Teaching the Greatest Generation

‘Disturbing’ lack of Holocaust knowledge in US popped up on my Facebook feed the other day. . I re-posted noting, “this is why we must continue to teach books like Night.” A mom, a friend, and a tremendous advocate of public education asked, “How can that be? My girls have been reading about WW II and the Holocaust since the third grade. They read The Book Thief, Number the Stars, Night, and the Diary of Anne Frank.”

My first year teaching, in 1997, Timmy was in my sixth-grade class. His twin was in the class next to mine. Together they absorbed nonfiction, fascinated by WW II history. The twins grandfather, like my uncles, fought in WW II. Like me, they grew up on the stories.

My mama recounted what it was like to listen to the radio. She was home, in Salt Lake City with her mama, her sister, and her brother — the older boys, her brothers, were in Europe–fighting. Grandpa was in Omaha working for railroad.

When my mother’s pet duck, Cornelia, was hit by a car on 13th East in Salt Lake City, the neighbor, knowing Nana was home alone with three children offered to “take care of it” and asked if his family could . . .eat Cornelia because of the rations. (Mama, to this day, eighty-plus years later describes the sound of Cornelia’s little duck feets slapping on the sidewalk when they called her to come home. Cornelia would visit another duck down the street.

It was rare that kids went into Uncle Bob’s office in the basement of his St. Mary’s home. I remember a red chair cushion and a helmet with a spike on top of it. Whispering, my mother told me he brought those home from “THE WAR.” Even in a whisper, the war sounded so big.

Even though my mother was a child during the war, it remained big for her. Uncle Bob never spoke of the war. Both Uncle Bob and Uncle Dick, like the rest of their generation, just gone on with the business of living.

For me, THE WAR, was big, too.

In Montana, my cousin Sara heard first hand accounts from Grandpa Mac, a Chief Petty Officer and Grandma Evelyn, a nurse.

THE WAR was real.

My teaching career began in 1997. Since then, each year it has been more difficult and taken more time to build background about WW II.

Sophomores read Night by Elie Wiesel. Before that, most read The Book Thief. When I taught eighth grade, we read the play, The Diary of Anne Frank. But, with juniors, I still have to remind them, re-teach, before we listen to King George VI speak to his people in 1939 about entering the war.

Storytelling makes it real.

Scrolling through Facebook, I saw this.

We must tell the stories of our parents, grandparents, and friends. We must read the stories of survivors.

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