectual direction.

Either one of these, (and many more contexts) have happened to you, dear reader, to be sure.  It happened to me yesterday.  A very cherished, very bright and wonderful young woman (who was my student two years ago) told me of her plans to study philosophy and the unspoken compliment was that the Philosophy for Teens course that she took with me was the reason for her decision.  As I studied her face and demeanour, it occurred to me that she wanted me to feel not only proud of her but of myself for having been the mentor on her path.  But I didn't feel that at all.

christinacosta's Flickr stream
Instead, I had one of those 'ah ha' moments that arrive in a flash in our consciousness.  (Sometimes I see them as inner pictures, other times I hear them in sentences and other times they simply come as a 'feeling'.)  As much as I want to 'leave my mark' and make a difference in the life of my students, that is really not what happens.  In the case of yesterday's student, I think she found her question and it is the question that is 'leaving its mark' and guiding her down a path that she attributes to me.  It might have also be that she connected with her own passion and enthusiasm for wisdom because she saw mine; but the bottom line is that she connected to herself.

When I think of the teachers who 'left their mark' on me, I see the same process and patterning.  Their passion was contagious because it was authentic.  Their questioning (that's the heart of philosophy) modelled good thinking and that's what did it for me because I found that in myself.

So my friends, do we really leave a mark or are we instrumental in helping our students connect to themselves?  What do you think?  I'd love to engage with you so leave a comment!