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Inner City Teacher Writes Compelling Essay

abstract:To celebrate Powell's tenth anniversary, thousands of participants sent in their essay telling their "most memorable reading experience in the last ten years", to compete for the prize of a $1,000 spending spree on books. Read the compelling winning entry by a grade 11 inner city school teacher...


October 21, 2004
"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 these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never."
Elie Wiesel, Night p. 32

Every year, I read those words aloud to a classroom of 16-year-olds. I have done this for the last four years. Every year, it is the most memorable reading experience I have.

I am a teacher. I teach eleventh grade English at an "urban" high school. For my students, reading books is not a priority. My students live lives that are unfathomable to me. I absorb conversations at the end of class uttered with unbelievable nonchalance which force me to consciously keep my jaw from falling slack, so as not to be left standing, mouth agape, as my classroom empties.

I teach kids who are victims of abuse. I teach kids who are drug dealers. I teach kids who live in poverty. I teach kids who are themselves parents. I teach kids who have a mom on Tuesday, and who on Wednesday are orphans. My students don't care about the newest jeans or the latest video game; they ask each other, "Who got shot last night?" or, "When is your dad getting out of jail?" I know that assigning a chapter of reading for homework means they will read while caring for their siblings. Or after they finish work at one a.m. Or that they just won't read. It's not a priority.

Each year, I teach an inter-disciplinary unit focusing on the Holocaust. Elie Wiesel's Night is the centerpiece of the unit. From a literary standpoint, Wiesel's words possess power; as a survivor, the story he tells carries a greater weight for these kids. Real life. True stories. These are what they want to hear. From a practical standpoint, at just over 100 pages, the kids cannot complain that it is "too long."

I first taught the unit to tenth graders, sometimes rough to deal with on the brink of maturity, but not quite there yet. I was unsure of how students would handle such a serious piece of literature. They reviewed information on the Holocaust facts the history teachers had been developing. It was my job as an English teacher to go beyond just facts; to begin to examine things thematically, and emotionally. To get them to feel something sadness, anger, shock, outrage any range of emotions.

We read together in class. As we read Wiesel's words, a change occured among my students. The clowning around ended, the outbursts stopped, and the laughter ceased. For the first time that school year, I saw 35 pairs of eyes, all focused intently inside the slim white books before them. Every single one. Reading.

This book became a priority.

We started out using one set of books, doing all of our reading in class. By page 27, kids were asking to please take a book home to continue reading. They were astonished by Wiesel's story.

"Miss, is this really true?"

"Did they really do that, Miss?"

"Dat's messed up, yo..."

In a class where I normally beg for volunteers to read aloud, I instituted a sign-up list to ensure that everyone got a turn to read aloud.

The next year, I taught eleventh grade. My former tenth grade students were back in my class again. In my "first-day survey" I ask, "What is the last book you read?" and, "What is your favorite book?" I was not shocked to see that Night was their answer to the first question; I was shocked to see that it was also their answer to the second question.

I still use the sign-up list and I stick to it as much as possible. They read the book themselves. Except page 32 the end of Wiesel's first night in the camps. I read that passage aloud to them. To impress upon them the gravity of his words. To allow them to absorb what Wiesel is saying. To help them begin to feel what Wiesel felt.

When I finish, there is silence. There are tears. Tears in the eyes of my "gangstas." They glisten brightly in the eyes of boys and girls alike who try so hard to maintain tough exteriors; their defense against the world. In that moment, I know they understand.

And I know, never shall they forget.

And never shall I.

By Paige Sechler


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