Small Gifts

In A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy, Thomas Buergenthal tells a story about a loaf of bread thrown to him on the Auschwitz Death Transport. As the open train moved slowly through Czechoslovakia stopping at town after town, Buergenthal weakened from hunger. Then he saw people standing on a bridge, waving and shouting. As the train was about to pass under the bridge, they threw loaves of bread down into the train.

I can imagine people on the bridges thinking that, in the context of Holocaust horror, throwing loaves of bread wasn’t much. But the loaf that ten-year-old Buergenthal caught probably saved his life.

As I read this story, I thought of how often I walked into schools where I taught tempted to stop trying. I’d see students who were high on drugs, angry because of racism, and hungry because food stamps hadn’t lasted the month. I’d see signs of neglect and abuse. I’d see depression and anger and fear. In the face of this need, my efforts seemed undersized.

What helped me most, was to think of bilateral approaches. For the long term, I tried to battle the causes of pain. Why, for example, were a disproportionate number of black students in our detentions? What culture in our school was facilitating the bully of special needs students in the hallway? Why were students hungry in the middle of an agricultural county? What could we do, I asked other teachers and administrators, to change the systems that caused all this? And in the classroom with students, I tried to teach with a social justice lens. But I couldn’t tackle all these big issues every day.

So, in the short term, in the daily rush, I learned that scattering the small helps. I learned that, if I didn’t have time for a fifteen minute talk, I could squeeze a shoulder. Smiles, compliments, and thumbs up signs are small gifts to toss through the air. But even paltry offerings can help students hold to hope.

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