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Lessons from a Jar

by Paolo Martin

According to the article "Why Do We Forget Things?" by Parade Magazine author Martha Weinman Lear, there are many reasons why we become more forgetful as we get older.  She writes, "We actually may be wired to forget.  Consider:  If everything stuck to that mental flypaper, we would be in big trouble.  We’d be overwhelmed by trivia.  The longer we live, the more memories we stuff into our brains, and the harder it may become to locate any particular one….  After all, how important is it (how does it help you survive in the world) to remember the name of that restaurant you ate at last night?  What is important to remember is what ‘eating’ means and how to eat."

O.K.  I get it.  What I’ve been considering a growing debilitation in my advancing years might really be a survival tactic engineered by nature.  I guess this could be useful.  Besides, how do we expect to be fully present and in touch with what the future may bring if we are living in the past?  But, on the other hand, didn’t some wise person or other once say, "Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it?"  I guess the significance of how and what we remember as time marches forward may be even more complicated than what philosophers try to capture in catchy phrases or what scientists discover about the human mind.

What I’m really interested in is the phenomenon of how vitally important things in life get lost or forgotten only to reappear many generations later-in one case, a full continent  away—by people far removed from each other.  This is what happened when a group of teenagers from a small rural high school in Uniontown, Kansas unearthed the story of a humble elderly lady from Warsaw, Poland.  Irena Sendler was her name; a social worker during World War II, she organized a risky plot to save thousands of children from being exterminated during the final liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto by the Nazis in 1943.  She orchestrated their change of names and safe placement into foster families, orphanages, hospitals, and convents.  In hopes of reuniting these children with their biological families one day, Irena wrote the real names of all the children she had rescued on a piece of paper, placed it in a jar, and buried it under a tree far away.  When the Nazis later captured Irena and repeatedly tortured her, she refused to reveal either the names of the people who had helped her in her mission or the names of the children she had saved from extermination.  She was given the death sentence.  However, on the morning of the day she was to be killed, her German executioners set her free, falsely proclaiming her dead after having been bribed by friends of Irena’s rescue workers.  For the rest of the war, Irena had to live in hiding while she plotted to reunite the thousands of rescued children with their families when the war ended.  Tragically, most were never reunited with their families because so many had been killed in the Holocaust.  Over time, Irena’s name and the names of her underground rescue workers faded away.

In 1999, Irena’s legacy was discovered by a group of high school students when a teacher encouraged them to work on a year-long National History Day project.  Before they re-discovered, through extensive research, the heroism of Irena Sendler, her story had been unsung for decades, buried by 45 years of communism in Poland.  As a matter of fact, when the students sought Irena’s final place of rest, they discovered that she was still alive.  Through their work, especially a play they wrote together, the students were able to spread Irena’s story throughout the world and bring her the recognition she deserved before she passed away with dignity and honor this past May.  Their website, Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project, describes their mission.

There are many lessons to be learned from the story of the students from Uniontown, Kansas and Irena Sendler.  As an educator, I am particularly struck by the power of granting student agency in schools—that is, taking students seriously and allowing them to explore the things that really matter to them, just as Mr. Conrad did with his class in Uniontown.  Those students’ lives (and the lives of many around the world) were never the same because of it.  Teachers, because of the heavy expectations on the classroom-on the sheer volume of information to be taught and on how it is to be taught—don’t you sometimes feel that children don’t walk away with much of deep value?  I suspect that the more time our children spend exploring ideas authentic to them on their terms, the more deeply they’ll understand the world around them and the better able they’ll be to make a significant mark on the world.

Tags: irena sendler, authentic student instruction

  1. Robb
    Reply 01/04/11

    I couldn’t agree more.  As an elementary school student, I was in a class that was studying ancient Egypt… but was allowed to diverge onto a time capsule project.  The “cool factor” of creating this project ourselves can not be measured.  If all goes well, we’ll get together in 2030 to dig our project out of the ground & will certainly continue our educational experience then.

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