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Posts Tagged ‘Purposeful Life’

The First Lesson I Really Learned as a First-Year Public School Teacher,

Though the Moral does not strike me for almost Thirty Years.

(subtitled, The Seven Simple Words: How having been labeled “INEFFECTIVE” as a young teacher would have stilled the ripples unfolding that will reverberate for generations.)

Where am I? And, more importantly, what the hell am I doing here? Taken by me, April 15, 2010.

Where am I? And, more importantly, what the hell am I doing here? Taken by me, April 15, 2010.

Recently, the New York State United Teachers did a couple features on my work in the classroom. If you have any friends or acquaintances who would like to pass some of my musings on to some the younger teachers of the world, even the pre-service students, feel free. It’s time to let them know that it’s a journey, after all. The following post is an excerpt from a draft of my second book, which will be published someday after my first book is actually published. (See more at the bottom.) Sigh.
Gotta teach, after all.

*****

I got to ride the special bus.

*

Pulsing red and blue lights ricochet off the subterranean tunnel walls from which our bus is emerging, announcing to the citizens of our nation’s capital that our convoy of VIPs is arriving, like conquering heroes of old returning home after a great victory. And in a real sense, that is what we are. But Wow.

What the hell is a TEACHER doing here on this bus?

Washington traffic in all directions grinds to a dead halt as our convoy  glides through intersections and sails down boulevards with a full Capitol police escort, every single crossroads blocked by police cars. We are on our way to the national ceremony at the United States Capitol Rotunda, and it won’t do for us to be late. The motorcade slows as it approaches Capitol Hill, and the three buses slowly maneuver and dock like lumbering giants at the sidewalk entrance. The pistons blast and the buses drop gently. The engines are cut. The doors open.

We have arrived. Springtime in Washington.

It is a beautiful morning, and the Capitol Police dismount from their escort motorcycles and walk over, motioning and instructing for occupants to disembark and follow the guides. Emerging slowly into the warm April sunlight are the guests of honor, many of whom step down gingerly, clutching canes or holding the arm of a relative or friendly government escort. Nearly all sport caps festooned with pins and patches. Here, now, nearly sixty-five years after the last battle was fought, the liberators of the concentration camps are returning, many for the first time since World War II ended.

One hundred twenty one old soldiers, eyes sparkling as they pose for photographs,  are escorted slowly through the entryway of the grand building. A single teacher follows the veterans on this beautiful spring day. And as far as I know, I am the only high school teacher in the country this year to be invited, specifically, to be with them. I know some of them, and several of the survivors of the Holocaust here today, on a very personal basis.

Teacher Matthew Rozell, Holocaust survivor Stephen Barry, National DOR Ceremony, Washington, DC April 2010. This photo was taken the day after the 65th anniversary of Steve’s liberation in April 1945. We had just been honored by the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum before the national ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda.

Teacher Matthew Rozell, Holocaust survivor Stephen Barry, National DOR Ceremony, Washington, DC April 2010. This photo was taken the day after the 65th anniversary of Steve’s liberation in April 1945. We had just been honored by the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum before the national ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda.

You see, we are walking into the Capitol Rotunda for the annual Days of Remembrance Ceremony, commemorating those lost in the Holocaust and today especially honoring  the liberators who put a stop to it. I am here because I teach the subject of history to teenagers; I am here because in my lessons and projects with students, we have been making the difference to defeat the legacy of Hitler in the classroom. And we honor what these men did as teenagers, and more. We have made our own mark and changed hundreds of lives in literally reuniting the survivors with the men who actually saved them. Six decades later.

Passing through security and now inside the Rotunda, I am amazed at its beauty but also at the intimacy that emanates from under the hallowed dome as the veterans and survivors, politicians and officials process in. Scaffolding with TV crews and narrow towers with klieg lights illuminate the area, and as the ceremony begins, I am one hundred feet from General David Petraeus, who is about to address these old soldiers. The haunting sound of the Marine Corps violinist serenades the gathering, carrying our thoughts to the victims of the Holocaust whom we remember today. The names of the liberating Army units are called out from the dais as each division is formally recognized, their unit colors hoisted aloft on cue and paraded in.

Capitol Rotunda, 2010 DOR Ceremony.

Capitol Rotunda, 2010 DOR Ceremony. Liberating Army unit flags are paraded in.

Yes I am here, amid the pomp and ceremony, to commemorate the victims, the survivors and today, these soldiers:

Me, a high school teacher who began his career hoping for a pink slip, an easy way out so that he could simply walk away from this profession.

*****

“What’s your policy on homework, Mr. Anders?”

I’m leaning over the kid’s desk, hands placed firmly on either side. In suitcoat and tie, I’m trying to make myself into an imposing presence for my first high school history class. I’d just attempted to collect a handful of written assignments from  25 non-committed sixteen year olds, and now I’m wondering in desperation how to deal with the poor showing in my very first week of public school teaching. I am the third teacher that these kids have had this year, having just started last week, two days before the Thanksgiving break.

Should I assign the group of them to detention after school? Or choose one to make an example out of him?  I decide on the latter.

Lenny Anders, a tall long-haired ‘disengaged’ student with a black motorcycle jacket, lifts his head up long enough to answer coolly:

“Not to do it.”

Clunk. Lenny’s head returns to the desktop.

The class laughs, points, and hoots! Eyes roll, heads shake. Lenny does not even move in response to all the commotion-he’s still face down. And I’m left flapping in the breeze with my rookie mistake; how in the world would I make it until June? A very real question.

*

I’m 26, and I am on my own, but living back at home. A dual irony, really, as not only had I proclaimed defiantly (upon graduation from high school) to my [teacher] father that I would be leaving Hudson Falls FOR GOOD , but when queried about life after high school, I also puffed out my chest and exclaimed “I don’t know, but I certainly won’t be a teacher!” The desired effect was achieved by the angry teen; the wound was deep, and the twist of the knife distinct. I smugly went off to college, having no game plan or clue.

Okay, so what I told my father did not turn out to be the words to live by. Here I am, eight years after high school, on the other side of the desk, teaching the same subject as the old man. Living out of his garage, no less.

It’s my first few weeks back in my old high school, and I’m pushing what feels like a shopping cart through the crowded hallways, with lesson props, books, and marked-up papers to turn back, all akinder. I’m shuffling from classroom to classroom, like an itinerant peddler of obscure vials of “wisdom’ and ‘knowledge’ that nobody seems to want, and I don’t dare turn my back to the chalkboard. I have discovered that a new teacher is also a magician, and can, with this act, make pens, paperballs, and sometimes books fly and illustrate Newton’s Laws of Motion of their own accord. Maybe it’s me, but when I walk into the classroom, these students seem to rub their hands together in hormonal homicidal glee. To many of them, I am next on the hit parade, hopefully out by Christmas.

That’s power, and they have it. How I am hating these immature young savages. How they delight in torturing me.

But enough is enough. I make up my mind to do something about it. I hit on another idea. I’ll tell Johnny/Suzie in my gruffest voice, before the entire class, ‘I NEED TO SPEAK TO YOU AFTER THE LESSON‘- that should settle them all down! I’ll make an example out of one, so the kids will look at one other with a mixture of terror and relief that it was not them summoned after class!  I open my mouth to commence the New Regime, but even before the bell rings, they rise noisily and obliviously to my impending reign of terror and move as a herd for the door. And the teacher-owner of the classroom comes in anyway, clanking his briefcase and fishing for his keys to unlock his closet, as he does EVERY SINGLE DAY to interrupt the end of my lesson. I give up.  I have to be off to another classroom myself anyway, to begin the torture anew. And when I do drop the hammer later, I have my life threatened in front of the class by an older student. The office suggests strongly that I go to the police station to ‘swear out a complaint’.  A what?

For the first time in my life I’m sitting in a police station, in the first month of my public teaching career, trying to balance in a wobbly chair with stainless steel ankle-shackles affixed to the legs, listening to the officer clack out his report on a typewriter .

This is why I became a teacher?

I feel SO alone.

Sitting on the bed, I’m chain-smoking four cigarettes in a row in the twenty minutes before school in the room off my parents’ garage before heading off to work-to a place that, you will recall, in a previous existence, I swore an oath I would never return to.

So let’s review, shall we? The position I had filled a quarter-way through the year had had this history. Would more blood flow? Does everyone in the school expect it to be mine? Another professional acquaintance comments, only half-jokingly I think, “We want to see if you suck and how long YOU will last.” (A feel-good fuzzy memory, looking back.)

*

In desperation, I am living day-by-day. I’m banging out lesson plans, notes, and tests nightly after dinner on the typewriter for hours at a stretch. I try calling parents, but there is no privacy at my house and surely it is a sign of weakness- after all, the old man doesn’t have to call parents.

As I struggle to survive in my first year, a tight budget year when layoffs are being presented as a distinct possibility, I secretly pray that a pink slip in my mailbox will end my misery and I will have an excuse to move on to another occupation- I have been trained in the restaurant business, after all, and people always have to eat. How I remember the anguish of a colleague in another department- I shared an “office” with her in the bowels of the building- when she got her pink slip and burst into tears and pointed at me and wailed aloud that “it should have been you, you don’t even want to be here”.. and I kept my silence, because I knew she was right. She got the slip, and I did not. I did not realize that my private anguish showed so much; I was afraid to talk to people about the troubles I faced each day in the classroom. And now I could add GUILT to the top of the heap.

What the hell am I doing here? I did not know it then, but I was DROWNING.

On schedule, the principal did his classroom observation for my official evaluation later that year, and a charitable description of the event would be ‘the great train wreck’. The ninth graders were flirting with each other, joking, and throwing stuff as I tried to bring order and conduct the lesson. At our post-observation conference, the boss leaned in and said, “You really did not have control, did you?” Eyes beginning to well, I slowly shook my head. He paused, looked me in the eye, smiled, and crumpled up the report he had written for my file and threw it in the waste can in front of me. He settled back in his chair, laced his fingers behind his head, and said seven words: When you are ready, let me know. A soul-crushing weight suddenly lifted. And looking back now, I see that those words had consequences.

Maybe this man saw something in me that I obviously could not see in myself. Nearly 30 years later, it’s clear to me that I was suffering from what I’ll call ‘first-year public teacher shell-shock tunnel vision’.

*

The pink slip eluded me that year, and I was too gutless to resign and end my misery. So imagine my dread as the new school year approached. I saw my roster and every shred of my being constricted and tightened. The same torturers were to be in my classes. AGAIN.

Then, a funny thing happened. The kids were a ‘summer away’ older. And they were genuinely glad to see me. I had survived, and as the year went on, we all grew together. The one thing I had going for me in the classroom was that I was a good storyteller, and I actually knew a lot about the history that I was supposed to be teaching students. I was enthusiastic, I was passionate. They started to listen. Over time, I became their class adviser, orchestrated their prom, took them on their senior trip. We survived together. They went on, some even to become teachers, and others today make many times my salary. I even had their kids in class (much better behaved, actually). We built a foundation and ventured forth on to great things.

*

Back home, in the same high school where I secretly prayed for that layoff slip years before, kids are in the auditorium tuning into the live broadcast and looking for their teacher in the gathering in the Capitol Rotunda as it is broadcast live to the nation.  In Washington, after the ceremony, there is a text message from my Congressman’s aide. The Congressman would like to meet me in his office, NOW, if possible. He is well aware of my invitation to Washington-that a small town high school history project has has altered thousands of lives throughout the world.

*****

So, the Moral of the First Lesson comes to me nearly thirty years after the occurrence:

I nearly left the teaching profession. With seven simple words, my principal threw me a lifeline. Where I would be today if, all those dark days ago, someone had slapped an INEFFECTIVE label on me to fulfill a political objective (‘Too many effective teachers, here, in New York State. Baloney! Find me some ineffective teachers. PRONTO!’) But today, given the proposals in New York State and elsewhere, it’s game on for the witchhunt of the people who devote their waking hours with the youth of our nation.

What if I had been labeled a failure before I even got out of the gate? “INEFFECTIVE, Year One” would have been all the push that I would have needed to exit the classroom forever- that simple push, over the cliff.

I KNOW I would have left the profession.

Maybe I’d have more money than I do now.

But I would not have more wealth.

Because NONE of this wonderful stuff in my life, or my impact on other people’s lives would have ever, ever happened.

 

 Maybe it’s time to nurture and cherish our young teachers, rather than tossing them under that next bus.

*************************************************************

Matthew Rozell teaches history at his alma mater in Hudson Falls, New York. His first book, The Twilight of Living Memory: Reflections of the World War II Generation from Hometown, USA is due out this spring. His second book, in the works, is on the power of listening, teaching, and remembering the Holocaust.

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Last Thursday evening I got out of bed because I could not sleep. The news of the day stayed with me long after I sat down to read it before dinner. So I got up and sat down at the computer in my office and I typed  out my thoughts in the stillness of the late evening hours, burning to get the words out of me.

The post ‘And am I teacher, or a technician?‘ was born, and I sent it off. On a good day, I’ll get 100 hits on the blog you are reading, Teaching History Matters, which I have been rambling on at for the past seven and a half years.

Well, thank you for stopping by. My friends at New York State United Teachers liked it and gave it a nudge. In the last 96 hours, 28,000 people like you have had a look, and the response has been overwhelmingly favorable. My late night existential angst hit a major nerve and tapped a wellspring of grassroots anger. It was pretty amazing and also a little frightening to see the magnitude, but HUGELY comforting at the same time to learn that so many people shared the same sentiments as I. (And as the man said, “if you liked this, come back next week and it’ll be even better!” You can sign up for email updates on the right or just hit the follow button. If not, that’s fine too. My wife doesn’t even “follow” me.)

Perhaps my favorite comment was, just, ‘It gives me hope to read your words’.

*****

Here is some more crucial perspective for us as educators but also as Americans. Frank McCourt was one of my role models. As you may be aware, Frank spent a whole career as a New York City educator before knocking out his first book upon retirement, which took the world by storm. His last book, Teacher Man, is required reading in some ed. classes.

My late mom loved him and was also the product of Irish parents who had recently emigrated from the same county (as McCourt) in the 30s’ to NYC, narrowly missed growing up in Depression-era Ireland herself. Mom was also a passionate educator, a dedicated school nurse teacher, who constantly advocated on behalf of the struggling kids who came to her for help, going toe-to-toe when she had to. “Nursey Rozell” would also not hesitate to kick your ass if you just wanted to get out of class, but always with a sympathetic and keen eye for compassion.

This first appeared on the PBS website, and I used it in a post in November of 2012 near the anniversary of mom’s passing. I repost it in memory of Frank, and my mother.

‘What’s the most precious material we have in the country: children. If we don’t give them the best keepers and mentors and teachers, we’re destroying them. We’re destroying the country.’

It’s a good fight. Remember that. And come back next week.

*****

Interview With Frank McCourt
Frank McCourt, the author of Angela’s Ashes and ‘Tis, is a retired English teacher. He lived in New York City; he passed away in July 2009.

Q: What do you see as some of the major obstacles to improving public schools in our country?

We don’t like our kids. This is a country, this is a nation of people who don’t like their kids. Therefore, the teachers are baby sitters. We don’t look at teachers as scholars the way they do in Europe. In Spain you’re called a professor if you’re a high school teacher, and they pay teachers, they pay teachers in Europe. We don’t here. We resent if, we resent giving them pay raises. If they rise up and say we need a cost of living adjustment, [we say], “Oh, what do you mean you need a cost of living adjustment? Look at all the time you’ve got off. You’re finished at 3 o’clock, never mind that you go home with a bag of papers to correct, and then you have the summers off. These teachers with their summers off! Oh my, I wish I were a teacher.” Well, there’s nobody stopping you from becoming a teacher! Go and become a teacher, dammit! All these so called professionals, investment bankers and lawyers, [they say], “Oh these teachers have their summers off.” You know what most teachers do? They go out and get a job to subsidize their miserable pittance they get from most community boards and boards of education.

Q: Why did you become a teacher?

When I got out of the army I had the GI Bill. Since I had no high school education or anything like that, I came to NYU and they took a chance on me and let me in. I suppose I was what you might call a mature student of 22. And, I thought, I’d like, at one time I thought I’d like to become a journalist, but because I had no education, and because I’d come from this horrible background of poverty and so on, no education, no self esteem, so I didn’t see myself mingling with two-fisted, hard-bitten journalists. I would dream of going up to the New York Times and asking them if I could please be a copy boy or let me scrub the toilets or something like that. But I couldn’t rise to those heights. So the two things I liked most of all were books and children. I used to see American movies where the teacher is there in the classroom and all the kids file in — it was usually a movie about Nebraska or something like that where everybody’s white and blue eyed, and there’s Doug the quarterback and Susan the beauty queen, and they sit there with their pens poised while you discourse most eloquently on John Donne, and they’d all sit there and they would love me to death and I would be the hero of the community. Well, it didn’t turn out like that. I became a teacher all right. I wanted to become a teacher because I had a misconception about it. I didn’t know that I’d be going into, when I first became a high school teacher in New York, that I’d be going into a battle zone, and no one prepared me for that. They’re all natural enemies, teenagers are all natural enemies, they’re really animals, but I love them, I love animals, and the average teenager should be sent to some remote place like Australia, till he’s 20. But I like the teaching because it keeps you on your toes all the time. You can’t back off, and some teachers say, “Oh, give them busy work.” Well, when you’re with bright kids you can’t give them busy work, but..it keeps you… in a sense it’s like Hemingway talking about grace under pressure. You’re facing the bull, and that moment that the bull’s horn comes close to you is the moment at which you could die. That’s what it’s like going into the classroom — you could die in there.

Q: How did you learn to be a successful teacher?

There was what you would call a turning point in my life. I was ill-prepared and insecure — because I had never been in a high school in my life — in this first job. I knew nothing about American kids and their strange tribal ways, and it seemed to me that they were throbbing with sexuality, which you wouldn’t find in Ireland, because they’d knock it out of you. But here, there’s boys and girls in the class, and I didn’t know what to do; and the only models I had for teaching were Irish school masters, and that was all threat, sticks, straps, and physical beatings. So, of course I wasn’t gonna, there was gonna be no physical beating…there were kids in those classes who were on the football team, and would’ve broken me in two. But I would become frustrated and I would yell at them, I’d say to them, “You better keep up now, you’re not doing the work, you’re not bringing in your textbooks,” and so on, and I’d rant and rave. ‘Til one day there was a little African-American girl sitting in the front row — Sylvia — and she was beautiful and always impeccably dressed. And one day she said, “Mr. McCourt!” “What?” “Mr. McCourt.” “What?” “Chill Out!” So, that was the first time I ever heard that expression, but I knew what it meant, so I chilled. What that meant was I became more and more of a human being. I dropped the Irish schoolmaster mask. It didn’t work anymore. What I learned then was the main device, if you want to call it that for a successful teacher, was honesty. I said look, we’re in this together, I’m learning, I would say that, I’m learning. This is what I discovered years and years and years later, I was the big learner out of this teaching experience.

Q: Tell us about your first teaching experience.

When I got my first teaching job, which was on Staten Island in 1958, I took over in midterm spring of ’58 for an old lady named Ms. Mudd, m-u-d-d. And she was just, she just, the kids were driving her crazy. And she said to me, “They’re driving me crazy,” she says to me, “You look out this window,” and the school overlooked New York Harbor. She said, “You look out this window in a week, and you’ll see this ship passing by, and you’ll see me waving from this cruise ship, and the two things I never want to see again is Staten Island and teenagers!”

She left me with mounds, piles of old papers and books, and I went rummaging through the old papers, and I didn’t know what to do with the kids, so I had them reading these old papers, and some of them went back to the Second World War. And they were compositions written by young Staten Island students at that time, who later went off to war, off to the Second World War. And some of the kids in my class discovered these papers, and they were overcome: “This was my father, this was my uncle, this was my cousin Vinny,” and so on. And it was so exciting, and I said to them, “This composition paper is crumbling,” and they would copy them, and they were taking them home to their families, “Look what Uncle Vinny…” And this was a tremendous moment. It was my bridge to the kids. There was such a feeling of community, and emotion, because sometimes the kids, girls and boys, would come across some item from the Second World War from somebody in their family who had been a student at McKee. And, they would be overcome and have to run out of the room. That was one, I think that was my first bridge to them.

Q: How did you balance the emotional needs of students with their intellectual ones?

These girls would come from, I had one class of 35 girls come in these white dresses, uniforms or whatever they are, with hair, hairdos, these beehive hairdos, where you could raise a sparrow in each family. They came into my class and they sat, this first day they sat down, and they took out little boxes, and they started doing their nails and plucking their eyebrows, and fixing their eyelids and so on, eyelashes, and I said what — this was a vocational high school — I said, “What shop is this?” “Cosmetology.” I said, “What’s cosmetology?” “Beauty culture.” And then they’d comment on me, they’d say, “Yo teach, your hair is a mess, your nails need work. Why don’t you come up to beauty culture and we’ll do you?” That was an invitation I declined.

But all of this was human stuff and it had nothing to do with the curriculum. In the meantime, I’m finding my way, because nobody was there to help me. I’m finding my way through this education minefield. I’d go up to the teacher’s cafeteria at lunchtime. On one side of the cafeteria the old timers were gathered — they’re giving me advice, and they’re saying, traditional and conservative and they’ve been through it, and they say you know, “You’re the boss in that classroom, you tell them what to do, don’t ever tell them anything about yourself, nothing private.” Then I’d go to the other side of the cafeteria, and there are the younger teachers who were progressive, you know, students of John Dewey, and they’d say, “Well, you know, these kids are people. These are real people and we have to meet their felt needs.” I didn’t know what a felt need was, but I guess I tried to meet their felt needs. It was a long, slow process, because there’s no, there’s no method or technique by which you can become a successful teacher overnight. It takes years. And it’s like writing I suppose, or like any art, or any human endeavor — you have to find your own way. You have to find your own style, techniques and style. So, I found my own style after a while, and sometimes I would imitate other teachers who had certain ways of dealing with classes. Didn’t work, never worked. It’s like being a writer. You imitate Faulkner, you imitate Hemingway, you imitate Scott Fitzgerald, but in the end you find your own voice, and your own style, and that’s what I had to do as a teacher.

Q: Describe a typical day of teaching as you remember it.

Most teachers would have, first period on the second floor, then it’s up to the sixth floor for the second period, down to third floor for the third period, and in between, in between the second and third period you had what they call homeroom, official class. You had this group of kids, and you had to take their attendance, give them bus passes and food vouchers and whatever, and get excuses for the previous day’s absence. You had to keep all these records. You were like a big clerk, a bookkeeper. And then you go to your next class. So there were five classes, so you’d have lunch, and then you’d have what they call, somewhere along the line, a building assignment. And my building assignment most the time was to supervise the student cafeteria. And you’d go in there and you’d hear them feeding, swilling, and whining and moaning about the food and you see kids throwing food away and you think of your own childhood when we would have eaten the stuff out of the garbage can, and I was convinced, they’d say, “Oh, this is terrible, this hot dog.” I was convinced that most of these kids were gourmets. They went home to bouillabaisse every night or fine wines. Then, if you’re an English teacher, if you’ve been foolish enough to give them an assignment, they hand it in. And you take it home in a bag. You go home and your heart is heavy because you have 170 kids. Now if you give them an assignment 250 words, multiply 170 by 250, and that’s like reading the Encyclopedia Britannica. And there’s another book you’d like to read or a movie you’d like to see, or you’d like to talk to your wife once in a while, but you have all these papers. Sunday night comes. That’s the worst night of the week for any teacher in the country because they know this stuff is piled up and they’re in such a state of despair. And you try to do it, and like any kid who has homework to do, “I’ll get up in the morning and do it.” Well you know you’re not going to do 170 papers, so you do what you can, and try to get it back to them, but the load never lightened.

Q: Why are teachers important in our society?

What’s the most precious material we have in the country: children. If we don’t give them the best keepers and mentors and teachers, we’re destroying them. We’re destroying the country. They are the future, and the teachers are there everyday with the future. And we’re so careless about that. We underpay teachers, we hire poorly prepared teachers, and we don’t help them. We don’t go into the schools and help them, “What can I do?” We don’t participate. It’s a matter of taking care of the children. If you have a child who’s ill, you want the best doctor. You want the best surgeon, “I want the best surgeon for my child.” But do we say that about teachers? No, we don’t. We know that surgeons are well paid, they better be well paid, they don’t want to have worries at home. It should be the same way with teachers. They’re the single most important profession in the country because they’re shaping the future. And some of them are misshaping the future or they’re not being helped by us. And as I said before, we don’t like our children. Because the proof of it is how we treat our teachers. That’s the one fine and significant proof: how you treat your teachers. And they’re treated badly.

Q: What can we do to help improve our nation’s schools?

One of the reasons the schools are in such a state is no one consults the teachers. I used to watch some of these programs on television and you’d have somebody from some corporation, and you’d see some jerk from the think tank, and then you’d have a union official, and I’d call… One time I called Channel 13 in New York, they had one of these discussions about schools, and I said — they were inviting us, calls from the outside — and the lady said, “Well what would your question be?”

And I said, “Why don’t you have a teacher on this panel?”

“Oh, that’s a very interesting question…”

I said, “It’s about schools, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

But I never got through. One never gets through.

http://www.pbs.org/onlyateacher/today8.html

Your comments are always welcome.

*************************************************************

Matthew Rozell teaches history at his alma mater in Hudson Falls, New York.  His first book, The Twilight of Living Memory: Reflections of the World War II Generation from Hometown, USA is due out this spring.

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers his State of the State address and executive budget proposal at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center on Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers his State of the State address and executive budget proposal at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center on Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mike Groll*)

I opened the newspaper today when I got home from work- I don’t have time to read it beforehand- and the Governor of New York’s State of the State address was dissected on the front page. The headline read, “Teachers, taxes, wages targeted: Governor calls teacher evaluations ‘baloney’.”

Now I understand that this headline is an editorial decision, but it doesn’t make you feel too good to come home from a day of nurturing, guiding and mentoring young people to feel like your back is in the cross-hairs of the most powerful man in the state. But unfortunately, I’m getting used to it. The photo that accompanied the article is a ‘classic’, in every sense of the word. Our Governor strikes a pose not unlike a Roman orator of old. There is a certain irony in that, I think to myself.

*Then I realize that I know the photographer- that he has in fact come up to my upstate school and into my own classroom to photo-shoot a lesson which would go on to change the world. He came to see me.

Me.  A lowly public school teacher, one of 600,000 in this state.

*****

From the State of the State: “While Washington fights and gridlocks, we find compromise and move forward…their politics divide, and our politics unite.”

Sorry, but when it comes to the state overseeing the education our youth, that is just not the case. Respectfully, it’s more like divide and conquer. Accept and funnel the dollars from Washington, siphon off the sustenance of the upstate youth to parts elsewhere, and sub-out contracts to multi-national corporations. Hold the money high in the air. Pit one district, one region against the other.

“Last year we said if a school didn’t complete a teacher evaluation system, they wouldn’t get state funding – the excess funding. Low [sic] and behold, 100% of the teachers now have a teacher evaluation system. 100% of the schools adopted a teacher evaluation system. That’s the good news – we have teacher evaluation systems for every school in the system. The bad news is they are baloney.”

Excess funding? Upstate schools have been stripped by Albany for more years than I can count. I teach in a high-needs community, the same community that raised me. I’ve been here, in this school, on one side of the desk or the other for 46 years of my life. In that time I have seen many changes, but few for the better in the economic and social sense, in the decades that we have been held hostage to Albany politics. Just listen any local superintendent. Please.  ‘Lo and behold’? And how many local administrators don’t feel like their hands are tied behind their backs?

“To reduce the over-testing of students we will eliminate local exams and base 50% of the evaluation on state exams.”

The Governor is upset because too many teachers are rated ‘effective’ or even ‘highly effective’ under the system that has been in place for only a year, a system that tries to be one-solution-fits-all, and is frankly fairly irrelevant. It doesn’t work, but tossing in a rating that includes a 50% mandate for high stakes exams is literally tossing the baby out with the bathwater. Many young teachers are overstressed as it is, and if enacted, will be “washing out” or heading to the door of their own volition. Eliminating local exams is also irrelevant– the state does not count them anyway-and practice test after practice test, written by an educational conglomerate, are headed your kid’s way. “Over-testing” is just getting warmed up.

Under the “baloney” system our Governor originally called for, I’m rated on the kids who may not find it important to come to school, who despite the best of our efforts just don’t buy into the value of the test “for their own good”-  in other words, many, many kids. I’m rated on the performance of the kids who spent all last night gaming or texting, or who come to school not having eaten since the last time they were here. I am rated on the performance of kids who have stolen my personal possessions, or worse. So I guess I’m not surprised- we get used to directives and unfunded mandates- but I’m having a problem with the whole 50% thing.

So I can imagine the response: Well, there’s the door, Mr. Rozell. But now  imagine your child’s youthful teacher, once excited and energized, skulking out of meeting after meeting where draconian admonitions are relayed over and over from on high. She’s feeling stomped on, deflated, crushed.

And she doesn’t know, but I can hear her trying to console herself on the way back to her classroom, quietly lamenting the twenty-five years she has to go to until retirement.

Imagining again: There’s the door, Ms. So and So.

This is what I see, in the New York State of mind.

*****

So back to the photograph taken of the Governor this week, and why it matters to me. You see, the very same Associated Press photographer Mike Groll came to my classroom on September 13, 2007, to do a photo-shoot for an article that featured me and my students and the impact that we were making not only on our community but on the world. AP writer Chris Carola did a powerful article that hit the wires and went not only across our great state, but to every state in the Union and all over the planet.

This history class made history. And Mike was there to record it, seven and a half years ago. Thanks, Mike, and Chris.

Later, we would go on to be named ABC World News Persons of the Week. For achievements in the classroom, I would be awarded many top state and national awards for teaching (I even had a national medal pinned on my chest!), and would be recognized by my own SUNY GENESEO alma mater as their 2013 Educator of the Year. NBC Learn even came up from New York last spring to record a lesson with me and my students, in which my seniors really blew me away in demonstrating their knowledge.

So how did the Educator of the Year rate in his own 2013-14 Cuomo Administration teacher evaluation? I scored an 89/100. Not even honor roll. None of the above achievements with students were counted or ‘measured’- and maybe rightfully so, I don’t know. But ‘Mr. History Teacher of the Year Multiple Times Over’ IS NOT highly effective in New York State.

Sour grapes? No thanks. I know where I make a difference every day. It’s just going to get real interesting should this 29 year classroom veteran be rated  ‘ineffective’  or ‘developing’ with the new proposals. Maybe even comical.

*****

Maybe I don’t have the answers, but I know what I see. My parents were teachers. My wife is a teacher, and her dad and his twin were both teachers, everyone of us right here in New York State.  Today my wife and I are nearing the close of our careers, with our own high school age children, and now we are also primary witnesses to the sapping of the energy and strength of the very individuals who spend the most time in our young people’s lives- our fellow teachers. Apprehension and fear is not the climate you want for those who teach your kids.

“We would pay any teacher who gets highly effective, a $20,000 bonus on top of the salary that that teacher is getting paid because we want to incentivize high performance….they have achieved the highest scores on tests.”

Sure, at the end of every other week there is a check in our box. But we don’t need the extra $20,000 to want to make a difference everyday, to take the time to listen, to smile and guide when it matters most. Think about the persons who made you feel like you mattered, who took an interest, who influenced you and maybe even changed or turned your life. Maybe there is a value to that that can never be quantified or measured, nor ever compensated. But in the Governor’s proposal, in New York State, that is not the point. In his world, that is what is irrelevant.

If our teachers are to become testing technicians for our children, then we must accept the consequences. Lesson planning and sound instructional time has already given way to more beta testing, data analysis, spread sheets, clinical trials, and so on. Now we want to jack it up on steroids? And no amount of testing is going to make up for the real ills that plague us as a society, the lack of pride and civility, of responsibility and respect, that at one time was a given.

Our teachers were at one time our role models.  As a young teacher, I got into this game years ago to teach-to create– to nurture– my  fellow human beings.

Despite the rhetoric, I’m joyful that I still feel this way-and respectfully, Governor Cuomo, no door is going to hit me on the way out.

*******************************

Over the course of the past 20 years, Matthew Rozell and his students conducted hundreds of interviews with the World War II generation. One such interview led to the reuniting of a train transport of Holocaust survivors with their American liberators, over 60 years later. He is currently working on a trilogy of narrative histories based on these interviews.

His first book, a narrative of World War II in the Pacific as told through the previously unpublished recollections of over 30 veterans, was released in August 2015. It is available here.  His second book, in progress, is on the power of  teaching, remembering the Holocaust, and the real story behind the  iconic photo of the “Train Near Magdeburg’. He can be reached at his Facebook page at Author Matthew Rozell or by commenting below.

And even though this original narrative history began as a collaboration between the instructor and his students, he can pretty much guarantee that it will count for little in his state evaluation.

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Received from Frank Towers,97 yr old Sec/Treasurer of the 30th Infantry Division Veterans of World War II.  I am going to be there. I hope to see all you survivors there, Holocaust and World War II,  for this last hurrah…love these guys. It will be the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the “Train Near Magdeburg”. In the pic below are soldiers and Holocaust survivors, and yours truly, in Nashville from 2010.

#30th Infantry Division, Survivors, M. Rozell

Nashville is Next!
And sadly to say, it will be the LAST Reunion of the“30th Infantry Division Veterans of WWII”….

30th Infantry Division Veterans of WWII
National Reunion April 15 – 18, 2015
Holiday Inn- Nashville-Opryland/Airport
Nashville, TN

The time has come when all good things must come to an end. We have had some great times in the past few years, but time and age is taking a toll on our membership, and the numbers are dwindling faster than we would like. Our Executive Committee has decided, that since our numbers of attendees has dropped off, it is becoming a financial burden to continue having reunions without adequate financial support. It takes a great deal of work on the part of the Exec. Sec-Treas. and the Reunion Chairman, Mrs. Nancy-Lee Pitts and Family, to prepare all of the necessary paper work, contract, preparing a program and the process of cleaning up and winding down from the Reunion. At our age, this is becoming a burden and almost prohibitive, so, very sadly, we must call it Adieu !!

So, all we ask is that as many of you who are able, Please come to this Reunion, to have a good time and enjoy the company of each other, and make this a memorable reunion.

This may be the last opportunity that you will have to see and visit with “old buddies”, whom you have known for the past many years.

Remember, Nashville was the site of the very first Reunion of the 30th Division Veterans in 1947, and it is quite appropriate that we should have the last one at this same site.

Come One and Come All, and make this a Big Blast, for the last time.

We will be looking forward to seeing ALL of you.

 

Old Hickory Re-Enactors

As usual, many, many thanks go to all of the guys who were representing the Old Hickory Re-Enactors, by Posting the Colors at each event as required, tending the bar in a most efficient manner, and best of all, their Artifacts, Weapons and other Memorabilia which is always a big hit with everyone. If you have not visited their displays, you are missing a lot ! We need to give these guys a big hand for what they do for us.

 

Holocaust Survivors

We cordially invite all of the Holocaust Survivors from the Farsleben Train, to join with us for this special event. If you have not been with us before, please do not pass up this opportunity to meet your Liberators. This will be the last time that you will have an opportunity to meet them, as we will not be having these Reunions any longer, so this will be your last chance. Many of you have been with us before, and we hope to see you all again. Kosher food will be available for all of those who require this.

Weferlingen – Walbeck – Grasleben

On 10 April 1945, Brunswick, Germany was captured by the 30th Infantry Division, with the next objective being Magdeburg.

The following day 11 April 1945, proceeding on towards Magdeburg, the town of Hillersleben was attacked and captured with little or no major battle. At the edge of the town, there was a large German Luftwaffe Airbase and an Armaments Research Center. This base was composed of several operations buildings, several 2 story block barracks, and several private homes for the officers and a small hospital.
Continuing to press on towards Magdeburg, during the 12th of April, the 120th Regiment over-ran the village of Walbeck, and the 117th Regiment over-ran the village of Grasleben, and in between these two villages, was another small village, “Weferlingen”, which was liberated by the 120th Regiment. [Ed. note: On 13 April the train at Farsleben was discovered.]

No mention was ever made in the journals of these regiments, about the capture of these villages, nor was any mention made of them in the 30th Division History Book or either of the Regimental History Books. Only from the Journal of the 30th Military Government, was this action discovered recently. (2012)
At Weferlingen, the site of a former potash mine was discovered – a mine operated by Jewish and D.P slave laborers, under the direction of their Nazi slave-masters. This mine had been enlarged and deepened, from its original size as a potash mine, and was in operation of fabricating submarine engines, airplane engines and rocket engines. It was deep and well protected from American bombing attacks.
This “camp” was named “ Camp Gazelle” by the Germans, and it was a sub-camp of Buchenwald, and when discovered, consisted of 421 (political prisoners), slave laborers. As any of these laborers became ill or otherwise incapacitated, they were sent back to Buchenwald, and fresh laborers were sent to the camp to take their place and to keep the labor force consistent with their needs. All of these prisoners were found in very poor physical condition, due to malnutrition because of being underfed, and overworked for 12-15 hours per day. Almost all of them required immediate medical attention.

Arrangements were made with the Burgomasters of Walbeck and Grasleben to furnish adequate food for these people. Our own 105th Medical Battalion personnel furnished them with immediate needs of medical supplies.
They were almost immediately sent back to the American Military Government and the American Red Cross, then located at Hillersleben, Germany, for appropriate processing and repatriation back to their homelands wherever possible.
It was on the basis of the liberation of this “CAMP” that the 30th Infantry Division was given the distinction of being named a “Liberating Unit” by the Center for Military History and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, thereby allowing our Colors to be displayed in the lobby of the US. Holocaust Memorial Museum. This is to honor the men of the 30th Infantry Division who had a part to play in the liberation of numerous Jewish slave laborers of the Holocaust.
This was actually the very first viewing that any man of the 30th Infantry Division had of the “supposed” propaganda of the “Torture of the Jews by the Nazis”, later to be known as “The Holocaust” .These liberating soldiers had no training as humanitarians- they were trained to be soldiers, fighting a war against Nazi aggression and really did not know what they had on their hands, nor the scope of this captivity of the Jews. -Frank Towers

Taps – 2014

ADKINSON, BRUCE 743 TkBn-C Garden City, NJ
BERKEL, John J. 119-I 5/26/14 Belleville, IL
BIGOS, Adolph J. 119 Tom’s River, NJ
BURLEIGH, James 117 Golden, CO
CONLEY SR., Leo J 119 Framingham, MA
COX, Henry G. 117-F 8/17/10* Loris, SC
COX, Joe M. 117-D 5/20/14 Bluff City, TN
DEAN JR., Preston A. 531 AAA Hq
ERICKSON, Mervin L. 119-K Windom, MN
FLOYD, Thomas A. 119-G 9/30/13* Forney,
GIACCHETTI, Hugo J. 119 E Chicago, IL
GRAPKOSKI, Walter E. 119-G 11/23/11* Danbury, CT
HOFFMAN, STANLEY 120-B 1/19/14 Princeton, NJ
HOLLOWELL JR, Ernest L. 105 Med D
HOUTEKIER, Louis 119 G 7/15/14 Big Rapids, MI
IACONO, George D. 197 FA Svc, 9/30/11 St. Petersburg,
JORDAN, Joseph S. 105 Med. BN A 7/26/12 Wilmington, NC
KEATING, Hubert M. 113 FA/A 6/06/13* Paducha, KY
LEY, Charles E. 120
MARKHAM, Cameron L. 117 1BnHq 5/15/14 Charleston, WV
MARSIGLIA, Joseph M. 119 Hq. 12/.03/14 Algonquin, IL
MARZILLI, Rocco D. 30 QM Co. 10/27/13 Waterbury, CT
MC MICHAEL, Roscoe 105 Med. Bn 10/08/13* Newnan, GA
MITCHELL, Kenneth 120 C
NOWLAND, Maland C. 30th Recon E. Vassalboro, ME
ORTIZ, Oscar A 105 Med B San Francisco, CA                                                                 OWENS, Livis 120-C
PARKER, Kanneth 120 B
POLAND, Claude E. 120-G 4/49/14 Columbus, IN
RINELLA, Donald. 105 Med Bn. C 5/11/14 Truckee, CA
SMALL, George 120-A 12/19/13 Augusta, MI
SUPER, Seymour 119-A Boynton Beach, FL
WAUGH, Wilford D. 120-I Buffalo, OK
WHITE, Carlton L. 120-K 1/29/12* Elizabeth City, NC
WILEY, A.P. 120-M 6/24/14 Dallas, TX
WYATT, Nell (Wid) W 2/06/14 Waynesville, NC

 

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Tomorrow is Thanksgiving day. Today I stumbled across a holiday greeting I received from Holocaust survivor Ernest Kan a while back. It was about being thankful, simply appreciating what you have.  So it reminded me to share Ern’s story (which I recorded) at a gathering of former American soldiers and Holocaust survivors.

It was Ern’s turn to speak. He came to the front of the room to address “his” soldiers:

My odyssey began in Riga, Latvia where the Germans occupied our apartment on the first of July, 1941. Shortly thereafter we were put into the Riga ghetto. During the partial liquidation of the ghetto on November 30 and Dec 9. 1941, my mother was murdered with 27,000 other Jews in the forest of Rumbula.

The ghetto was finally liquidated in 1943.  My dad was shipped to Auschwitz where he perished, and I was put into the concentration camp Kaiserwald near Riga. With the approach of the Soviet army in 1944, Kaiserwald was evacuated by ship and we were shipped to Stutthof concentration camp, after about a month to Polte in Magdeburg where I was liberated.

I was 19 years old at the time of imprisonment, and held captive altogether 44 months.

photo

The main gate through which the prisoners entered the factory every day for shifts of 12-14 hours. Source: Lev Raphael, Polte-Fabrik slave labor camp, http://www.levraphael.com/sg_poltefabrik.html.

The name of the factory was Polte; it was the largest ammunition factory in Germany. Conditions were very bad. They had 30,000 slaves working there in shifts. It manufactured heavy artillery shells, big coastal artillery shells about 30 inches long. And we had to work in 12 hour shifts.

They brought us there from a concentration camp Stutthof, near Danzig, by freight train, it took about two nights, and we got there we didn’t know where we wound up, we were assigned to bunks in a barracks, and it was about a mile to walk from the factory and back.

And that is where I was liberated in April 1945 by the 743rd US Tank Battalion, the 30th Infantry Division.

After an air raid by the United States [Army] Air Force, the camp was evacuated and they marched us southward, because the south was still unoccupied by Allied forces. So they assembled the prisoners and marched them out of the camp, and we had to move a large wagon with spoke wheels, they had no more horses to pull the wagon, we were pulling and shoving the wagon with all the luggage and personal belongings of the guards.

So as when we passed that factory, Polte, me and three other guys, we ran into the open gate, the factory was already disabled-there was no more electricity, no water, no nothing, it couldn’t function anymore- it had been made unoperational by air raids. So we ran and we hid, we changed our striped uniforms and we put on German overalls we found in a locker so we looked more or less human again, but we had no hair, the hair was shaved off.

And we hid in an attic above the office …we stayed there one night, and in the morning four SS guards with drawn guns found us and said “Out you swines, hands up!” and marched us to the courtyard of the Polte factory, they had about 100 or so lined up with their hands up, and they came with little lorries, little trucks, that took groups of 10 away and returned within five to eight minutes empty for the next batch-so we knew they took them to the forest to shoot them and come for the next.

And I thought that was the end of us, I was standing with my hands up and I said to the guy to my left, “this is it, we made it up until now” -and lo and behold, an air raid started! The United States [Army] Air Force, low flying bombers came, you could see the pilot’s eyes -that’s how low- they dropped the bomb load, [the guards] chased us in the adjacent air raid shelter, all the guys were at the wall in the air raid, they posted a guard in front of that door and as we walked in he said “I’m innocent, I never did you any harm.” He was an old, old man, older than me today. So when I heard that, there was already music in my ears all of a sudden, I had never heard that from any guard to say something like that.

So they locked the door and put a padlock on the outside. And you could hear the bombs falling and the smoke seeping through and it was chaos, we were singing inside and we were happy, praying the bombs should hit us and get us out of our misery, because by that point we were finished.

So I leaned against the door and the door gives, so I don’t know to this very day whether the air pressure from falling bombs blew the lock off, it was a big padlock, or if the guard posted outside opened it up and took it away. At any rate the door was open, we all ran out scattered left, right and the four of us hid in an elevator shaft up above where the wheel is, and we waited until the air raid stopped and after about an hour we sent one guy out to reconnoiter what was happening, it was dead quiet. We didn’t know who was where and what was going on. So after about half an hour he came back with a big vat of soup, and he said [Ern stops-long pause. He composes himself, and speaks slowly]:

“Boys-we are free-the Americans are here!”

That is a moment I can never forget.

The soup was lentil soup, it was delicious, I ate and ate until I threw up-we hadn’t eaten in so many days, and I then I saw the first American in a Jeep.

I had never seen an American, he looked like a Martian to me with different weaponry and a Jeep. And he says to me, “Hands up! You are German?” I said, “No, I am a Jewish prisoner from the local concentration camp” but by my haggard appearance he could see that I was certainly not an enemy. I was about 75 pounds at that point and it so happened that when I found the overalls in the German locker, I put on a belt I found there and it had a swastika locket which I didn’t realize, I put on the belt not to lose my pants and he saw the swastika on it and he assumed I was a German in overalls, so I told him I was from the local camp.

It so happened that he was a Jewish GI and he embraced me and he said “You are free now, you can go wherever you want” and he gave me a  an army issued prayer book, and a mezuzah, that is something like sort of an amulet that some people wear, it contains some proverbs from the Deuteronomy inside, and he said “Go!”

In the heat of the moment I was unable to ask him where he came from, what his name was, and it bothers to this day that I could never express my gratitude to this one man, but all these guys here are my liberators and they represent this first American I ever saw and he gave us back our life and our freedom and I will never forget it.

There are no words to express my gratitude for what they have done for us and never in my vaguest dreams would I have thought to be here  65 years after the war is over and meet these guys again, that is unbelievable, it is a moment, an unforgettable moment in my life.

RECORDED IN MARCH 2008.

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This originally appeared at the Huffington Post website for Veterans Day.  Maybe it is appropriate to share for Thanksgiving.

The author contacted me in 2007 when news of our first reunion went viral  in the Associated Press. Later, in 2009, he was invited to a gathering of the soldiers who saved his father and other survivors on this train here at our high school. His talk to our gathering can be seen below, published here for the first time.

Praise for the American Soldiers Who Saved My Father From a Death Train

By Lev Raphael

 In early April 1945, my father was packed into a train with 2500 other prisoners from Bergen-Belsen as the Nazis insanely tried to keep British and American troops from rescuing them. The train was made up of 45 cars with their doors sealed shut; the crowding was horrific and of course there was no food or water.

 In the chaos of war, this hellish train wandered for a week and finally stopped at Farsleben, a tiny town not far from the Elbe, sixteen kilometers from Magdeburg, the site of one of Germany’s largest munitions plants. German communications had collapsed and the commander couldn’t get clearance to move across the Elbe, so he ended up decamping ahead of the American troops he knew were coming. When two American tanks appeared on April 13th, the remaining guards escaped.

 Frank W. Towers, a 1st Lieutenant of the 30th Infantry Division, reported that the stench when the locked cattle cars were opened “was almost unbearable, and many of the men had to rush away and vomit. We had heard of the cruel treatment which the Nazis had been handing out to Jews and political opponents of the Nazi regime, whom they had enslaved, but we thought it was propaganda and exaggerated. As we went along [in Germany] it became more apparent that this barbaric savagery was actually true.”

 The troops that had found this train were racing to the Elbe because it was the last barrier to their advance across Germany, and now they had a totally unexpected burden of some twenty-five hundred prisoners to house and provide for. The answer was about nine miles to the west. American troops had just captured several hundred Germans at the Wehrmacht base and proving ground in Hillersleben where tests had been conducted for giant railway guns manufactured by Krupp.

 It was an ironic place for Jews to be sheltered, cared for, and brought back to life. But then what place in Germany wouldn’t have been an ironic location?

 This verdant military setting with its clean, heated quarters for officers and soldiers was a virtual paradise for people who had been treated like animals for years. That’s where my parents met and fell in love. My mother was in Hillersleben because she had escaped from a slave labor camp in Magdeburg and been brought there by American troops now using it as a temporary Displaced Persons camp.

 She and my father had each lost everything in what would come to be called the Holocaust: home, families, countries. So there wasn’t any time to play any pre-war games. “Do you like me?” he asked. She did, and as my father tersely put it years later, from that moment on “She was mine and I was hers.” My mother moved in with him that night, beginning their fifty-four years together.

 Frank Towers, who is 97, is the last surviving soldier who rescued the prisoners on that train, who saved my father from almost certain death and brought about his encounter with my mother. I’ve had the honor of meeting Frank and shaking his hand, and I’ve written about him in my memoir My Germany, but on this Veteran’s Day, with the survivors of the Holocaust and their saviors dwindling faster and faster, it’s more important than ever to thank him in public, and praise the memory of those other “train heroes” who are no longer alive.

The account in this blog is excerpted from My Germany: A Jewish Writer Returns to the World His Parents Escaped.

 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lev-raphael/veterans-day-praise-for-t_b_6124862.html

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Five years ago this fall, we put on quite a show at our high school.  High school kids listening to, meeting, sharing, laughing, crying, even dancing  with octogenarian U.S. soldiers and Holocaust survivors. Here, Raphael shares his remarks with the soldiers, survivors, and students about growing up in a survivor household, and his coming to terms with Germany.

 

 

 

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Veterans Day: Hudson Falls teacher’s stories unite veterans with survivors

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications

veterans day

Caption: Photo of Matt Rozell by Andrew Watson.

History teacher Matt Rozell knows where he will be on Veterans Day. He’ll be in same place he is every year: working with students to help veterans. This year, he and 28 of his Hudson Falls high school students will be out raking leaves and doing yard work at the homes of veterans.

In his world, the one he shares with students, veterans are held in the highest regard.

“These soldiers, and what they’ve gone through for our country…” he said, trailing off. Rozell, a member of the Hudson Falls Teachers Association, was standing in the school entryway in front of a new display called The Veterans Wall. It is filled with photographs and stories of veterans from World War II through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Their mission was protection. Rozell’s mission has been to make sure students know what that protection cost and what it preserved. In a metal filing cabinet in Rozell’s living history classroom there are 200 written student interviews with World War II veterans. Each folder includes the interview, positions papers, fact checks, photographs, letters and other primary sources.

[Hudson Falls Teachers Association member Matt Rozell on the history of Veterans Day and keeping history alive through the “power of the narrative story.”]

That’s 200 stories now documented; important pieces of history, of personal lives that intersected and collided with the deadliest war in history. These veterans became part of the Allies Forces in a brutal war from 1939 to 1945 – a war involving most nations of the world, the Holocaust, nuclear bombing, and sobering losses. According to the World War II Museum, there were 15 million combat deaths; 25 million wounded; and 45 million civilian deaths.

The front wall of Rozell’s classroom is covered with the front pages of actual newspapers chronicling stages of the war as it stormed across the world: “France Joins Britain in War on Germany;” “Roosevelt is Dead; Truman Sworn In;” “Germans Take Oslo: Sweden Gets Warning;” “Reich Scraps Versailles Pact.”

But it is on the last wall where the stories uncovered by Rozell and his students are the most personal. Here, there is a map of the world. In certain sections, it is dense with colored pushpins that students insert for tracking survivors.

The pins represent people: Jewish people who were rescued by American soldiers in Germany on a train from Bergen Belsen concentration camp, destined to be killed at the end of the war. The pins also represent the soldiers who saved them and the soldiers’ families.

“There were 2,500 Jews inside,” said the soft-spoken Rozell, whose blue eyes fill with tears telling the story. Some were already dead; all were emaciated. It was April 13, 1945. They were covered with lice. Some had typhus.

“It was at the point in the war when everything was collapsing under the Third Reich,” Rozell said. “Their final order was to murder everyone on the train.” German soldiers were to drive the train onto a bridge and blow up the bridge. But first, they ordered the men and boys off the train.

“They were going to machine gun them,” Rozell said.

Then the Americans, en route to a nearby battle, crested the hill in their tanks. They stayed 24 hours to guard the train, and then other soldiers came in to help transport the survivors.

In the last 10 years, 275 rescuers and survivors have been reunited through Rozell, the web site he created,https://teachinghistorymatters.com/tag/matthew-rozell/, and veteran Frank Towers, now 97. Towers was a soldier with the 30th Infantry Division who was charged with relocating the train survivors to a safe place for medical care and treatment the day after the rescue.

“His job was to move people out of harm’s way. He had trucks. It took all day,” Rozell said.

Towers, 97 has now met children of those train survivors, “people who would not exist if Americans hadn’t liberated the train,” Rozell said.

Rozell’s  determination to have his students experience the meaning of the closing days of WWII drew the attention not only of families and survivors, but also of the media. He and his students have been featured on NBC Learn as part of “Lessons of the Holocaust” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=koQCU9Rhys0.

In September 2009 ABC World News with Diane Sawyer named them as “Persons of the Week.”

Rozell also works with the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

His story of action in the classroom began years ago when he had students first start interviewing veterans and videotaping them. Then they would transcribe them and type them up.  “This was before the internet,” he said.

In the mid 90s he began putting the stories online.  Rozell also conducted interviews, and one of them was with the grandfather of one of his students, a WWII veteran. He set up a video camera and the pair talked for two hours. A retired state Supreme Court justice, Carrol Walsh had been in combat in a tank.

“He hated it. Once he was trapped for three days,” Rozell said.

As the interview was winding down, Rozell recalls, Judge Walsh’s daughter stepped in and said “Did you tell him about the train?”

Walsh was one the soldiers who came across the train full of imprisoned Jewish people as they were driving their tanks. He told Rozell how they found the people on the train and scared off the German soldiers guarding it.

liberation

Next, Walsh directed Rozell to George Gross, a fellow tank commander who had taken photographs that day from the tank. More recently, Gross had written a narrative about his part in the liberation of the train.

Rozell eventually interviewed him by speakerphone in a class interview.

Rozell posted the transcripts of the interviews with Walsh and Gross – now deceased – on the school web site under a WWII history project.

The site got hits, but it more or less languished for about four years.

Then the trickle started. A grandmother from Australia who had been a little girl on the train contacted Rozell. Then a doctor in London, a scientist in Brooklyn and a retired airline executive in New Jersey found him through his site. They were all survivors from the train.

Rozell decided to host a reunion for them in 2007 at the school, and of course Walsh was invited.

“Judge Walsh – the only soldier there – met them with a laugh, and said ‘Long time, no see!'” Rozell recalls.

The Associated Press picked up the story about the reunion, and the school’s web site got so many hits it crashed the system. Rozell heard from 60 more people who were on that train.


The AP story is how veteran Frank Towers found out about the story. He contacted Rozell and they worked together. Since then there have been over 10 reunions – three of them in Hudson Falls,one in Israel, and many organized by Towers. Besides Israel and New York, they’ve been held in North and South Carolina  Tennessee, and Florida. With the help of survivors daughter Varda Weisskopf in Israel, they have brought survivors and their descendants together with American soldiers and their descendants. Their homes are now in places such as Great Britain, Canada, Israel, America, and Australia.

In 2011, Rozell and his son were given a gift of attending one of the reunions in Israel. There, he met 65 people who were on the train.

“The survivors [and soldiers] chipped in and bought a ticket for me and my son,” he said, still awestruck about the event three years later. “I’ve never been in the Middle East.”

NBC News recently heralded Towers’ quest to reunite survivors in http://www.nbcnews.com/watch/ann-curry-reports/children-from-death-train-reunited-346382403757.

In the video, a young girl cries, trying to express how much it means to her to meet the man who liberated her grandfather on the train.

Rozell, a graduate of SUNY Geneseo, is in his 29th year of teaching history. He says his journey is about “the power of teaching.”

“We can use the power of history to get kids involved, engaged and more empowered themselves,” he said.

The Washington County Historical Society has published some of the student stories in the file cabinet, giving both students and veterans, a voice.

http://www.nysut.org/news/2014/november/veterans-day-using-the-power-of-story-to-make-history-come-alive-for-hudson-falls-students

Thanks, Liza, Andrew and Leslie for visiting our school and seeing the power for yourselves.

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