From the moment I received word that Wilson Southern Middle School’s “Children of the Holocaust/Holocaust Hall of Memories” was awarded the 2016 Roald Dahl Miss Honey Social Justice Award, I could not contain my excitement! The notification arrived on the day of our school faculty meeting, and it was surreal to share the news with the staff. The weeks from that day to the ceremony in Orlando were filled with letters of congratulation from local, state, and national legislative members, including a citation from the Pennsylvania State Senate. A newspaper article, cards, and notes from colleagues and friends and a mention of the award at the Pennsylvania School Librarians Conference all combined to add to the excitement. Days before departing for the conference, I received a letter of congratulations from Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, and his beautifully written words put into focus the meaning of this award: “Stories have long been used to illustrate some of life’s most difficult circumstances. Based on the beloved children’s book Matilda, the Roald Dahl Miss Honey Social Justice Award proudly recognizes teachers and librarians who have taught lessons on social justice through the use of school library resources. Educators are faced with the enormous responsibility of communicating difficult lessons on a level of understanding for a child’s mind…” His words expressed what I felt at being awarded this great honor: the real prize was the lessons taught in our project and the understanding of the human suffering that made an impact on our students.
All the kind words, letters, and the generous prizes given by Penguin Random House are impressive – but the impression we are making on young lives is the ultimate honor. This is, I hope, reflected in the words I spoke at the award ceremony:
Nobel Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel has said “To forget the Holocaust is to kill twice.” I recall my first introduction to the Holocaust by my 9th grade World Cultures teacher Mr. Anthony Konieski…it created in me a lifelong interest in the victims, and in my wondering about how I would have reacted if I were alive at that time in history. When collaborating with teachers in my school to create a Holocaust Education unit, I was honored to help our students understand this horrific event. Our objective is to make sure that not only are our students aware of that tragic time in history, but also to help them identify with the child they are assigned. Once they receive the identity card for their child, it becomes personal to them. They are exposed to Holocaust fiction and biographies at the beginning of this unit of study, but when they see the photo of their child and begin the individual research, they begin to truly understand the depth of man’s inhumanity to man. The most moving part of the unit is when suddenly students looks up from their research, and you can see in their eyes that they have learned the fate of their child. Often they will speak up and ask, can this be true? He was only 8 years old or she was just an infant. It is a chilling moment.
Roald Dahl said “Somewhere inside all of us is the power to change the world”…and in a small way, that is what our project attempts to do. We want our students to have an attitude like the beloved Miss Honey and see the good in everyone. Through the entire unit, and during the Hall of Memories, the students learn to value the lives of others, to respect everyone they meet, and to learn to speak out against hatred when they encounter it in their lives. These students take the memory of their assigned child with them, and they become aware of other times when people are being persecuted. It is particularly poignant that this award is being presented in this city of Orlando at this tragic time, when so many lives were lost, and valuing the rights of others was denied.
And so, along with the wonderful teachers that collaborated on this unit, Jennifer Sarnes and Melissa Zawaski, and our Principal Dr. Stephen Burnham, I gratefully accept this award in the name of the students of Wilson Southern Middle School who work so hard to research the lives of the Children of the Holocaust, and also in the name of each of those children, who live on in our library and hallways each time a student meets one. In today’s world of violence and intolerance, may the lessons our students learn help them to remember the words “never again,” and create a world of social justice where everyone is valued.