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On Wiesel’s Night

Several years before I retired from teaching, a family approached me and asked me to tutor their child. Usually, I don’t tutor. Too often, it is about prepping for a test and is too rote for me.

After talking with the family and student, I agreed. The student was behind in some courses and wanted to be ready to transition from home schooling to attending high school full-time.

I helped her mostly in Math and Language Arts. I approach Language Arts through a cross subject method. I choose a novel and prepare a novel study. The students demonstrate comprehension, writing, grammatical, and other skills, instead of drill and kill method.

We discussed several possible choices for a novel study and decided on Elie Wiesel‘s Night, which is an autobiographical narrative of his time as a teenager in Nazi concentration camps with his family. I warned the student it was a tough read, but she insisted on the book. I asked her to read only assigned chapters and keep a journal.

The next week, she asked a question and confessed she read the whole book in one sitting. She asked if was OK to cry when doing a novel study. I said it was. We adapted and went through the book in a different way.

What I learned from that experience, is as hard as we try, as parents and teachers, there are things we cannot prepare children for in advance. This poem by Thomas E. Thornton, who was a teacher, echoed those sentiments. The poem is hard to read, but he wanted to impress upon students an appreciation for the horrors and violence of war.

I cannot teach this book.  Instead,

I drop copies on their desks,

like bombs on sleeping towns,

and let them read.  So do I, again.

The stench rises from the page

and chokes my throat.

The ghosts of burning babies

haunt my eyes.

And that bouncing baton,

that pointer of Death,

stabs me in the heart

as it sends his mother

to the blackening sky.

Nothing is destroyed

the laws of science say,

only changed.

The millions transformed into

precious smoke ride the wind

to fill our lungs and hearts

with their cries.

No, I cannot teach this book.

I simply want the words

to burn their comfortable souls

and leave them scarred for life.

 

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About ivonprefontaine

I completed a PhD at Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA. Previously, I taught for 20 years and spent the last 14 years teaching in an incrediable hybrid school setting. My dissertation topic and research were how teachers experience becoming who teachers, as human subjects. For me, teaching is a calling and vocation that allows me to express who I am as a person. Currently, I am waiting and listening to what will call me. We have begun a small consulting and leadership firm called Rocky River Leadership & Consulting Ltd.

13 responses »

  1. Oh, my. What a poem!
    I used to do similar book work in my classes. Students took a few notes on the important points in a chapter, noted words they didn’t know the meaning of, answered a few questions and wrote a response. In a more advanced class, students kept a,journal, wrote a more in-depth reaction, and gave a presentation to the class which included why others should or should not bother reading the book.
    Once, two students, both former gang members from the LA area, chose to read Luis Rodriguez’s Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. One started presenting and the other jumped in with a comment. I invited her to the front of the room to join the man in his presentation and the two did the most powerful back and forth presentation ever.

    Reply
  2. “…leave them scarred for life?”

    Reply
    • I took as a metaphor of remembering. It reminded me of the Rumi quote: “the wound is where the light enters.” Leonard Cohen has a similar quote: “there is a crack in everything. That is how the light gets in” in his song Anthem, which is about finding peace.

      Reply
  3. Most excellent. Victor Frankl’s, “Man’s Search For Meaning” had a similar impact on me.

    Reply
  4. Thank you very much for posting your experiences in teaching. Its a really good inspiration, and also a guide for myself. Thx. Have a nice weekend. 😉 Michael

    Reply
  5. It is indeed hard to read this powerful poem. Iit surely will leave an impression on the reader, including students.

    Reply
  6. Thank you for this powerful share Ivon. Hard to read writing can help bring reality into sharp focus, and tears help us see things even more clearly. So glad to follow and enjoy your works here, for you are definitely still, always, a teacher. Blessings. Gina

    Reply

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