A Holocaust exhibit in The Hall of Tolerance is one way Carl Bosch’s school is changing the world one student at a time.
10,160 days down, 15 left
Come after school, preferably when no one is around. Enter the hallway quietly, by yourself, and spend a few minutes or longer. Stand in front of the 45 various-shaped, wood framed boxes. Rectangles, squares, some small, some large, all covered in Plexiglas. Breathe and step up close. Look carefully at the contents; meshed, entangled, locked like soldiers in step, patterned, askew. They are toothpicks. One million, five hundred thousand toothpicks. Collected over a decade by students who have attended our school, they signify the one million, five hundred thousand children age 15 and under who died in the Holocaust. This is our, just completed, soon to be dedicated, Hall of Tolerance.
The Hall also displays a quilt made by students containing affirmations. Words like understanding, strength, diversity, empathy, compassion, peace, uniqueness, citizenship, truth, and love. At the end of one hall are the words to John Lennon’s “Imagine”. There are pictures of our current students. A television monitor will show video interviews of survivors. Two children’s faces, one boy and one girl, cast in bronze, will be prominently displayed.
But it’s all about the toothpicks. And tolerance.
If you stand for any length of time in front of one of the boxes it begins to form a sort of illusion. The numbers are too vast, the possibility of faces, represented by each tiny sliver of wood, is unfathomable. I can’t believe that so very many children could suffer under the tyranny of cruelty during that era. I think to myself, “This box alone must contain 10,000 or 20,000 toothpicks. How is this possible?” But I pause and begin to think how cruel the children in my care can be to one another. The unkind words, cutting comments, straightforward bullying, insensitive rumors. I think about their simple, brutish meanness at times. I know the theories, the reasons. I can quote the literature; after all, I’m a guidance counselor. But who are we as people, as human beings living in the same time and space with each other?
I think about the country and the measure of invective and accusation that flies across airwaves and talk shows. Politicians on both sides seem to lie, inflate their truths, undermine their opponents, to the point that our level of trust in them lies at the bottom of a very deep trough. As a society if we can’t stem this ever more powerful and toxic wave of vitriol and anger; if we’re too powerless or worn out or tired or empty than we may suffer very bad times ahead.
We’re a school. We have to try. And we do each and every day in our classrooms, in the hallways, in the cafeteria. We try to reflect dignity and respect and many, many students follow our lead. But the battle is hardly won. As a school we have to believe and enforce a higher standard. Schools reflect our society and we can all moan and lament the bad parenting, the lack of initiative, the moral inconsistencies, and the sheer laziness. But complaining doesn’t help. It gets tiresome as if we’re throwing up our hands and saying “The forces outnumber us. It’s a losing battle. I give up.” What we need to say is, “Not here. Not under my watch. Not in my classroom. On this small battlefield, if that’s what you force me to make it, I win. Common decency wins.” We need to say it clearly, honestly, directly.
Each child in my school, all the children in every neighborhood and every citizen in our town should, at some time in their career here, or in their busy lives, be welcomed to the Hall of Tolerance and encouraged to spend some time there, alone. To write about it, to think about it, to talk about it. To consider what the face of intolerance really looks like when left to grow. To realize its possible and awful magnitude. To not let it build like a slow fever, an infection that takes hold and can’t be broken.
We’re a school and if we can’t teach tolerance in addition to reading and writing, math, science and social studies, than we’ve failed.
It’s not about the toothpicks.
It’s about tolerance. And children.
Photo credit: Carl Bosch, used with permission