When William was younger, I was walking laps at the park while he played with another boy on the playground. As I approached, they were swinging on the wheelchair swing, right under the sign that said, “Do not play on this equipment, it is reserved for wheelchairs.” His new little friend saw me walking towards them and whispered, “That lady is a teacher. We’d better get off.” My supersonic mom ears heard every word and I replied, “It’s worse than that…I am also his mom.” That boy’s eyes bugged out and he looked at William with a mixture of respect and sympathy. I just laughed and kept walking as they moved to the regular play equipment. I heard William say, in his imparting wisdom voice, “One of the worst things about being a teacher’s kid is that all our vacations are “educational.” When we go to the beach we have to go to museums and stuff too.” It totally cracked me up, because it was so true. Now all my kids like to go explore museums, but at that time it was not so.
Even without my kids, I love to explore an area. We went on a -move your son/Bill’s birthday/ 26th anniversary/4th of July/break from grieving/getaway before surgery- trip this week. It started in Nashville helping Aaron get settled into his new place. Then, on the way home, it continued in Chattanooga for the Bed and Breakfast part, which is an anniversary tradition. Along the way, we found several parks, some trails, a civil war museum, a monument to Native Americans on The Trail of Tears, and a Children’s Holocaust Memorial.
I think I love museums because they are places of stories…and stories are my favorite things. I am intrigued by how people lived through some of the most difficult things in history. The Children’s Holocaust Memorial in the middle of nowhere was a surprise, yet a powerful testimony of how stories, even hard, terrible stories, live on and change the future. How the memorial came to be in this tiny little town outside of Chattanooga is a story within a story. It started at a school in a Social Studies class about the Holocaust. One student asked a question, “What does 6 million look like?” That question, and what the students came up with to answer it, changed the lives of many people around the world…like ripples on a pond. Their goal was to collect 6 million paper clips in order to represent each life lost during the Holocaust. They chose paper clips because in Norway during WWII the people wore paperclips on their clothes to protest the Nazi occupation when other types of political buttons became illegal. Paperclips were chosen as a symbol of unity that binds things together. Eventually, even wearing a paperclip could get you arrested.
The students began to collect paperclips, and soon the project spread into their community, then our country, then around the world. It took on a life of its own. They stopped counting at 30 million. They have over 30,000 letters at the school from all over the world and each one tells a story. Some from dignitaries and movie stars. Others from survivors of the horror and their families. Amazingly, in order to house the paperclips, Germany sent an old rail car that was used to transport Jews to concentration camps. It sits on the school grounds, as a memorial…bringing light out of darkness.
When I stepped into that car, I could feel the story that history tells…a painful tragedy. Individual stories cried out from the wood slats. How many rode in this car to the camps? How many died within these walls before arriving in the hell created by a madman to crush their people? I looked through the knotholes to see the view they had as the train rolled them away from everything they knew. I imagined my own home fading into the distance. All that is familiar, taken away. I felt fear, outrage, and grief. Heavy grief. My hands ran across the rough wood, and I found tears pooling in my eyes for the small children who could not help but be crushed, and their mothers who tried in vain to protect them. Fathers trapped like caged animals, not knowing to where their loved ones would be taken…or what their fate would be. I removed my hand…the pain was too great. This was not the story God wrote for his children. His heart wept then, and weeps still for what we have done to his story. My heart ached with the grief of that fact. I turned my eyes away.
I focused, instead, on the millions of paperclips behind Plexiglas at each end of the car, collected by children. There are also artifacts left by many people in the display. Letters, pictures, and an old German suitcase filled with letters of apology for the past written by German schoolchildren who heard about the project. In the midst of the pain of this rail car, there is acknowledgement of the crime, validation that it was indeed horrible, and healing that comes from the awareness of both. Understanding… out of which grow compassionate hearts, a respect for the past, and hope for the future. The children, and many others involved with this project, will never view the scars of world history the same again. They will not merely view them, they will feel them. They will ponder the questions, and hopefully, strive write better stories for their own generation and for their own individual lives. This is what real education looks like.