Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Day Twenty-Three: More than Words

I can't remember not being able to read.  I know there was a time, but it exists prior to my long-term memory.  I love to read and regret that I don't spend more time doing so currently.  I like to be able to pick up a book and read until I'm ready to take a break, a luxury that being a new mommy doesn't afford me.  My love for reading and all things literary is part of the reason that I became an English teacher.  When I was in college, I dreamed about introducing my students to literature in a way that they would love it as much as I do.  Then I graduated and started teaching, only to run smack dab into NCLB, the killer of teacher freedom and creativity.  Test, test, test--that is what I am to teach them now. 

But that is an entirely different blog for a different day.  Today's challenge is to post a picture of my favorite book.  Now, being a lover of literature, you'd think that I would have an answer for this question.  Not so.  There are so many books that I love, there is no way I can narrow it down to one.  I'm not sure I can even narrow it down to ten, especially if we're talking favorite books of all time.  I honestly don't have the time to write about all of the books I love, so I decided to choose a book that I not only treasure personally but that I insist on teaching to my students:  Elie Wiesel's Night. 

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.  Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.  Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.

Night is one of my personal favorites, but it has also become my favorite book to teach.  Some teachers choose to teach Night because it is a rather short novel (around 120 pages), but it is by no means an easy novel to teach--at least not if you want to do it justice.  I could quite possibly spend an entire semester teaching Night and all of the history that accompanies it.  For those of you unfamiliar with the book, Night is the story of how thirteen-year-old Elie and his family were forced from their homes and into the concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. 

My students know so little--if anything--about the Holocaust, so this book prompts many questions, questions not only about the events of the book and the Holocaust itself but about the same issues that Elie himself struggles with in Night.  They want to know why these groups of people who were murdered were so hated.  What could they possibly have done to make Hitler turn an entire country against them?  My students debate the guilt of those who worked in the camps and carried out Hitler's orders.  Were they just doing their job?  Did they actually enjoy what they did?  How does a person live with himself after killing innocent people, especially children?  Ultimately, they begin to ask the question that Elie himself asks:  How could God allow this to happen?  It is a difficult discussion to have in a public school classroom full of both believers and non-believers, and I do my best to keep my opinions to myself and allow them to discuss and journal until they find an answer for themselves. 

The week or two that we spend reading the book is often an emotional time for me and for them.  There are certain passages that I insist on reading aloud to them and sometimes I find myself choking up, even after reading them over and over throughout the day.  For a generation who is supposedly desensitized from years of television and video games, they do react to the brutality and heartbreak in Night.  I will never forget the first time I read a group of students the passage about the soldiers tossing babies into the air and using them as targets.  One girl pushed her book away from her, gasping "No" as it fell to the floor.  It was a powerful moment, to see a piece of literature affect someone her age.  But that is not the only reason I teach it.  Night is so much more than literature, it is a young man's life in words.  I want my students to understand what happened not that many years ago.  I feel like they need to know the horrors of the Holocaust so that their generation can do it's part to ensure they never allow something like that to happen in our own country.   And if along the way they learn something about empathy or compassion or their own beliefs, then I feel I've done at least part of what a teacher is called to do. 

If you've never read Night, I can't recommend it enough.   Don't take it to the beach or save it for light "before bed" reading.  Every line, every word of this book is meant for reflection.  I've now read it almost two dozen times and each time I still take something else away with me by the time I reach the last page. 


Jaime said...

I have never read this. I'm not sure I'm in the right place in my life to try reading it right now. I will remember it though when I am in a better state of mind.

Cilla said...

This book made me sick to my stomach, but I loved it. I think there would be something wrong with you if this book DIDN'T make you uncomfortable, and sickened.

David is Jewish, and he lost family during the halocaust. It affects you much, much differently when you know someone who's family experienced it first hand, it makes it more "real" and terrifying...

On the other hand, my best friend from 4th grade all the way through high school, her Oma (great grandma) was on the other side of the fence, a wealthy young german woman who saw everything that was happening to the Jewish people in her neighborhood, during world war II. My friends Opa (great grandpa who was executed for war crimes) was a nazi and Oma used to tell us how she would make donuts for the soldiers and other treats for the soldiers, and found out years later that when her husband took the treats she made, he and his soldier buddies would lace them with arsenic and give them to Jewish children. She would weep as she told us, and she made us promise to never, ever let anything like that happen again in our lifetimes.