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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.



About ivonprefontaine

In keeping with bell hooks and Noam Chomsky, I consider myself a public and dissident intellectual. Part of my work is to move beyond (transcend) institutional dogmas that bind me to defend freedom, raising my voice to be heard on behalf of those who seek equity and justice in all their forms. I completed my PhD in Philosophy of Leadership Studies at Gonzaga University, Spokane, WA. My dissertation and research was how teachers experience becoming teachers and their role as leaders. I focus on leading, communicating, and innovating in organizations. This includes mindfuful servant-leadership, World Cafe events, Appreciative Inquiry, and expressing one's self through creativity. I offer retreats, workshops, and presentations that can be tailored to your organzations specific needs. I published peer reviewed articles about schools as learning organizations, currere as an ethical pursuit, and hope as an essential element of adult eductaion. I published three poems and am currently preparing my poetry to publish as an anthology of poetry. I present on mindful leadership, servant leadership, schools as learning organizations, how teachers experience becoming teachers, assessement, and critical thinking. I facilitate mindfulness, hospitality retreats. and World Cafe Events using Appreciative Inquiry. I am writing and researching about various forms of leadership, how teachers inform and form their identity as a particular teacher, schools as learning organizations, hope and its anticipatory relationship with the future, and hope as an essential element in learning.

22 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.

  2. “…leave them scarred for life?”

    • 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.

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

  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

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

  6. Gina Profess and Affirm

    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

  7. I have been reading Michener’s “Poland” and the horror of the wars amazes me time after time. Let’s hope and pray our country never has to experience this on our soil.

  8. Oh my word, we get into trouble when we try to teach compassion…reading, writing, rythmatic only. It is rewarding when we lead students to discovering themselves as they learn to understand others all while learning about our past.

    • I agree. We do not teach compassion in overt ways. Rather, we model it in our behaviour and how winteract with the world and others, so that others might discover it for themselves.

  9. An inspired poem. War is an abomination.

  10. I cannot understand the war in Ukraine. What made Vladimir Putin into the monster he is? He is destroying a people for no reason at all and hurting or harming all of us in the process.

    • I supervise student-teachers and the other day I was in a classroom with an aspiring Social Studies teacher. They mentioned historically Russia has had a low regard for human life when it came to their own soldiers. They used the phrase “cannon fodder” to underscore the perspective. It makes sense. Totalitarians, and Putin is one, tend to think in these instrumental terms when it comes to human life, particularly in larger numbers. Mao said “one death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” Even supposed non-authoritarian regimes realize war, even one they justified rightly or wrongly, becomes unpalatable when enough dead or disabled soldiers return home. Parents and communities they live in begin to grieve and hurt. It is more complex an issue than I can give justice to here, but I think this makes sense. It remains a powerful question and questions to seek answers to.


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