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Teaching empathy with ‘Paper Clips’

By Staff | Jul 26, 2019

There is a wonderful documentary called “Paper Clips” that all of you would probably like. Linda and I rented it last weekend. It’s really engaging, moving and inspirational.

It’s the story of the Eighth Grade Holocaust Project at Whitwell Middle School in Whitwell, Tenn. The principal of the school was reflecting on the lack of diversity in the school, located in a nearly all white small southern town. The principal had noted that those who grew up and moved away, often came back with tales of finding it hard to fit into the larger world. In addition, bullying was on the rise in the school. So she got together with her assistant principal and her eighth grade teacher to come up with a plan for teaching tolerance.

The plan focused on teaching about the Holocaust. Since students struggled picturing a number as high as six million, the approximate number of Jews and others exterminated in the Holocaust, according to history.com, the administrators came up with the idea of having the students collect six million paper clips. The students took to this idea right away, because it captured their imaginations and they were given roles of responsibility.

After the initial mailing, which netted a lot of paper clips but nowhere near six million, the responses began to dwindle. Then, little by little, they began to pick up again. Actor Tom Boswell wrote the class a personal letter and made a contribution. I am not sure of the exact sequence of things, but at some point Tom Brokaw featured the project on NBC Nightly News.

In due course, a retired couple who had been Washington Post journalists heard of the project and got involved. People of German descent from all over began sending paper clips, sometimes with mementos of Holocaust survivors in their own families. Over the course of three successive eighth grade classes, each one continued the work of their predecessors, until they had collected 29 million paper clips.

How to present the results? A cattle car! The journalist couple, after exhaustive searching, found an actual cattle car used to transport Jews to the concentration camps. It was transported by ship to Baltimore Harbor and by train to Whitwell, where it became the centerpiece of the Paper Clip display.

Actual survivors of the Holocaust came to the grand opening. They spoke to the students and the community, assembled in the local Methodist Church. They visited the school and were guests of honor at the opening ceremony the next day. There were many tears and hugs.

If you are feeling hopeless and helpless about the present state of our nation and the world, see “Paper Clips.” It’s just wonderful! There are many thoughtful reflections about tolerance and stereotyping, some from students, some from adults. It answers the question asked of Jesus in Luke 10:29, “Who is my neighbor?”

The answer: everyone.

Bill O’Brien is a consciousness coach and shamanic practitioner. He and his wife Linda have lived in Shepherdstown since 2005. He can be reached at billobrienconsciousnesscoach@gmail.com.