You may remember me as the person who got more emotional than she had anticipated during her Curriculum as Currere presentation. I suppose I should anticipated that, however, considering I was discussing someone who had impacted me a great deal. I met Greta Elbogen last June when I took a study abroad class in New York through Women’s and Gender Studies. While touring the Museum of Jewish Heritage, we got a chance to meet Greta, a Jewish woman who had survived the Holocaust, and to hear her story. She was born in Vienna, Austria and was sent to a concentration camp at a very young age. Fortunately, when she was six, Greta, as a part of a group of Jewish children from the same camp, was rescued and kept hidden in an orphanage in Budapest, Hungary by Gabor Sztehlo, a Christian reverend, and members of the Red Cross. Although Greta’s story has a happy ending, she experienced a great deal of pain in her life. Not only was her father killed in a concentration camp during the war, she experienced hardship long after the war was over. She had an extremely strained relationship with her mother, in large part due to her father’s death, she was pressured into a marriage for stability, instead of love, and she took it upon herself to divorce her husband so that she could pursue the education she had always wanted. Greta now has a Master’s degree in Social Work and works as spiritually oriented counselor for individuals, couples, and families where her main message is “Heal yourself, heal the world.” She also writes poetry as a method of healing, and encourages those she works with to do the same. She is, undoubtedly, one of the most inspiring people I have ever met, and, not only did meeting her make me a better person, she also did a lot that day to prepare me for my career as a teacher.
The first thing I learned from Greta is the importance of telling our stories, whether real or fictional, as well as listening to those of others, as a way of teaching and learning. Herb Kohl wrote: “I also try to tell empowering stories when I teach, and I encourage students to create their own tales and imaginings. In periods of stress, when people don’t take the time to tell or listen to stories, they sacrifice their imaginations and allow hope to slip away. I’ve never had any problem trading formal learning for storytelling in my classes, and I believe the students have been better for it. After all, seeding hope is at the center of the art and craft of teaching.” (The Herb Kohl reader, 2009, page 12) Greta has no formal training as a educator, but, by sharing nothing more than her story and her outlook on life, she is without a doubt one of the best and most inspiring teachers I have even come into contact with. People like Greta, as well as her story and her poetry, contribute greatly to my desire to be a teacher, and specifically to why my teaching areas are English and Social Studies. I am primarily interested in people and their stories.It is one of my goals as a future teacher to ensure that young people know that, no matter what they have experienced in their lives, they have a story that is valid and worth sharing.
Greta also taught me that it is crucial that we never let the oppression experienced by our students let us limit our expectations of them or our hopes for their futures. In the hours that my class spent with Greta, she spent only about ten minutes, if that, talking about her experiences during the Holocaust. She made it clear from the beginning that she preferred talking about the life she lived afterward, not only because it was difficult to relive such a tragic period of her life, but also because she wants never to be seen only as a Holocaust survivor. Greta, like other survivors of the Holocaust, lived a full life that, while not always easy, is full of love and hope.
This year we have learned a lot about anti-oppressive education. We have learned all about different forms of oppression, the negative impacts it has on people, and the importance of recognizing our own bias as future teachers. And although these things are all extremely beneficial to our education, there is something else—something that Greta taught me—that I also want to remember as a teacher. Greta’s story and her poetry serve as a reminder to me that we as people need to be able to see beyond the oppression that may have impacted those around us. Because when we see only oppression, we are in danger of placing limits on a person’s abilities, opportunities, and on his or her future.
Herb Kohl must have known I’d be writing this someday when he wrote his book because, once again, he wrote something that relates perfectly to what I learned from Greta. He said: “Central to what you see in someone is what you are looking for. If you want to find a child’s weaknesses, failures, personal problems, or inadequacies, you’ll discover them. If you look at a child through the filter of her or his environment or economic status, and make judgments through the filters of your own cultural, gender, and racial biases, you’ll find the characteristics you expect. You’ll also find yourself well placed to reproduce failure and to develop resistance in some children, a false sense of superiority in others. On the other hand, if you look for strengths and filter the world through the prism of hope, you will see and encourage the unexpected flowering of child life in the most unlikely places.” (The Herb Kohl Reader, 2009, p. 14)
Greta wanted to be remembered as more than a victim, as more than a survivor of the Holocaust, and every student we will encounter in the future who may have experienced oppression deserves to be seen as more than a victim as well. For every student with a troubled or tragic past, there is also the potential for a bright future. And inside every person who has been hurt, there is also the potential for strength, courage, and hope. As teachers, we have the opportunity to help our students discover this in themselves. We have the chance to help our students’ stories end not with sadness and oppression, but with joy and beauty instead. Every student can have a story similar to Greta’s and can have a positive impact on our world, or, as Greta like to call it, our “Human Family.”