by: David Sarles
As my 7th grade class filed up the back stairway to the attic hiding place, an anxious quiet replaced excitement. An in-house field trip, but to where? and why with coats and mittens and double socks? Here, finally, was their replication of Anne Frank’s two years of hiding from the Nazis. Although only one 40-minute’s time in the cold storage attic of the old carriage house converted into their Middle School, the experience sobered up the fourteen students who had studied the two-act play version of Anne’s diary.
I wonder, does this brief glimpse into self-imposed incarceration relate in any way to CLTL students’ insight into the courage of Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea or the struggle to resist evil seen in Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been.”
Prior to reading Anne’s Diary, the class had read Jeanne Wakasuki’s Farewell to Manzanar, about government remanding of Japanese-Americans to internment camps in World War II. That military imprisonment of over 110,000 Japanese, German and Italian nationals in 10 camps and dozens of holding centers in Western states remains a regrettable chapter in American dealings with supposed enemies of the state.
As the 14 students began to realize what had become of the two young girls who are the center of Anne’s diary and the Jeanne’s memoir, they focused on the meaning of resistance. The usual 7th grade taunts and bravados have subsequently been tempered, replaced by something like gravitas. They are as lively as ever. However, their energy lies more towards cooperation in lunch recess, hallway interaction, and athletics. A noticeable reduction in detention notices is one indication of the calming influence of their understanding of Anne’s and Jeanne’s suffering.
Do CLTL students find inner strength through the cathartic readings they absorb in discussion and reflection? Is their close encounter with and resistance to evil effected by their participation in characters through reading and reflection? If what has begun to happen to a group of 7th graders is in any way an indication, then it would seem so.
My 7th graders will be further exposed in their next assignment: a study of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, the experiences of a young girl and her sharecropper classmates in a 1933 Jim Crowe state. Violence lies just beneath the surface of Mildred Taylor’s fictionalize biography, just as it does in the policed street outside Anne’s hiding place and in Jeanne’s submachine gun-guarded internment camp. Overlooking the courtyard of our carriage house/school building is the unheated attic where 14 7th graders shivered in the dark, if only for one short class period. Their courtyard is not a prison exercise compound, is not an internment camp hardscrabble baseball field, is not a segregated school on stilts, but is a place showing cooperative good will. In a small way, these 7th graders may have come to realize, as do CLTL participants, what Anne Frank meant when she wrote, “I still believe in spite of everything that people are good at heart.”
David Sarles has taught Upper and Middle School English at Portledge for 16 years. Previously, he taught in several other private schools in Connecticut and New York. He also taught English at what is now the Engineering School at Fairfield University and was a Teaching Assistant at Stony Brook. He can be reached for comment here.