Several years ago, as a school administrator, I joined a group of teachers from my school in attending a highly inspirational conference regarding the Holocaust. The keynote speaker, Gerda Weissmann Klein, spoke of her years of suffering in several German concentration camps. As the war neared its end and as the Allied forces descended upon the Nazis, Klein and her fellow prisoners were forced to embark upon a "Death March” of 350 miles, walking through treacherous winter conditions with little food and little clothing for warmth. Four thousand prisoners began the march; fewer than 120 survived.
Shortly after arriving in what is now part of the Czech Republic, World War II ended and camp prisoners were liberated. Gerda fell in love with one of the American soldiers involved in that mission. She and Army Lieutenant Kurt Klein were married the next year. Together, they infused their testimony and messages of hope into numerous charitable efforts to educate others about the Holocaust, civil rights, and tolerance. They spoke to all who would listen, to all who would take that message and carry it forward themselves.
I listened intently.
A few minutes into the presentation, a young red-haired woman in her thirties entered the synagogue and made her way to the seat directly in front of me. She looked familiar but, as so often happens to this veteran teacher, I could not place her name or where I had seen her before. I turned my attention back to Mrs. Klein, but the identity of the mysterious woman, now partially blocking my view of the stage, continued to nag at me.
Gerda spoke of her family, most of whom were killed by the Nazis. She shared yellowed, faded, frayed photographs of family members - her only physical reminders of them - that she had years before hidden deep inside her shoes. Finally, she described in depth the impact of the words of her childhood teachers – words that came back to her during her horrendous march, words that guided her to her ultimate survival, words of courage, love, and determination. She urged the educators sitting before her at that moment to never cease filling the minds of their students with such positive messages and to trust that their words will remain in those minds forever, bringing strength and sustenance throughout adulthood. In her closing remarks, she reminded the teachers in the room that we indeed make a difference in the lives of our students - even if we never know of their future trials and successes.
I stood and began to move toward the lobby to purchase Mrs. Klein's memoir, All but My Life - and to thank her for her uplifting message. The red-haired woman rose as well. I decided that I had nothing to lose by introducing myself and letting her know that she looked familiar to me. But, before I could get my words out, she smiled and exclaimed, "Mr. Ramsey! You were my favorite teacher!" Her words echoed throughout the synagogue, and others turned to watch this wonderful reunion.
The red-haired woman was Barbie Sappington Marley who had been a freshman in my class my very first year of teaching - nearly twenty years before. She had returned to the small city high school as a teacher herself and, as fate would have it, was at the conference this day with her own teacher colleagues. We caught up on each other’s lives, and a flood of memories of moments spent in Room 301 at Coolidge High School instantly filled both of our minds.
Gerda was right. We definitely do make a difference in the lives of our students. Sometimes we are even fortunate enough to reconnect with a student or two many years later. Sometimes we learn that we actually did make a difference in their lives. In turn, they get to hear how much they influenced their old teachers' lives as well.
Gerda was right.
Copyright, Tim Ramsey, 2017.