Joe and I gave a Holocaust presentation yesterday at a local high school. This was challenging for me in several ways.
Typically, Joe and I will go to a school, or library, or other venue at a specified time and speak for roughly an hour or two, followed by a question and answer session. I enjoy this sort of thing. I’m always nervous, but afterward we have a jolly time interacting with the audience. And the book sale and signing is always a boost. But, recently I was asked by a teacher if Joe and I could speak to each of her World History classes in one day. Soon, other teachers wanted their classes to join in the discussion. One thing led to another, the presentation grew and grew, and it turned into a big day. Joe and I arrived early in the morning (7:30 a.m.) at the Little Theater on the school campus, and gave the presentation to each class period, there were seven of them! Each class period was 50 minutes long with anywhere between 50 to 150 students in the audience. I had thirty-five minutes to give Joe’s life story before opening it up to questions from the students, and then a five minute break in between before doing the whole presentation over again. Over and over, seven times.
What did I get myself into?! This was a bit more than I had anticipated, and I had never done this format before. Rising up early in the morning, making sure Joe had gotten up early, and making it to school on time for first period, was stressful in itself. Getting to school on time was never a goal I could reach for most of my school days, but now I had to do it with an 87-year-old Alzheimer’s patient.
Thankfully, I had a team of great friends behind me. My husband Paul, was a stronghold for me. My team from LeRue Press, Kathy and Tanisha, who arrived early with over 500 sample chapters excerpted from the memoir THE ALTERED I: MEMOIR OF JOSEPH KEMPLER, HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR, and bookmarks, plus several copies of the book on hand in case anyone wanted to buy a copy on the spot (which several did!) The teacher who organized the whole affair was a doll, enthusiastic, helpful and generous.
After the first three class periods I seemed to hit my stride and my focus. I wanted to convey a positive message to the students not just relate the sad events of Joe’s life. I wanted to show the students that they could stand up against peer pressure and racial prejudice and do the right thing despite the circumstances being intense.
Well, I believe it was a success. The questions from the students were incredible. These were some standouts for me:
If Hitler were here would you forgive him?
When was the first time you saw a dead body, and how did you feel?
Would you take revenge if you could?
What motivated you to survive?
If you had blond hair and blue eyes did that guarantee you survived? (A student noticed Joe had blond hair as a youngster from old photos I had running during the presentation.)
What do you think? Insightful right?
Despite a raging headache by the end of the school day, I felt relieved. Relieved it was over, but also happy with the students. They were quiet, respectful, and curious. After each class period there were several students who wanted their picture taken with Joe, or just to shake his hand. Some hugged him. It was adorable to see. Everything I had gone through emotionally and mentally in preparation for the presentation had been worth it for these students. I was glad Joe could do it too. I was concerned about him getting up early, (he fights it!) concerned about remembering his own history, concerned about his energy level, concerned about the kids understanding him, he is soft spoken, has a bit of an accent, and slurs his words more than he used to. My fears subsided as we got underway. Joe was a real partner. He was awesome. He only forgot what he wanted to say a couple of times and I was able to help him get on track and expand his thoughts.
I most likely will never do another all day presentation again. It was relentless–wash, rinse, repeat. Some times I got lost in my thoughts and couldn’t remember if I had said this or that. Each time was a little different, but for the most part I was on track. Near the last period, Paul whispered to me, “Keep it fresh!” I really have a new appreciation for what teachers go through each day, and I’ve determined I’m kind of spoiled … but in a good way.
I’ll be posting Paul’s thoughts on the day in a future post. It’s a wonderful essay and I can’t wait for you to read it!