Sixth grade in my school system is the first year of of Intermediate School. For me, it was the year I got my period, but that is not this story. My history class did a unit on the Holocaust. I had one of those special teachers you get every once in awhile who goes the extra mile to make the lessons special. Was it history? I think it maybe was an English class that lasted two class periods. Not that it matters.
Project on the Holocaust. We were given the option of signing up to be part of the targeted group. The idea was that this group would wear something pinned to their clothes while at school and had a list of things that they were not allowed to have or access. I believe it was certain lunch offerings, and this was the first time we all had been given choice in our lunch foods! The library may even have been off limits. They were also grouped into a special section of the classroom. They might have also been left out of some of our class activities, though I couldn’t say for sure.
Those of us that didn’t sign up (myself included) were responsible for keeping an eye on the other group and reporting back when they broke the rules. Two groups of 10 and 11-year-olds: oppressors and oppressed. The unit lasted for 2 weeks.
We had of course had many units on the Holocaust by this point and understood what the two sides represented. I didn’t see myself as a “Nazi” in this project, just a “German.” The unit went on for a few days, maybe a week, before I couldn’t keep quiet anymore. It is physically uncomfortable for me when things are not fair. Even today. I get very tense around perceived injustice. This can be something small as in the cut of a split meal to the larger societal questions of equality and lack thereof. It takes a lot of conscious thought to define which criteria of fairness I am going to choose to mind.
Back to the story. So I couldn’t keep still anymore, and I asked my teacher if I could say something during the next lesson. When it was my turn, the shy, nervous, and self-righteous me stood up and gave a speech on this separation being wrong and that we should all come together. For me, it was (is) simple. These things shouldn’t happen. They just shouldn’t.
My teacher said something along the lines of, “If you love them so much, then you can be one of them.” My group, the oppressors, were rallied together and cheered on this idea. I was given the list and the mark. And I was PISSED. I spent the next days finding a way out of this fate. I hit upon the “contract” for the unit that stated that the oppressed group would be created by volunteers only (which is sad-funny to me right now). Since I had not volunteered, I was not subject to the restrictions. I returned immediately to my full privilege without asking permission. I brought this up to my teacher, but by that point there were 2 days left and she didn’t argue my point.
The clearest image for me is the immediate aftermath of my speech: my teacher and the other students. I had expected rallying around me, not for them to turn against me. They should not have been able to contradict my conclusions. They were solid! Why was I ostracized?!
I don’t know how to interpret this exercise as a whole. I haven’t thought about it in a long time, but my current reading and thinking about the interactions of White privilege and femin-/woman-ism brought the memory back. In thinking about it, there are things I wish had been there: I wish I had had more guidance to navigate the waters of injustice, silence, risk and consequences; guidance to understand even my own empathy. Maybe I don’t mean guidance alone. Guidance and validation. I wasn’t a “popular” child, and so it wasn’t as if being forced into the oppressed group brought with it a new community or any appreciation for what I had done. Which is another lesson my childhood self gets to re-teach my adult self.
That which is just should be done because it is just. Risks must be taken, consequences accepted, and there are no guarantees of gratitude, nor should there be. I am not so cynical yet to stop trying to improve this world. I want like to be recognized for that if I do, but I’m learning to find the reward in the process. I don’t want to end this with such platitudes, but I guess I’ll leave it since it’s a good reminder for me.