“This is a teaching opportunity. We have work to do.”
Get ready, because Wilton is going to hear that phrase again in response to a stumble at a Wilton school. And again, it has to do with swastikas…at Middlebrook.
After a year that began with multiple incidents of anti-semitic graffiti on walls, Middlebrook came this-close to closing out the year without another incident. But, this time, the swastikas on the walls were different. This time, they were actually incorporated into a lesson, and included into drawings made by most of the students on one team. And then, incomprehensibly, those drawings were hung onto the walls for display by faculty.
It wasn’t until Tuesday night, at an open house for parents to close out the year that several people spotted the drawings. The were drawings of butterflies, decorated in images representing the Holocaust, the subject of the unit being studied. The drawings were done at the unit’s conclusion, and was modeled on a lesson plan that accompanies the Butterfly Project, an effort to create 1.5 million beautifully painted butterflies–symbols of resilience and hope–with each butterfly representing one child who was killed in the Holocaust, and honoring the survivors.
Somehow, the Middlebrook lesson was misdirected; rather than being instructed to paint something hopeful, these Wilton middle schoolers were given a more literal path. The large percentage of the drawings included swastikas on the butterfly wings, often right next to Jewish Stars of David.
It’s important to note that there was absolutely no malicious intent on the part of the students. They were participating in a lesson–a lesson that was supposed to be “an homage” to the Butterfly Project–which has an actual curriculum attached to it that is supposed to be purchased and followed exactly as written. In this case, the school did not purchase the curriculum and it did not follow it exactly.
As principal Lauren Feltz explained to parents in an email on Wednesday, the Middlebrook students “…had written about and created images on a butterfly as a memorial to a group or an individual victim of the Holocaust. The project was inspired by the work of The Butterfly Project. In their artwork, students attempted to juxtapose symbols of hatred and ignorance with those of empathy and loving remembrance. Some students included swastikas in their work.”
This is more than a lesson gone awry. Let’s be clear: it is not a lesson that has grown out of hate or intolerance or evil intent. But it is a lesson that did come from ignorance.
People may ask: Isn’t it a value lesson–good vs. evil, with good winning out. And they’re teaching the Holocaust, isn’t that what’s important?
Sadly, what those students have walked away with is that it was okay to draw a swastika, even if it’s to represent good vs. evil. It is not ok. Because that symbol–hijacked and twisted and perverted by the Nazis–means so much, much more.
Before I go on, it’s important to say this: as readers may know, I am Jewish. I am the grandchild of Holocaust survivors; many of my family members were murdered by the Nazis in death camps. I have wrestled with how to tell this story so that people understand, so that I can understand, why in a lesson about the horrors of the Holocaust, it is not okay to draw the swastika.
Perhaps think of it this way: If this had been a lesson on slavery, would it have been okay if the students had written the N-word all over their art?
Yes, there is nuance here–that’s the key point. That nuance is hard for many adults to see, so imagine how difficult it will be for those students in the middle whose artwork has offended through no fault of their own. It will be even harder for them to work through this. Again, I want to reiterate, these children are not at fault at all. But teaching this particular nuance is hard–teaching about the Holocaust is difficult. It takes the proper training, education and supervision. (That’s why schools have to do things like buy a carefully-crafted curriculum and follow it, so that they don’t stumble.)
That’s where the adults in Middlebrook stumbled, badly.
On Wednesday night, several parents and members of Wilton’s Jewish community came to the Board of Education meeting to share just why it was a stumble that caused immense pain. It’s a place many of them had been before, after multiple past incidents that have happened in the schools.
Rabbi Rachel Bearman, of Temple B’nai Chaim also spoke to the Board, and explained the pain that Jews feel when they see the symbol, and how confusingly painful the project as it was done at Middlebrook must have felt for any Jewish child to experience.
“The lack of ability to see that each butterfly is supposed to represent a child that was killed during the Holocaust and for each memorial butterfly to be covered in the symbols of their murderers, that should have been an easy thing to understand that that wouldn’t be acceptable. But even if it’s not, where was the safety net? Where was the protection of that keeps one person’s lack of perception from hurting, really hurting, a group of students in the Jewish community.
“The lack of judgment or perception from a teacher who I truly believe wanted to teach something about the Holocaust with integrity but lost the ability to see why memorializing victims of the Holocaust with the symbol of the Holocaust was not appropriate. The fact that there was no oversight or safety measure to keep one person’s lack of perspective from spilling over into an entire group and now an entire community’s experience, is really troubling. And the idea that we are finishing the year this way, that we spent so much time in the fall talking about this symbol, and now with the classroom decorated with this symbol, shows me that we have so much work to do.
“The Nazi swastika is not only an anti-Jewish thing. This is not something which just hurts the Jewish community. This symbol is one of genocide for a number of groups of people the Nazis tried to wipe off the face of the earth. It’s something that the Jewish community, I’m sure, is going to be vocal about tonight, but it is not just our community that’s hurt by it. I’m hopeful, really, truly hopeful, and continuing to offer partnership to Kevin and to Lauren Feltz to help in any way I can. But we need more. This is a year that started with swastikas, and it’s ending with swastikas. And that’s just painful in every way that I can explain.”
Others spoke, echoing the feeling.
“I’m thrilled that we live in a town that takes a serious interest in educating our kids in terms like genocide and Holocaust and explaining to them that there is no place for hate in this town and this community. That said, as good as the lesson is, a picture speaks a thousand words, said Alison Sherman. “When the Jewish population walks through the halls of our public school and sees the butterflies have a swastika on them, we are not going to see anything else. And every lesson that you have taught our children gets lost. If you are going to teach our kids and then desensitize them in the same lesson, you have taught them nothing.”
“I truly believe you have the best intentions. However, this district has implementation problems, over and over and over again. The board needs to have more oversight because the administration thus far has been unable to implement the things that they laid out that they were going to do,” Susan Rappaport expressed. “It is offensive, and appalling and unacceptable again. Again. Three or four instances ago, [Superintendent] Kevin [Smith], you apologized to me for not handling it well enough and you said to me personally, ‘We’ve got to do it better. I know we didn’t handle it right.’ And here I am. Multiple incidents later. I know you have best intentions. But there needs to be someone else, another body involved, advising you that you are answering to about this specific subject matter. I really believe the board needs to be involved with this.”
Jennifer Lipsky also questioned the lack of oversight and training: “I cannot believe that it’s just one teacher that was involved in this project. It had to be that the other teachers who were part of the team were also aware of this. That someone didn’t say, “Hey. This doesn’t feel right.” I understand what the butterfly project is about. It’s supposed to be fostering love, joy, understanding. They’re supposed to be symbols of hope. And clearly, it went wrong, and when you see a butterfly that has a swastika on it, how do you not say, ‘No. We’ve gotten off here.’ These are supposed to be about joy. These are supposed to be about hope. They’re not supposed to be about symbols of hate. Somebody should have stopped it before it was completed and put on the wall. Somebody should have stopped it. A teacher, an administrator. Somebody should have seen it and said, ‘No.’ The parents and the children should not have to see it displayed. We have to educate the teachers and it’s the teachers who educate the students in an informed and knowledgeable way.”
Her emotion was clear when Wendy Nadel told the board, “This is my heart, this is my children, this is my family and this is my life. And it really ticks me off. That this could happen again after the whole situation a few months ago at the school that anybody could think a swastika would be okay on a butterfly.”
Dayna Arnowitz was moved to speak out when her daughter told her she’d be afraid to speak up if it happened in her own class. “I’m too scared? This is not okay. I had this back in the fall where she did not want to go to school. This has to stop. It has to stop. We moved here for the reason of this beautiful community and this wonderful school, and I can’t have my kids scared to go to school.”
Finally, Board of Education member Lory Rothstein made the most passionate statement, with her voice breaking with tears: “I urge you to listen to the voices of the parents tonight. Shame on you, shame on all of us to allow this to happen. Today, I was embarrassed to be a member of this Board of Ed and I was ready to resign. It was only after speaking to my community today where they gave me hope and courage to carry on because they said, ‘No, you can’t resign. We need your voice on the Board of Ed.’ So, you need to understand, if this project was about American slavery and the N-word, or a depiction of a lynching was put on this butterfly, you would all be appalled. The swastika is the N-word to all humanity. No excuses. Zero tolerance. This ends today.”
Board of Education member Deb Low was solemn in her response to everyone:
“I do want to say that on behalf of the board, this is not only a Jewish problem, this is a community issue and so we need to better understand how to handle these hateful symbols. And I have to trust moving forward that there will be increased sensitivity, I hope. There’s disappointment and outrage and revulsion for what happened. We all share in the disappointment and the anger and fell this should not be allowed to happen here.”
Christine Finkelstein, the BOE chair, also addressed the speakers, with an apology. “I’d like to add to that and just say how very sorry I am that this happened. I feel like I’ve gone through this with the families. I know this district is trying to make changes to do right by you and by our students. I’m just very sorry.”
Superintendent Kevin Smith spoke last, saying, “The board has my commitment this won’t happen again.”
The district has made “school climate” a priority. They’ve been doing surveys and creating programs, and appointing a School Climate Coordinator. Kim Zemo who holds that position, happened to be presenting to the Board later in the meeting, reviewing the year. Her initiatives have been extraordinary in so many areas of the school–substance abuse, mental health, tolerance and inclusion, anti-bullying, student safety, anxiety… the list goes on. She acknowledged the difficulty of presenting about her many, very real successes, after listening to the parents speak earlier. She said it demonstrates that even with all the work that has been done, what transpired at Middlebrook shows just how much more work there is to do.
With diversity awareness being on that long list of areas Zemo has to oversee from the district-wide vantage point, underscores the problem that it’s too big a job for one person. It has become too big a job for all the people at Middlebrook who should have been on it and have struggled with it this year. Diversity education is a bigger piece of this that needs to be broken out on its own, and not just be one agenda topic on for the Climate Committee’s quarterly meeting discussion.
This is an issue that is germane not just to the Jewish community in the Wilton Schools. We have a population that grows more diverse every year. I feel strongly that the school needs a Diversity Advisory Council on its own, as a starting point, to help the district integrate stronger policies, better teacher training and operational checks and balances. It impacts curriculum, the school calendar, even food choices in the cafeteria for some children. Without it you will continue to hear more stories like this.
That’s why there were swastikas in Middlebrook, again. And why you will continue to have swastikas in Middlebrook, again.
Please, let’s do what needs to be done so that it will be not again… never again.