What are our lives but a series of opportunities? Chances taken, capitalized upon. Chances missed.
In the window since my last post, I have pondered this word. President Obama touted opportunity in the State of the Union. “Equal opportunity” is a slippery and widely debated ideal; does providing equal opportunity mean providing identical opportunity? What is the greater opportunity: the grander, more lucrative job? the blessing of greater margin and time in one’s life? the chance to love someone you admire and who makes your heart sing?
I’ll be blogging more about opportunities and their inextricable coexistence with difficult choices and with inequity.
Today, I am (joyfully) overwhelmed with trip preparations; thanks to over $30K in donations, 15 adults will embark next week with 28 teenagers for our nation’s capital to enjoy rare access to powerful artifacts in hope of empowering largely voiceless youth to lead their communities in confronting and resisting intolerance.
On a less lofty note, I am busy aggregating nine menu selections for forty-three people.
But I feel compelled to post. I am overdue in thanking the many people who gave me yet another great gift in this life: a magical opportunity – the chance to take a meaningful and exciting trip like the one my Writing Wrongs students will experience May 29th-31st.
Today, I must eschew (at least to some extent) the abstract musings and share the joy of a recent tangible and singularly precious opportunity.
My Experience at the National Commemoration of the Days of Remembrance and the USHMM 2014 National Tribute Dinner
Remember David After Dentist? (And yes, you should take this as a sign that this post will be less lyrical than the last.)
The poor kid in the video is recovering from dental surgery, seeing double, and is very concerned about why he feels “funny” (thus creating what we English teachers call dramatic irony: the adult viewer knows that David feels funny because David is high as a kite. David does not know this.). David asks both whether the strangeness he is experiencing is “going to be forever” and, in very earnest confusion, “Is this real life?” I have found myself thinking strangely (embarrassingly?) often of David’s state of mind since my diagnosis went public and my story hit the media.
I was never completely comfortable with David’s video – oh I laughed. Hard. But I felt somewhat guilty for being so amused, and I wondered if I would have posted it if David were my poor, drugged-out child. David was clearly feeling a bit afraid, and he had no autonomy – no say in becoming an Internet sensation and a meme. (Posting that video publicly does not seem wholly right, and I believe the slide show at David’s wedding is going to bear me out on this.)
Like poor loopy David, I have recently experienced some spotlight time as a result of a situation over which I had no control: David got anesthesia; I got ALS.
Unlike poor loopy David, however, I did make the initial decision to go public online.
But the story can get away from you quickly. I had no idea where the choice would lead. Maybe David’s dad feels the same way.
In case you are new . . .
A colleague sent my private Facebook post about my diagnosis of ALS to a nationally prominent blogger. My education and non-profit compatriots established a donation page for Writing Wrongs. Then my school district did a press release; several journalists were touched by the story and wrote lovely supportive pieces; and I was able to raise in just over 2 weeks over $30K for a trip to D.C. with my at-risk and ESL students, centered around the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Then, thanks to a generous friend-of-the-museum bringing my story to their attention, the museum invited me to join them for the Days of Remembrance events. A proverbial “opportunity of a lifetime,” which I document below.
Opportunities for Heroism
I did not mind the media coverage, as long as it advanced my message and helped provide our students a deluxe experience at the USHMM. But I became uncomfortable about references to me as a “hero.”
One of my favorite and most brilliant attorney friends (and genuine hero in public interest law) went to great pains to make me feel less embarrassed about and more deserving of the characterization. But I have to rule against him:
People who step in front of bullets are heroes. I just got shot.
As for “the way I am facing my death,” it is a result of faith and grace (as I perceive them). It’s not that I am struggling to repress or to cope with depression or panic; I genuinely do not feel any. At least not for myself. And as I have cataloged in previous posts, my life’s bounteous opportunities and experiences make my impending death much less scary, less unfair.
Of course, I’d like more time – more opportunity to spend time with my children and with those I most love – but I recognize my privilege and good fortune: they are glaring facts; I am not being insightful. I do not feel brave.
I did mindfully tell my story when given an opportunity to elevate certain ideas, initiatives, and organizations, the advancement of which I believe will improve society. I don’t regret that choice, but it was not heroic; it was deeply personally satisfying.
Even as I enjoyed the experience of being the museum director’s guest for the invitation only Days of Remembrance ceremony at the Capitol and for the tribute dinner honoring one of my personal heroes, General Romeo Dallaire, I refused further media requests to cover the upcoming field trip. I wanted to preserve the students’ experience and place the ideas at the center of attention. By publicly spotlighting and elevating these ideals of tolerance, equity, civic engagement, and social justice, I maximize my opportunity to be heard – heard by my students, my friends, and any others who stumble upon my story. It is an opportunity to craft a legacy. An opportunity to use the end of my life to promote the ideals I hold most dear.
My many friends and supporters have gifted me this opportunity to spin straw into gold. I feel a keen sense of stewardship – a responsibility to remain dedicated to these ideals.
These helpers are my heroes:
The tireless and determined education advocates, busy fighting powerful moneyed giants: Diane Ravitch, Yevonne Brannon (and all of @PS1NC), Phyllis Bush, Network for Public Education, Bertis Downs, John Wilson, Marca Hamm, Tom Herbert, and all of @NCFPSC.
The ground troups of dedicated educators doing the largely thankless work: Superintendent Tom Forcella, Principal John Williams, Nicole Hodge (with whom the idea originated), Gloria Sanchez-Lane, Eve Vongchucherd, the entire staff of Phoenix Academy High.
The promoters who dedicated their talents to making the trip a reality: Jeff Nash, Jamica Ashley, Jane Stancill, Jim Jenkins, Rachel Herzog, Kevin Hu, Ron Stutts, all the Facebook, Twitter, and other (real and virtual) friends who shared my story and fundraiser link, and every generous donor.
The supporters whose help, encouragement and love make all possible: the inimitable USHMM staff, my supportive law-school partners in survival (Amanda, Ruth and Ashley), my closest lifelong friends (Susan and Deirdre), every former student and classmate who took the time to email/message/donate, and my family.
They acted to make my vision real. They are heroic.
An opportunity to celebrate and remember . . .
As the guest of the gracious USHMM director, Sara J. Bloomfield, I attended two solemn, powerful, and deeply moving events honoring the victims and rescuers of the Holocaust. These ceremonies and presentations also promoted the work of the USHMM in combating what I call “otherization” – what honoree General Romeo Dalliare describes as our pathological tendency to segregate ourselves into groups out of a need to validate our own existence by casting ourselves as “more human” than others.
Man seeks in many situations opportunities to elevate the self by denigrating the other – from childhood cliques and sports rivalries to rival gangs, races, religions, or nations, we all too often enjoy the opportunity to validate ourselves by invalidating others. These Days of Remembrance events united those who would name and challenge this behavior. A priceless opportunity.
Of all the things I was privileged to witness, Cantor Marshall Kapell at the Capitol ceremony was most personally memorable. Behind him on the dais are Tom Bernstein, Chairman of the USHMM, the Israeli Ambassador, his excellency Ron Dermer, and the museum director, Sara J. Bloomfield. Listen to Cantor Kapell perform here the El Maley Rachamim (prayer for the dead: 45:00) and the somber and majestic Hymn of the Partisans (49:50). Each moved me to tears. Perhaps because such music is unfamiliar to me, his voice and the cultural experience it embodied as he chanted the names of the death camps – the only words I recognized in the prayer – seemed particularly magical . . . and haunting. They echoed a collective sorrow which I can experience as a member of humanity, but which I can never fully understand or share with Shoah survivors, their families, or my Jewish friends.
Me, waiting in the Capitol for the ceremony to begin, sitting in the first center aisle seat behind the actual program participants and thinking of David After the Dentist: “Is this real life? I was seated directly behind Representatives Eric Cantor and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. My chair tag said VIP. “Is this going to be forever?” (Sadly, no.)
I was joined by Deirdre Hixson, my best friend of 35 years. She’s a VIP to me every day:
If you were really, really looking (and my children were), you can spot me meeting Rep. Wasserman-Schultz in the right part of the frame at 1:47.
The entire ceremony was profound, the remarks of each speaker potent. But one remark stood out.
In his greeting, His Excellency Ron Dermer, Ambassador of Israel, gave the most effective illustration of the “6 million” – the number of Jewish victimes – that I have ever heard:
He asked (at 15:25) us to “[t]hink of a 9/11 every day for a century.”
I remembered my disbelief watching 9/11 unfold. “Is this real life?”
The Days of Remembrance celebrations give us opportunity to appreciate the immensity of the Holocaust that we might ascertain the roots of our self-destructive hatred and counter it with reverence for lives lost, lives damaged, and lives to come.
Between #DOR2014 events, Group Sales Manager Tami Gonzalez of the W Hotel hosted us for lunch and provided a tour of the lodging and banquet facilities my students will enjoy later this month during Writing Wrongs. Students will be dazzled and delighted.
That evening, we were escorted by USHMM Director of Youth Initiatives, Dr. Jesse Nickelson, to the Tribute Dinner. In the VIP reception that preceded the dinner, I met honoree General Dalliare (video here at the beginning of the report):
And the Director, Sara J. Bloomfield, a powerhouse speaker and advocate:
Here she is, at our table, watching Daillere’s challenging and courageous speech about our failure as a human community to prevent genocide in Rwanda and the mandate for us to finally make “never again” real:
She and Tom Bernstein, the Chairman of the #USHMM, noted my story and then embraced, shared, and elevated it. I’ll never forget their kindness in including me at these events. Before the dinner, host Allan Holt generously introduced me and recognized me as a partner – an indescribable honor:
I was deeply touched by the recognition (with the kind and generous Deanie Stein, who subsequently donated a clothing allowance for each of my students):
Special thanks to Jane Stancill for using my statement, “I have never encountered a more powerful teaching tool” in her N&O story. It was a big hit, and has the added merit of being true.
The Family That Almost Wasn’t
The Tribute Dinner chair, Mr. Holt (“Please,” he insisted, “Allan”) had introduced himself at the morning ceremony, along with his precious father, Irving. The elder Mr. Holt was one of six survivors who lit candles in the ceremony. Allan’s mother also attended, and though in a wheelchair, she insisted upon standing (with her caregiver’s assistance) when soldiers in formal dress carried in the flags of every US military unit that liberated survivors (7:42). Their dignity was palpable. Ineffable.
I told his mother that I had attended the Museum’s summer Belfer Program for teachers and thanked her for her family’s support of the museum, explaining that it had facilitated educators’ ability to communicate the lessons of the Holocaust in hopes of preventing future genocide. Her daughter quietly thanked me for telling her mother that, as though I had done something generous or special. As my friend Deirdre said after the ceremony, “Wow, what an incredibly gracious family.”
Here’s Allan with his (preposterously adorable) parents, who between them survived over ten Nazi camps, including Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
And the whole family here:
Meeting the Holt family presented opportunity to think of the people lost. For Allan’s parents who survived, four other European Jews died. The Holts are the family that almost wasn’t, and their presence demands that we remember the families that never were.
After dinner, Ambassador Samantha Powers made a powerful speech about the need to monitor and intervene in when genocide threatens. She then presented General Dallaire with the prestigious Elie Wiesel award, the museum’s highest honor. Here is Chairman Bernstein with General Dallaire, Ambassador Powers, and survivors of the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide:
They then played Elie Wiesel’s video congratulations to General Dallaire:
Wonderful trip, wonderful people, wonderful opportunity.
The close of a remarkable day:
With Mariam Lomaskin, USHMM photographer, and Dr. Jesse Nickelson, facilitator extraordinaire:
Sharing it all with my life-long friend:
“Opportunity” seems a wholly insufficient to name this experience. It was more. It was a blessing.
I conclude with this photo of the cadre of Holocaust survivors who attended the National Commemoration at the Capitol. At the dinner, they asked survivors to stand, and guests applauded. But as Deanie Stein somberly noted, there are “Fewer and fewer every year.”
These are the last eyewitnesses, and as they gradually leave us, the work of the museum, educators, and all who hear their stories becomes more vitally important:
We must all bear witness and lift our voices against any assertion that one human is intrinsically more human than another. The Holocaust was not an event of months or even several years; it was a long-incubated and incrementally executed manifestation of hatred, and it began with one discriminating thought, the thought that the people below – mere children at the time they were targeted, hunted, imprisoned, orphaned, and dehumanized by the Nazis – were less deserving: initially, less deserving of opportunity and ultimately, less deserving of life.
I will never forget this experience. May we never forget theirs. Because the Holocaust was “real life.”
And as we recognize racial and religious hatred in today’s world as well as institutionalized discrimination and inequity in our own society, we should acknowledge, confront, and resist them. For far too many people (not only in other countries, but also here in the United States), inequity – being viewed as “other” and as “less” – is “real life.”
May we take every opportunity to fight this shameful and potentially dangerous reality.