Below is the summary of our Teach For America–Alabama trip to meet Dr. Wiesel in 2011. That weekend was one of the most important experiences of my life, and my students’ lives.
I can also say that Elie Wiesel has been my guiding light as a teacher. About Night he said, “There is response in responsibility.” I try to teach that once students have read an important literary work, especially Night, they have a responsibility to the world. They have a duty to speak up against injustice even when it’s hard, to be grateful for what they have in life, and to demand what they deserve. In my classroom, in large letters at the front of the room, there is a poster that reads: WHAT IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY? It is a message to my students, but it is a message to me too. What is my role in this world? Am I spending all of my energy trying to make it better? Am I making Dr. Wiesel proud?
I also want to add that I was named the Holocaust Educator of the Year in 2015. The ceremony was extremely emotional for me. I felt validation and vindication after being fired for bringing my students to meet Wiesel in 2011. It was such a relief and such an emotional reward for my deep beliefs in the importance of teaching the Holocaust. I wanted to write to Dr. Wiesel about winning it, and I wish I had.
I have his letter for me—the one he wrote to the school board—framed on my wall. I feel so honored, so privileged to have known that man, even if it was only for 15 minutes in a small room at Eckerd.
He changed my life and continues to change my life. I teach Night every year to honor his memory and his words.
OUR TRIP TO SEE ELIE WIESEL
We left early Thursday morning from Piggly Wiggly. We loaded onto a small charter bus, and the students almost immediately fell asleep. I was too excited. Around 2 p.m. we arrived at Maclay Gardens State Park in Tallahassee, Florida (my hometown). A luncheon was beautifully prepared by Tallahassean Jerri Hanna, along with my mother, grandmother and aunts. The students were ready to eat but not before they thoroughly explored the lake, dock and hiking trails at the park. We took a lot of pictures—of nature, of the group, of the food. We sat down to eat our lunch of chicken, beans and rice, fruit, rolls, green beans and salad. My grandmother made each student a goody bag of snacks for the rest of our ride. The kids were thrilled—so thankful and polite. We headed on to Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, but we didn’t get there until 9 p.m. I ushered the students to “The Pub,” where each one got his or her choice of dinner, compliments of Eckerd College. After the students received their food, we sat down in a nearby classroom with members of the Eckerd College Basketball team. The players shared their stories and asked each of my students to share his or her own. Highlights of our sit-down included my student Miguel singing for everyone, Terrance showing off his championship ring and the basketball players giving encouraging advice. Around 10:30 we went to the gym, where we would sleep for the next two nights. A Birmingham law firm had generously donated sleeping bags and supplies to make my students comfortable.
Friday morning started early, around 7:00, when I woke the students to prepare for the day. We dressed in business casual clothes and walked to the cafeteria for our breakfast. By 9 a.m. we were ready to see Elie Wiesel’s talk. We took pictures outside the venue, and the excitement was building. As soon as we approached the front doors, we were greeted by the assistant dean of faculty and led to our seats—15 minutes before doors opened—and we were in the second row! I couldn’t believe it! When I saw Dr. Wiesel speak as a freshman, I was in nearly the back row. Now here I was with 16 students, and we could practically reach out and touch his shoulder if we’d wanted to. I was thrilled. A professor whispered to me that “we might be able to get your students’ books signed! Have them write their names in their book, and give them to me after the lecture.” Well, that was an unexpected and wild surprise. I had the kids write their names in their books, beaming that I’d be able to provide this extra gift.
Elie Wiesel began with a story: There was a man lost in the woods, and he couldn’t find his way out. Suddenly, another man appeared. The first man says, “How do I get out of here?” The second man says, “I don’t know, but don’t go where I’ve come from.” That is the story of humanity. We must tell our children: Don’t go there—we just came from there.
Other highlights from the talk:
“The tale of despair is a tale against despair.” Despair is never an option.
How did the Holocaust happen? A secret was kept; no one passed judgment and spoke up. Dr. Wiesel told us that the world asks us to pass judgment. We don’t have to expect answers or results, but we must initiate the dialogue that questions evil. He said: “Don’t expect answers. The dialogue teaches future generations. … The power lies in the question. Questions are eternal. Answers change.”
Dr. Wiesel also said that his passion for learning has kept him faithful and strong. He wants hope to increase every day in the world. For some people—and for him in the past—hope is just a piece of bread. But it is up to us to keep the memory and the story of the Holocaust alive so that hope for the future can continue to thrive.
After Dr. Wiesel’s talk, he was immediately led out of the building. Everyone stood and applauded. Eckerd students started to leave, but I told my students to stay put until we had time to gather ourselves and our thoughts. Suddenly, a faculty member approached me and said, “Do you think your students would like to meet him?” I was in shock! I immediately started crying. Of course I said yes! We took our books and hurried to a classroom. There he was, standing just inside to shake the hand of each student. When he got to me, at the end, he kissed my cheeks. I was star-struck. He spoke to the students about how he knew Martin Luther King Jr. He told them the story of visiting Birkenau with President Obama in 2008. He signed all of their books. Theo (my student) asked him if he was happy with all of his accomplishments. Dr. Wiesel said, “Oh, no. It’s never enough. I always want to do more. Not different—more.” All the while, the kids were reverent, quiet, respectful. It took everything in me not to burst into tears. After about 10 minutes together, Dr. Wiesel was escorted from the room. I told the students they could gather their things, and they trickled outside, shocked. I started weeping in the classroom, and I hugged Shane. We went outside, and I took pictures of the kids with their signed books. I was crying (I was so overwhelmed), and the kids surrounded me and hugged me, thanking me. I’ll never forget it.
Afterward, we were sitting on picnic tables under trees. The president of Eckerd College and his wife approached us. He was so kind and spoke to every student. As he was leaving, he said, “Tell your kids to go to the bookstore and pick out a T-shirt. Charge it to the President’s Office.” So every kid got a free Eckerd T-shirt! They were so happy. We were overwhelmed with everything that had been happening to us the last 24 hours. We grabbed a quick lunch from the cafeteria and headed off to the Florida Holocaust Museum.
The museum was great. Informative. Our tour guide was British (so they heard a British accent for the first time!), and he told us so much about the history of intolerance. We saw an actual cattle car that was used to transport Jews. A couple of kids cried silently in the museum. They were profoundly impacted by all that we were taking in.
We got back to Eckerd just in time for a rainy college tour. We walked along the beach and sat in the pavilion. Soon enough, I heard them saying, “I want to go here!” or “What are the requirements to get into this school?” and “What financial aid do they provide?” My students started to see a college like Eckerd as a real possibility for them.
At 4:00 (busy day!!), we sat down in a classroom to hear a lecture from Professor Jared Stark. We read passages from a book that was a compilation of found letters from Holocaust victims. (Men who worked in the crematorium would write small notes and hide them in pieces of tin and bury them. They were found years later and put into a book.) Professor Stark spoke about memory and stories and trauma. Students asked a lot of questions and responded to every one posed by Professor Stark. Our class ended with students discussing the current mindset of Greensboro, Alabama, and generating ideas about how to tell our story. The students recognized that they were now “secondary witnesses” of the Holocaust, and it was their duty to share what they’d learned.
To cap off our day, I took the students out to eat at a seafood restaurant on St. Pete Beach. They fed on fish and had a great time! I took them all out for ice cream. Stuffed and happy, we all slept well that night.
Our trip back to Greensboro on Saturday was quiet, sleepy and reflective. As we pulled into the Piggly Wiggly parking lot, I reminded the kids of their duty: Tell the story. Tell it to your parents when you get in the car; tell it at church tomorrow. Tell it at school. We left each other with hugs and “thank-yous.” Parents were thrilled that their children were so happy. Many expressed deep gratitude to me—apparently, some of the children had been texting home all weekend about what an incredible time they were having. I was so happy.
The trip was monumental—life-changing for both the students and myself. Every struggle that went into planning it no longer mattered.
James Brown, a student, wrote me a letter that he gave to me afterward:
I never ever did anything like this. I can say that this is my best weekend and moment of my life. It just brings tears to my eyes that I see and can tell that somebody cares about me and loves me. Giving me this opportunity just to leave Greensboro makes me happy. … I know that when I graduate I am pushing myself till I can’t imagine. … You showed me more than Alabama. … Very small people would never experience this at all. And another thing is I met Elie Wiesel. I mean, I can say I met him, held his hand and let him write in my book. You went to a great school, Ms. Draper. I had a great time. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
*When I returned to Alabama, my principal fired me for taking students on the trip. Elie Wiesel wrote on my behalf, and I was able to finish out the semester but then was dismissed. I had parental permissions and chaperones for the trip.
—Caitlin Meehan-Draper ’10