Letters From Irene
Each time I speak at a conference, in a church, in a school, to the military, or to other groups, I am grateful for the opportunity to give a face to the horrible chapter of human history and to promote tolerance and acceptance of diversity.
I am deeply moved and rewarded by the warmth, appreciation and support I receive from my listeners and readers of my memoir.
I am grateful to Bob, my significant other, for chauffeuring me and helping in whatever way he can. His help allows me to accept invitations in locations remote from my home base.
As in all other aspects of life, some experiences in my talking mission are more powerful than others. I want to tell you about my experience in Allegan, a rural community in southwestern Michigan, and about a teacher named Becky Calvert.
To begin with, here is a small segment of the 30 or so email exchanges between us:
I am very excited to confirm that March 24th we will have a whole school assembly to hear you speak! The entire middle school will be walking over to the high school's Performing Arts Center at approximately 1:20, your presentation will need to start promptly at 1:30. Students will need to be released at 2:20 to make it back to their buses on time. You will have approximately 50 minutes to speak. Will this be manageable?
Your message will reach approximately 700 students! I am beyond excited for this opportunity. We will not have any space for parents; however, an article will be published in our communicator and likely our local newspaper.
Irene 3/ 25
My dear Becky
You did an amazing job pulling it all together.
You told me that Catherine Hellman wrote the grant, and the principal James Antoine allowed all this to happen, but you where the initiator and the
catalyst to all this.
Becky, you are a sweetheart.
You did an amazing job. It was as if you were speaking to ten people and you were speaking to hundreds! Thank you so much for taking the time to share your story and to relate the message to the students with what they can do to make a difference. It was perfect. I cannot thank you enough. Your message was so well received. I truly admire you and find you an inspiration. Thank you for all that you do!
Thank you again, so much, for sharing your story. I cannot tell you how many students have approached me about the presentation sharing their thoughts. You have inspired so many students to be kind to each other and to appreciate the good in their lives. They were also so inspired that you could face such adversity and do such great things with your life. Thank you!!!
Dear Irene: I am so excited that your story has inspired several students. One of them wants to have a day where the students focus on spreading kindness and wants to post sticky notes with positive messages on EVERY student’s locker. I am so honored to have been a part of spreading such a powerful message through your story. Thank you for everything that you do and for making such an impact on our community. You truly are an amazing person, God Bless you!!!!
Becky, I am sitting here, tears flowing down my face. This email made me cry.
To think that my words, or my life can bring children to positive action, is the greatest reward I can get. Please tell those students
that they filled my heart with joy and my love goes to them.
To think that what I said had such a positive impact on children makes me emotional beyond what I can express.
Let me share some background about this experience.
In 2015 I spoke at the Gull Lake High School. After my talk, Becky, the teacher, told me that she would love to have me back speaking to a larger gathering of students. She would apply for “The distinguished speaker” grant to be able to compensate me.
The following school year Becky changed schools and is now working for Allegan Middle school. She carried her desire for a large number of students to hear my story and my message to her new school.
After many silent months we reconnected.
Catherine Hellman, a colleague of Becky, who is a member of the New York City Holocaust Educators Network, applied to the Memorial Library for a grant. After many months the grant was received, and we set a date, March 24/2016, for the program in Allegan.
Becky emailed me detailed instructions; where to go, whom to meet, etc
Allegan, a quiet, rural community, looking not very affluent, is about 170 miles from my home in southwestern Michigan. It was pouring "buckets" all the way there.
At the school office, and thereafter, everything followed according to Becky's instructions. Everyone was welcoming us warmly, including the students rushing in the hallways.
When Principal James Antoine walked us into the Performing Arts Center, I turned speechless. It was a beautiful modern theater with all the bells and whistles needed for major productions. I am very comfortable speaking to large gatherings, and have spoken in garages, in gymnasiums, in large school auditoriums, and banquet halls. But, this elegant theater, in this small town, was almost intimidating. Oh, but how beautiful it was to see it filled with young faces-for the large auditorium and two balcony levels were filled with students.
I had a chance to chat with the youngest students; 7th graders who came in first and set in the front rows. As is always the case, the kids wanted to take photos with me. Now that every child has an iPhone with them, my image is flying around all over Michigan, Ohio and in Canada.
I regretted not having time for questions, but with about 700 students in attendance it would have been almost impossible.
After my talk the Principal, teachers and quite a number of adults came up to the stage to express their appreciation. The school staff was pleased that I brought in the issue of bullying into my presentation.
On the way out, going down the school's long corridor, we saw a large group of older students and a teacher waiting for us. During my talk they were sitting in one of the balconies, unable to see me closely. They were meeting me to say hello and to express their thanks.
Bob and I left, our hearts feeling full.
I particularly appreciate speaking in rural and small communities, which do not have easy access to all the resources for teaching about the Holocaust.
My own life story often touches many in a personal way; a relative fought in World War II, a relative, or close friend lived during the Holocaust, etc. I hear over and over “Thank you for what you do. You are an inspiration, etc.
I do not accept it as a personal compliment, but an indication that what I do is important and it touches people’s lives.
I become the voice of all my aunts, uncles and cousins, and the million and a half Jewish children that perished during the Holocaust.
Thank you Becky, Cathy and James,
Irene, I am excited to see you in Traverse City in a month!
The positive impact club (which was inspired by a spark you ignited) is called TIGERS Unite and had 60 students attend our first/introductory meeting! The students already had some excellent ideas to spread kindness and accepted their first challenge of giving somebody a compliment everyday. Two students came up with a word of kindness wall with positive quotes and messages. I was so overwhelmed with the interest and contagion of these small acts of kindness.
I am starting the Holocaust unit for our seventh graders. I was wondering if you would be available to face-time or Skype with my classes sometime? I know that they would love to ask you questions and we did not have that opportunity with the whole school assembly. These students heard you speak last year and with the introduction to the unit started discussing your presentation. 💕
You have made a tremendous impact on the students of Allegan. LE White students have accepted your challenge to spread kindness and are promoting tolerance!!
> On Sep 21, 2016, at 9:52 PM, irene miller <email@example.com> wrote:
At one of my talks at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills in the audience was K and her 16-year old son, Jordan.
After my talk K stopped in the Museum Shop and bought my book "Into No Man’s Land: A Historical Memoir".
A few days later I received a long email from K. (On the back of my book I provide an email address where I can be contacted.) After reading my book K was so moved that she wanted to tell me about her life. I was deeply touched that I, a total stranger was the recipient of this painful personal story of an abused deeply injured child. Fortunately a responsible and caring relative, whom she now addresses as father, saved K out of the miserable situation she was in when she was 14. Now a teacher in a school for incarcerated teens, K feels that she was cut out for this work, and finds enormous satisfaction being able to help children whose lives she understands well. I have observed many indications that she is a wonderful, caring teacher.
"Hearing you would be so great for my student and mean so much to them, but they are not allowed to leave the premises." K wrote me.
"I will come and talk to your students." I answered.
"And when Jordan told his teachers about your talk, they wished so much they could have heard you.” came in the next email.
"K, I will come to Jordan's high school. By the way what is the address and how far are you from the Holocaust Center?"
"I live in Beal City, about three, three and half hours’ drive"
Where is Beal City? I thought, and mentioned the conversation to my friend Harriet. In no time Harriet got back to me: "Right in the center of Michigan, 2000 census lists population 345.Their high school was identified by a national survey (I don't' remember which) in 2010 as one of the top schools in the nation." Looking it up on the map it appears as if Beal is the belly button of Michigan, right in the center. Population, now I was told, around 1,000.
"Oh! K, that is a problem. After about 80 to 100 miles driving my back problem kicks in and am very uncomfortable."
“I will come and pick you up."
"I will be glad to come and meet your community"
"I have never hosted anyone but will try to do my best"
This gal who felt unsure of hosting me, turned out to be a little fireball rolling in all directions and igniting flames.
In preparation for my visit the students discussed discrimination and prejudice, listened to movies on this topic, including "The Paper Clip" documentary, which describes how a school in Tennessee decided to collect six- million paper clips to commemorate the children killed in the Holocaust. I was pleased to see that this became an opportunity to broaden the subject to social and political issues with many questions waiting for my response. I was getting emails from K.
"Everyone is so excited, what an honor it will be for us to have you here telling your life story.
The kids are talking in the hallway about your visit etc." It was a crescendo building up and up.
On December 12th K spent the evening with me in West Bloomfield and at 8 am the next morning we took off for Beal City. The long ride was an opportunity for me to hear a lot of stories about K and her community.
Beal City (I wonder why they call it a city) is a sprawling community of farmers. The main road has the only grocery store in town and it welcomes us with the sign you see in the picture. I think they ran out of "L's", but the intention was good. The school seemed the only building of red bricks and lovely.
Every teacher, every staff person I met welcomed me with warmth and open arms. The Principal walked in the stuff room to introduce himself. The teachers prepared a potluck lunch, which they do for special occasions.
At about 1:15 grades 7 through 12 were dismissed and gathered in the gymnasium. 300 students tightly packed on the benches were facing me. It was an impressive audience looking very attentive and anticipatory. Some had to sit on the floor. All teachers, the principal and the superintendent were present. "The Morning Sun" newspaper photographer introduced himself and asked me some questions. Thereafter the reporter did the same. Jordan felt honored that he was selected to introduce me.
Cameras set up! I was ready to talk with a microphone in hand. I talked for over an hour, not just about my life, but about the moral lessons we can learn from the Holocaust; about the price of hate and prejudice; about seeing injustice and being a passive bystander; about the Jewish principle of "Tikkun Olam" (repairing the world), that each of us has a responsibility in whatever small way we can to help make the world a better place for all. I told them how I apply this principle in my life. The students asked many thoughtful questions. I was asked why I wanted to write my book. I said that it is important for all to know what historically took place, what horrors can happen. History repeats itself and unless we understand what and how it happened we are not equipped to prevent other atrocities from taking place. Horrors do not occur all at once. They start with milder versions of injustice and by increment they become monsters. "You young people are the future leaders of this nation and maybe of the world. It is up to you to be on guard to prevent future atrocities." I told them. The questions went on for a long time until the children had to be dismissed.
A teacher commented, "They were so attentive, you could hear a pin drop." But in contrast to the silence there was very loud applause. Many students lined up to get my book, which I signed, and to take pictures with me.
The reporter asked me, "How many hugs did you get?”
"How many students were here?" I questioned.
"I must have hugged 299 plus a few teachers."
I choked up at some points during my talk, but held back tears. But when Mr. House, the history teacher came over to thank me, to express gratitude and handed me a wooden plaque with an inscription "In Honor of Irene Miller for her Dedication and Strength in sharing her story with Beal City High School" I could not hold my tears back. He also presented me with a blue cuddly blanket with the insignia of the high school. I was told that in my honor the school will plant a tree in the spring, which will be called the "Tolerance Tree", and the students will be taught why and how the tree came to be. I was extremely moved.
After a while K and I drove to her warm and welcoming home built by her husband.
In the evening K and I were at another potluck, a dinner at the "Bed and Breakfast" where I was housed for the night. The owner is a member of a book club group that was invited for the dinner and a discussion of my book, which some bought on Amazon.
I met a group of intelligent, interested women, warm and open for discussions.
By the time the evening was over I had to decompress and get ready for the following day of activity.
On the 14th at 7:30 am, K came to pick me up with a few copies of the “Morning Sun” in hand. On the front page was an article of the event the day before with two photos of me.
After a light breakfast on the way, we drove to K’s work place, Muskegon River Youth Homes, a place for incarcerated teenagers. Some are under strict security restrictions, housed in separate small buildings. All the teachers and the staff showed gratitude and appreciation for my willingness to come to talk to the residents of the Youth Home. The cameras and the projectors were ready by the time we got in. For security reasons many of the youth were not allowed to leave their classrooms to come and hear me, but in each of their rooms they were able to see and hear me through internet technology called “Adobe Connect”.
There were about 50 teenagers in the room where I spoke. Many of them in what I would call jail uniforms in orange and purple. The floor was marked with a yellow tape showing the point beyond which they were not allowed to cross-- the area where I was standing. I had absolutely no feeling of discomfort. I started my talk by stressing that I know what pain and sufferings are, that I respect every human being and respect them. Whatever brought them to this place does not imply that they are not good people and cannot have a wonderful future. “If I, with the difficult life, I will tell you about, could achieve what I did, than definitely you can." I told them about my life and stressed again the potential in them to create a healthy wholesome future. Like in the school the day before the were very attentive and listened intensely.
They asked many questions, intelligent questions. I crossed the dividing line and mingled among them answering the questions. By the time I left them I hugged each and they all thanked me for coming to talk to them. In the room with me were the teachers and some other staff including the co-owner of the home.
Again I was deeply touched when the Assistant Superintendent handed me a beautiful gift: a lovely wooden case with a pen and pencil set. On one side engraved were the words:
"Thank you for sharing your story with us. Muskegon River Youth Home Teachers and Students 2012".
On the other side: "Tolerance is the act of accepting and acknowledging people's differences. For humanity to be successful we must embrace diversity and demonstrate patience for all religious, political and social beliefs so that we can live in harmony"
This is the definition of tolerance that K worked on with her students and they came up with it. I was told that the students in the woodwork shop will create a bench for visitors in my honor, and this inscription will be on it. Unable to give me a bench they made a shelf and signed their names on it.
There are a few other schools for adjudicated and court placed youth that are serviced by the same school district, and they all heard me through the electronic set up.
Here again I was interviewed by a local newspaper which I am told wrote a wonderful article about the event. (I am waiting to receive the paper.) K asked whether I would mind visiting each of the rooms of teens not allowed into the initial room. I gladly went and she instructed me with which group I should not even shake hands. In each room I kept stressing the idea of the potential in each for goodness. "Help the good in you to come out and grow."
One boy asked "And what if there is nothing good in me, if there is nothing good in me to find?"
"Did you ever see a baby born mean? You were the baby with all the good potential; it is still there; you might have to dig deeper to find it, but it is there.” In each group there were questions and good exchanges. Again we enjoyed a potluck lunch prepared by teachers. I left feeling overwhelmed by the gratitude, appreciation and affection displayed to me wherever I went. I was told by students and teachers that they would never forget me and the event and what it meant for them. I as well will not forget it. I was enriched by the ability to touch so many lives, and by being touched by them.
(Note: Whatever I wrote about Kathleen and her family comes with her approval.)