The first time I saw and heard Elie Wiesel in person at Eckerd College was when he came to speak to my freshman class. I of course knew who he was and had read in high school his haunting memoir Night but never imagined I would have the opportunity to actually see him in person and hear him speak. I was one of hundreds of students sitting anxiously in the auditorium that day trying to catch a better glimpse of him as he walked onto the stage. Our dean of the school stepped forward to introduce him, calling him a prophet. Dr. Wiesel then came to speak to us but began by proclaiming he was not a prophet and that the only way he was similar to a prophet was that he was a teacher, and that a teacher was the most honorable of all names to be called.
At that time, I was debating what career path I would pursue after Eckerd. I had always dreamed of being a teacher and working in an underserved community, but I had begun questioning if that was what I truly wanted to do. The idea of attending law school had entered my mind, and the prestige that accompanied it was very hard to resist. When Elie Wiesel made this remark, though, I thought long and hard about what he had meant by it. Here was a Holocaust survivor, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a man acclaimed and respected by leaders throughout the world, proclaiming that a teacher was the most honorable of all names to be called. I then realized what a great power and responsibility a teacher has in being able to shape and influence the minds of others. I knew then and there what the right path was for me.
During my freshman year, I had been guided by my mentor to take a history course with Professor Johnston. It was a course on Native American History and was an upper-level course. I was nervous about taking it, but my mentor assured me that I would do fine and that I would love Professor Johnston. He was right on both accounts. In fact, I ended up taking yet another course with Professor Johnston the following semester. Sometime during my classes with Professor Johnston I learned she was the one who co-taught the very special three-week Winter Term course with Elie Wiesel. Freshmen were not allowed to apply to this course, but I didn’t waste any time at the start of my sophomore year to inquire of Professor Johnston if she would accept me into the course. I was overjoyed when I learned I was to be enrolled into the course. That year the title of the course was The Power of Stories. As a literature major and aspiring writer, I couldn’t imagine a more perfect focus.
I still remember that first day of class. There were about 20 of us, and we waited quietly for Professor Johnston to walk into the room accompanied by Dr. Wiesel. My heart was beating rapidly, and I could feel my palms perspiring as he walked into the room, a mere few feet from where I was sitting. We all stood up as they entered the classroom. I wanted so badly to prove myself to Dr. Wiesel that I was worthy to be a part of this class. When the class first began I was nervous to speak, afraid even. Eventually, though, through the wonderful works of literature we read and discussed, these fears evaporated.
During one class period as we were discussing the Holocaust, Professor Johnston called my name and asked me to share what I was thinking. I responded by saying that it was my aspiration to one day be a teacher and that I believed in the power of education in shaping and changing one’s life. Accordingly, what I found most disturbing about the Holocaust and did not understand was that these acts of genocide and inhumanity were not conducted by ignorant people but by people who were deeply educated. Dr. Wiesel then said that everyone has a choice in his or her life, a choice for good or a choice for evil. The people who orchestrated and allowed the Holocaust to occur had chosen evil. These words have stayed with me since, words that I now, as a teacher, try to always convey to my own students.
During our last week with Dr. Wiesel, we were each granted individual time to talk to him one on one. I signed up for the very last spot. I wanted to wait until our last class to have my one-on-one time with him and also have to admit I found something poetic in being the last student in our class to talk to him. As I walked into Professor Johnston’s office for my private meeting with Dr. Wiesel, I could again feel the beating of my heart and the perspiring of my palms. As I sat down, he said I’d probably heard this from many of my professors but that I was an exceptional student.
To understand how significant this remark was to me, one needs to understand that prior to coming to college, I had never thought of myself as anything out of the ordinary, or intelligent, let alone an exceptional student. In fact, when I was much younger, I had struggled greatly with learning how to read, and that memory had stayed with me over the years. Subsequently, I often questioned and doubted my capabilities. It was probably because of this insecurity that I tried so hard to prove myself during this three-week course. When Dr. Wiesel said this remark to me, I think for the first time in my life, I began to see myself as a smart and capable individual. There are still times today when I doubt myself, but whenever this occurs, I bring myself back to that moment, those words, and they give me the encouragement to persevere.
After I graduated from Eckerd, I spent a couple years teaching in the Peace Corps in China before returning to my hometown of Chicago to begin teaching in the inner city. I was co-teaching in a 10th-grade World Literature class and was ecstatic when I learned we would be teaching Night as part of our curriculum. As our unit on genocide and the teaching of Night began, I decided to write a letter to Dr. Wiesel, informing him of how much that course I had taken with him at Eckerd had influenced me and how excited I was to finally be able to teach his book to my own students. I didn’t expect him to remember me or to write back. He did both. I was so excited when I opened his responding letter that I think I actually jumped up and down like a little kid on Christmas Day. I was that excited. I took that letter to my school and read it to my students. I still show the letter to my students each year when I teach Night and share with them my experiences during my course with Professor Johnston and Dr. Wiesel.
I, along with the rest of the world, was greatly saddened to learn of Dr. Wiesel’s passing, just over a year after I had corresponded with him. However, I am so grateful to have met him and even more so for the encouragement and wisdom he has given me, which, it is no overstatement to say, greatly shaped and influenced my life. Being a teacher, particularly a teacher of literature, I believe I have a responsibility not only to teach my students how to read and analyze literature, but also to expose them to the great themes, lessons and morals derived from the extraordinary works we study.
In his letter to me, Dr. Wiesel wrote, “Your teaching of Night and the Holocaust fills me with hope. It is my belief that one who hears a witness becomes a witness in turn. I hope that you, as a teacher, will remember this, and pass on to your students the wisdom you have gleaned to help create a better world.”
To Dr. Wiesel, my teacher, thank you.
—Stephanie Jenks ’12