I beg you
Learn a dance step
Something to justify your existence
Something that gives you the right
To be dressed in your skin in your body hair
Learn to walk and to laugh
Because it would be too senseless
For so many to have died
While you live
Doing nothing with your life.
~Charlotte Delbo (Auschwitz and After)
I cannot believe how fast the first semester has whizzed by. In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan we have been plagued by numerous wind chill, ice, and snow days off from school (six total with one 2 hour delay). While not delighted by the prospect of adding extra days
on to the school year in June, it is one of the opportunity costs of living in such a wild and beautiful place. I have tried to make the best use of my time away from the classroom to cook, workout, write, read, and reflect. Today is one of those days where reflection has been front and center.
Today my husband Mike is nursing a cold and trying to study for his courses at Northern Michigan University. His plan was to snow blow when he got home from his evening class tonight (we received over a foot of snow last night and the thermometer plunged to bone chilling temperatures). This afternoon I took a look outside and found our elderly neighbor taking care of our drive way. Mike stumbled outside to thank him and our neighbor patted Mike’s arm a few times and said, “You always take care of us. We are neighbors, that’s what we do for each other.” It is true that Mike does the snow removal for our neighbors if he can get to it first, as well as other errands that pop up. Throughout the year there are many reciprocal deeds done in our neighborhood. It gave me such a feeling of warmth today to think about how nice it is to live in a small town and have such kind and considerate neighbors who look out for each other. It also was an important reminder of what a big difference the things we do for others can make. Never underestimate the impact of an act of kindness.
My brother Jamie is one of those good guys who makes me remember that chivalry and kindness is still alive and thriving. He is a Service Technician for The Boss snow plow, so obviously, he never complains about harsh winter weather. Secretly, I think it is his fault we have had so many snow days. I imagine he has magic snow day rituals just to make sure that he is busy at work and that his sister has extra days added to the school year. 😉 While we may have had our share of sibling quarrels over the years, Jamie is a very special guy and even though he is five years younger, he has always been my “big brother” and has taken care of me. Jamie has always been wise beyond his years and has a genuine warmth that makes him highly respected by people he comes in contact with. It was no surprise when he recently received this note from his neighbor. Jamie attributes his kind nature to his goal of trying to live up to the man that our grandfather, Lyle Armstrong was when he was alive. Grandpa was always doing kind things for others and I know that he would be proud of the man that Jamie has become.
Jamie shares the same sacred reverence for the Paint River that Grandfather cherished and called home. In his eulogy poem, I wrote that Grandpa had the capacity to repair both carburetors and broken hearts and one look at Jamie’s garage makes you realize he is a chip off the old block. Jamie has given me many pep talks over the years and has soothed me during many late night phone calls.
I talk about my brother often to my students and about how his hard work ethic and engaging, down-to-earth personality have really helped him find success in life. The boys in class love to see photos of his vintage 3-wheelers and hear all about his trophy bucks and the lunker walleyes that he has caught. I always tell them that if Jamie was a student in my English class that he probably would not enjoy writing poetry and reading, The Odyssey or Romeo and Juliet, but he would do so with a huge and generous smile on his face and that he would bring his charm and sense of humor into class discussions. That is the kind of guy that Jamie is — and the reason that I love him so much.
When I think about qualities of kindness, compassion, and cooperation, I also cannot help but think about Heather. For the past twelve years we have been a team on numerous projects and often we take turns doing the leg work. Last night after work, while I white-knuckled it home in a horrible snow storm, Heather stayed on at school to work on our application for a Global Teacher Fellowship. This grant would be an amazing professional development opportunity for us. I will wait to share our proposal topic when it is accepted (fingers crossed). I sent Heather a text at about 8:30 last night because I had a sneaking suspicion that she was still fussing over every word. Yes, I was correct! Even though I had sent her some scattered notes on my ideas for the project, it was her toil that was coaxing our dream into fruition. At a little after 9:00 she sent me her finished work and I cheered out loud at her brilliant and witty writing. It never ceases to amaze me how lucky I am to have a talented colleague and dear friend like Heather who shares the same passion for education, writing, reading, and travel that I do. We work well together and our ideas mesh as bounce ideas back and forth to create new revelations and brainstorms. Often, I think about how lucky we were to come into each other’s lives at the beginning of our teaching career. Without a doubt, I know that we were destined to be the Hamy educational partnership!
On the last day of January, I still find myself in a state of reflection over 2012. Last year at this time Heather and I were delighted and stunned that we would be traveling to Poland and Israel with a group of Holocaust Educators that we trusted and loved. Heather wrote about this opportunity in a post on March 2, 2012, Walking in survivors’ shoes gets us back to blogging. Our local newspaper, The Mining Journal, ran this article about our experience, Gwinn High School Teachers Visit Concentration Camps. Heather, I am sure, would agree that we still have not been able to fully comprehend the impact that the trip will have on our classrooms. Nearly a year later and we continue to unpack the lessons we hauled home with us. We continue to try to spread the message of tolerance, the importance of bearing witness, and the images of darkness and light that we witnessed in Poland and Israel with our students. I find myself touched more deeply by moments of kindness and sharing like the one revealed in the note my brother Jamie received, our neighbor’s kind act in snow removal, and Heather’s devotion to her students and our work together.
When I was reflecting today I felt the urge to spread this message of light and love with a new blog piece. When I looked through the Blended Voices dashboard, I realized that I still had a draft for a piece about “Our Responsibility to Bear Witness” that I was working on in May of 2012. A busy schedule hampered me from finishing it. Today I thought was the perfect time to share the video that I created when we got home from Israel. Our superintendent asked if we would do a small presentation about our trip at a school board meeting. We were asked to keep it short, 5-7 minutes. I poured over hundreds of photos and decided that a slide-show would help compare and contrast some of the images that we witnessed and share the emotional journey that we navigated together. Heather and I have future plans to create more detailed digital pieces from our travel journals and the images we captured with our hearts and our cameras. Heather, let us make that happen soon, okay?
Today as I sit in my living room on a cold January afternoon, I vividly remember staring at the buds on the weeping willows at the entrance of Auschwitz and how it was a struggle to imagine life springing forth from the ashes. I wondered, would have the strength to walk through that infamous gate? It soon struck me that it would be easy to put one foot in front of the other, because at any time I had to freedom to walk back out, when during the Holocaust so many did not. I remember the haunting train tracks and walking the great expanse of Birkenau, while making the startling realization that I was walking on a grave with every footstep. I remember hot tears running down my face as we placed stones on memorial tombstones. I remember the weight of darkness and trying to figure out how I could explain the giant, horrifying question mark of the Holocaust to my students. I remember feeling like a burden was lifted from my shoulders when we touched down in Israel. I remember walking around Jerusalem and seeing churches, synagogues, and mosques closely located to each other. I remember frolicking in the Dead Sea like children and writing feverishly on small pieces of paper to slip into the Western Wall.
Almost one year later and I feel more grateful than ever to the Memorial Library of New York City for this life-altering experience. How thankful I am to have such a beautiful friend like Heather to walk so many roads with me. As teachers we will continue to seek out new opportunities to enrich our classrooms and our students. We try to share with the precious young lives we are entrusted with that writing can open doors and we attempt to model this reality for them.
I am honored to share this video and I challenge everyone who watches it to remember how much of an impact we can make on the world if we remember that we are all neighbors. Do something special for someone today, tomorrow, and every day after. Practice acts of kindness like my brother Jamie. Love your work fiercely like Heather and Jamie. In the words of Charlotte Delbo, Do something…