Hope, Hope, Hope

On May 28th, after a nine months of bake sales and workshops, classes on listening and classes on ethics, laughing together and fighting in the hallways, interviewing, taking notes, editing, meeting fascinating people, watching documentaries, cutting up little pieces of paper, talking on the phone, writing letters and speeches and essays and press releases, sending millions of emails, and a thousand other things more important and more banal, the Humanities Collective felt everything come together. The screening of our documentary based on “two (life stories) among the millions,” “Life in the Open Prison,” was one of the best nights of my life.

The evening opened with several short speeches by the students explaining their extraordinarily collaborative working culture, our connection to the CURA Life Stories project, our values and our mission. Then the film rolled.

Watching the film, I felt a collective breathlessness catch the crowd. The film moves back and forth between the stories of two surviors, with historical context provided by Frank Chalk. What comes through, as one student wrote, was the idea that “…Living is more than just preserving one’s body… it’s about being able to overcome hardships and challenges and still have a positive outlook” (ES). What continued to amaze us as we worked with the interviews (and an idea that continues to work through me as I let the experience settle), is that finding joy, forgiveness and peace is always possible – no matter how terrible our conditions. This theme wasn’t the one we expected to find in our conversations with our participants. As one student wrote, “I had always pictured the survivors of genocide as being bitter, old, and unforgiving. During this project, my view of survivors completely changed. Mr. Am and Mr. Pong were totally modest, forgiving, and…..happy. They didn’t see themselves as being any different from anyone else and didn’t see their stories as being important. I was shocked by this kind of response and I feel like I really learned a lot…” (AP).

After the screening, we had a little “Q and A.” Again, these students blew me away with their insight, clarity, and sensitivity. They spoke about what they learned: “Being a survivor doesn’t mean that you’re body survived but your sense of self. Wanting to explore that sense of self, to appreciate it, to flourish it and to nourish it is what a survivor can do” (KB). They talked about the surprises, and lingering questions: “What surprised me the most, and continues to surprise me the more I think about it, is the lack of anger in the stories of survivors. How were they able to suffer and see everyone around them suffering and be able to tell a story unblemished with blame or rage? Mr. Pong did mention a child who sent them to prison, but he seems to absolve the child in the narrative, “he was brainwashed”. How can survivors be so forgiving and so positive after experiencing horror?” (NG).

Students spoke about the essence of the project: “The Humanities course this year was about listening. Obviously, because we were concerned with oral history, we’d learn about listening, but I mean more that just listening to people talk about history. The ‘unplanned course’ was about listening to others so you could become a better person, a better worker, and a better friend. It was about listening to people so you could begin to understand what horror is and why hope is the most important thing we need to continue living. It was about listening so that you could have other people listen to you...” (NG)

Of course, during the Q+A, the least articulate member of the panel was yours truly, who was so overwhelmed by the experience that she babbled on, trying to keep going through the lump in her throat. At one point, I turned to look at one of my students as I was struggling through. She looked at me with sea-deep eyes, and spoke through her gaze: “Come on, Miss Webster, you can do it.” Her gaze was patient
and calm, tender and unjudging. I cleared my throat and got my act together.

After the screening, the students and I ate dinner together at Arielle’s house. We found ourselves seated in a loose circle, taking turns talking about the screening, the things people said to us afterwards, the class itself, the experience in general. Students confessed their frustrations at different points in the project, (“Ethics took too long!!!”) their secret anxieties, (“I didn’t think it was possible”) their favorite moments, (“I LOVED meeting Mr. Smey!”).

After listening on the outskirts of the conversation for most of the evening, Ari’s Dad stood up and spoke for a few minutes about what he observed in our interactions with each other. He spoke about the deep respect we all had for each other, and how readily evident our mutal admiration was. He spoke about what it felt like to watch “the perfect storm unfold,” the miraculous possibilities that emerge when skills, resources, desires, interests, and passions come together for a common purpose. He also spoke about what it meant to him, as the son of a Holocaust survivor, to hear his daughter and her friends grappling with these issues. He spoke about the future and the past, silence and forgiveness. I again noticed how the sensitivity and humility of these young people seems to draw out the very best in everybody they meet.
How has this experience affected me? I hardly know where to begin. On the most superficial level, I can say that I have never been more committed to teaching; I feel that I am living my purpose, that I am in the flow. More deeply, though, I can say meeting these surviors and working with these kids has taught me that what Julian of Norwich wrote was probably right: “All is well, all is well, in the very heart of things, all is well.” I leave you with some reflections from the students.

How have your ideas about genocide and mass violence changed this year?

“Before this course, genocide was a concept. A horrific and heartbreaking one, but still just an idea. Even reading about the Holocaust or my indignant mother telling me about the devastating war when Bangladesh became independent from Pakistan was not enough. How could it be real? How could I make millions of deaths meaningful? I couldn’t even imagine that many people, let alone imagine that many people being slaughtered. But once I interviewed Mr. Am, and after seeing Mr. Pong’s interview, it got to me. These were just two people, “Two of the Millions” as we put in our posters, and they had gone through this. I was talking to them, I was asking them questions, and all the while, their minds still held imprints of the horrors they had experienced. It was too much and it was enough. I understood that one by one, people had been murdered, or they had starved to death, or they had collapsed from overwork. Mr. Pong might have watched a murder, Mr. Am probably saw someone in their last moments before they died of starvation. The deaths and the fear became palpable and real, and all the more angering. Why does it keep happening? How are people so ignorant and stupid and innocent and evil?” (NG).

“Genocide education when you’re young is always concerned with the Holocaust and the concepts of good vs. bad, right vs. wrong, and yay Israel. First of all, there’s not enough knowledge of other genocides, like the ones that occurred in Eastern Europe, or even current genocides. Second of all, such large concepts like right vs. wrong are so complex that to present them to grade schoolers, you must simplify them and then cloud children’s knowledge. By using the phrase “the Jews suffered”, kids don’t have the opportunity to learn about cause and effect (how/why did the Holocaust begin? Why was it allowed to escalate to the point it did? Why is genocide still happening?) or global impact, or compare and contrast the Holocaust and other genocides. That’s seen as some sort of blasphemy…” (NG)

“Being a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I always felt a connection to genocides and victims of genocide. Until this project, I had made the connection to places like Rwanada and Cambodia through my grandparents. After this project, I now feel that I’m connected to Cambodia not because of my family but because I took the time to truly understand the atrocities that occurred and how they affected the people. I have a much deeper understanding about genocide because I listened to stories of first hand experiences, rather than just what I read in a textbook. I feel that now I can really tell other people what the affects of genocide are, from what I learned from the survivors, not just from what my dad told me about my grandparents.” (ES)

“Instead of admiring survivors, I used to pity them. I pitied them because I thought that they were great vessels of suffering. I thought they were constantly weighed down in angst and I wished to know how to help. But it seems they don’t really need help, just acknowledgment and a willingness to listen. I had never met men like our two interviewees. I had never met men so defiant to give up and so satisfied with the quality of their lives. I still feel compassion but also great respect and I don’t think that will ever change.” (KB)

“Throughout school, I’ve been educated on the Holocaust. I’ve read books and completed projects. Most of it was very impersonal, except for the fictional pieces based on that event. Those were enjoyable to read because I was reading the story of a survivor. But it was still fictional and I had no real connection to these events. Unlike other projects, Humanities let me interact with the affected community, eventually leading me to a sense of connection. We didn’t skip the research process, but later on, went past only knowing dates but knowing faces. Being able to interview Mr. Pong and hearing his story not only taught me about genocide, but taught me to count my blessings and believe in the strength of the human soul.” (KB)

“My ideas of genocide and mass violence have definitely changed. Now I am more scared of it. Through the historical facts of the Khmer Rouge regime, I learned that it is pretty easy to lead a country that’s desperate, as was Cambodia before the regime. Imagine how many countries are desperate nowadays, and how a leader who may appear to be good could simply forcefully take over the government and do whatever they want. It’s very scary.” (TC).

“I had somewhat studied genocide before, but mostly only the holocaust, and in a much different way. I never explored oral history, and therefore never got the same perspectives. I always just learned facts, which really can’t allow you to reach past the surface of your explorations.”

What did you learn about life through this course?

“I learned that there are people who have suffered so much in their lives but that we shouldn’t pity them. We should commend them on overcoming difficulties. Our lives aren’t worth less because we haven’t overcome such horrible events, but we cannot be proud of what we have unless we understand the people around us.” (ES).

“I learned that having an open mind is crucial to having a loving soul.” (KB)

“I know this is very cheesy, but I learned that I can make a difference. During this project, I was never out of the loop, or just observing what my classmates were doing. I was actually always involved in one way or another, trying to understand what was going on and finding ways to help. So, first, I made a difference in the making of our film. Then, after the premiere, I learned that I made a difference in a more global sense. Since some people mentioned that it should be brought to an even bigger audience to be more widely appreciated, I will continue to make a difference in the lives of people who watch the documentary. So, “making a difference” will keep transcending to other levels as this project goes on because it hasn’t ended yet.” (TC)

What were the most surprising things you learned in this course?

“I learned how to understand myself. Through analyzing others, and analyzing elements of the human psyche I was able to gain a greater understanding of myself and my role on this planet. I also learned never to take anything for grant it. After listening to the survivors stories I realized that they is much more I have to be grateful about and that complaining about something stupid would be ignorant. This project has really had me reevaluate my position on the planet and made me thankful for everything I do have. Not the things I do not. I learned that I am so…so lucky to live in Montreal and enjoy the freedom of a country that allows anyone to be their self. I learned that although something may seem inconvenient, once reevaluated it would seem stupid to complain about certain things. As well I gained a greater understanding of the writer inside of me…” (JS)

“I really think I have matured a lot since September I have become more of a man and can feel the maturity part of my brain beginning to develop….” (JS)

“I learned how amazing the stories of other people are. I always thought I was the type of person who is grateful for what I have and am aware of other people’s difficulties. When really listening to the interview that were conducted, I realized that I don’t truly appreciate everything that I have and that although there are hardships in my life, they are so manageable compared to what others have experienced. It was heartwarming to hear how Mr. Pong was “the happiest man alive” when he only had five dollars in his pocket. At the same time I found myself feeling very guilty for not being happy with everything that I have, even though I have so much more than he did. I didn’t expect to learn about myself while learning about the stories of Cambodian survivors.” (ES).

You can see the film and meet the filmmakers at the Oral History Conference in the Fall.

By Megan Webster