Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Branding Project

Evil has no face and can look like anything, so we must stay vigilant about the possible evils in the world and what they might look like. – Austin Dickerson

This is what I’m asking my World Literature II students to do: brand themselves. Not physically. I’m not asking them to tattoo themselves or place a white-hot poker on their skins. But we have been talking about identity for the past week: what does it mean when others deny it, how do you hold on to it, how do you know who you are?

What does this have to do with a sophomore college literature class?

When I teach literature, I teach my students that literature does not exist in a vacuum. It comes from life, from events, from people. Literature is created. It is birthed. Literature is life.

As such, I always give them some history before we discuss some literature. Not just a bunch of dates (nothing kills a love of history more than memorizing a list of dates), but I talk about motives, actions, maneuvers. I want them to know the whys of history. I want them to understand the people behind the history because it is the people who tell the stories.

I teach my World Lit II class backward, meaning I begin with the most modern literature (the current, unnamed movement) and work backward all the way to Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. By doing this, they are more comfortable at the beginning of the semester. This is writing that they can understand: modern language, current events, current themes, the Internet, blogging. It helps them grow comfortable with the course.

The comfort level changes quickly.

It doesn’t take long before we reach the Holocaust. I respect the Holocaust and I want to do justice to the people and the information. Education in elementary, middle, and high school is woefully incomplete. I am saddened at how little my college students know:
  • Most do not know that 11 million people were killed, though many do know that six million Jews were. 
  • Most do not know that 1.5 million children were killed.
  • Most do not know that Romanians, Gypsies, homosexuals, political dissidents, and the mentally disabled were also targeted. It was not just the Jews.
  • Most cannot name more than 1 concentration camp. There were 20,000 camps.
  • Most have never heard of Kristallnacht. Of Heinrich Himmler. Of Josef Mengele, or of the Nuremburg Race Laws. And some have never even heard of Anne Frank.

 So I have to rewind.

I go back to the beginning of World War II.

Me: "How did WWII begin?"
Student: "Germany invaded Poland."
Me: "Why?"
*silence...like they had never considered that before*


Me: "When did the US get involved in WWII?" 
Many Students: "When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor!!!" (they were so proud of themselves for knowing this one)
Me: "Why did they do that when we hadn't even been involved in the war up to this point?"
*utter, absolute, soul-sucking silence*

Students have been taught to memorize facts. They have been taught to recite. They have not been taught to search for motive. To ask why someone did something.

We cover the rising power of the Brown Shirts, Heinrich Himmler, Hitler, the camps, the executions (by firing squad, gas chambers, burning alive, hanging), the Final Solution, eugenics, and the liberations. We also discuss what Germany’s plan was, and why they were still building gas chambers and crematoria at the end of the war. It’s chilling, and the students are appropriately horrified. Not all eyes are dry at the end of the class.

This is brand new knowledge for them, and it’s a lot to take in. It’s overwhelming.

“Why weren’t we taught this?”

I can think only of something once written by one of my favorite authors, Corrie ten Boom, herself a survivor of a concentration camp. She once asked her father what a naughty word meant and he wasn’t ready to explain that to her so I turn his explanation to my purposes.

“Why weren’t we taught this?” they ask.

“Because some knowledge is heavy,” I tell them, “and it would be a poor teacher who asked a child to carry it. Can you imagine knowing this when you were younger?”

“But we’re lucky!” I go on to tell them.

They aren’t quite ready to trust me again yet. After all, I’ve just treated them to the most horrific lecture they’ve ever heard in their lives.

“They wrote about it.”

No, this is definitely not helping my cause. Read about it?! My talking about it was depressing enough! They most certainly don’t want to read about it.

“But don’t you understand? History is told by the winners. Invariably, the winners of history decide how the textbooks portray what happens. But we have survivors who wrote about their experience. We get to see history from the inside! From the people who made it, who lived it, but didn’t win. We get to see the life that fed it. Eleven million people are dead today, but this book? This book is ALIVE!”

[the book in question is Night by Elie Wiesel]

This book, and a short story or a short non-fiction piece, and a guest lecture from a rabbi in our city all come together to help the students form an overall picture of what life was like for people in this time: not just the Jews, but all those who were hunted and persecuted by the Reich.

They begin to understand the systematic elimination of rights that was happening.

“Imagine,” I pose to them. “Imagine if you were told by your government that this Saturday, beginning at 10:00 a.m., all Christians could no longer go to the movies. Could no longer own cell phones. Could no longer go to the mall. Could no longer ride skateboards. Could no longer play football. No longer play soccer. No longer eat pizza. These are the new rules, decreed by the government. And any person who sees a rule be broken, should tell, and will be rewarded.”

Then I continue, “Now, think for a minute. How long do you think it will take before someone reports you for breaking a rule you didn’t break, just to gain a reward? What proof do you have that you didn’t break it? If it’s in their interest to think you did, who do you think the government will believe? This is the problem the Jews faced.”

They are getting very uncomfortable with my hypothetical world now, which is good. Because more is coming.

“What did the Jews have to wear to mark themselves out?” I ask.

“The star!” many of them sing out.

“Yes! Excellent.”

Then I say nothing for a moment.

“Oh, crap,” we hear from the back of the room. I smile because I know this student has just figured out what we are going to do next.

But I don’t want to go there yet. I want to talk to them about identity first. Because that is the most important thing for them to understand. It is what makes the Branding Project so special.

I leave them hanging with my question about the star. I’ll come back to that.

“What is identity?” I ask them, in a complete (to them) change of topic.

They give me many answers: your name, your personality, your looks, your mannerisms, your beliefs.

What if, I ask them, the ‘Powers That Be’ took one single aspect of your identity and made that the sum total of who you are? So much so that when people look at you they see nothing – nothing – but that one, single aspect. By making the Jews wear the star, this is what happened. They weren’t seen as teachers, lawyers, doctors, good people, kind people, funny people. No. They weren’t seen as multidimensional at all. They were seen as one thing only: Jew. That is all that was left of them by having to wear the star.

When your identity is reduced to a single aspect, people forget that there is more to you. Despite that one visual representation, like the star, there are 500,000 other things that create who you are that may not be seen at a glance. But no one bothers to look past that one visual representation.

Let’s find out what that’s like.

“Take a deep breath,” I tell them. “This is where we jump in with both feet.”

My students have to brand themselves for a week. There are three options: if they are openly out – and would like to – they may select the pink triangle the homosexuals wore in the camps. If they are Jewish – and would like to – they may wear the star. The third option is a blank white circle. Unlike the Jews, the students get to select their own labels to write in the circle, but it must represent a single aspect of their own identity. They can get as controversial or as innocuous as they would like. In order to have the project approved by the college, I cannot require a certain level of badge, so many students do take an easy way out by selecting a badge they don’t have to think much about. I tell them the tougher the badge, the more they will get out of the project.

The project, once they decide on their brand, has three parts.
  • Part I: wear the badge every day for a week, on campus, everywhere they go. This requires photo documentation. Pics are to be texted to my cell phone (emailed to me if necessary). The badge has to show at all times. Other teachers are aware of the project, and if they see the badge covered, they pass that information on to me.
  • Part II: A journal entry for each day of the project. How they were treated, where they went, looks they received, any interactions with people, how they felt wearing the badge, etc.
  • Part III: Major paper tying in the literature with the life and these three concepts: understanding, perception, and reflection.
 We talk about how some people could react. Not everyone will be supportive. When someone asks about the badge and the student explains, the person may not like the project. We go over how to handle this.

I tell them, this is bad:

Person: “That’s stupid.”
Student: “You’re face is stupid.”

No, you can’t handle things in that way. As of now, and until the end of the project, you are a representation of the college. Every time you explain the project, you represent. If someone gets in your face, you explain, and if it’s something worth discussing, you discuss. Otherwise, you can walk away.

This is a massive project. I spend weeks setting it up with the lectures in class, reading the materials, and discussions in class. Then there is the actual week of wearing the badge, which I do with the students.

It has to take time. It has to take long enough that they get bored wearing the badge. At first, it’s a novelty; everyone stares: former student Mia Black said, “It was like my face no longer existed, the first thing they looked at was the badge.” This is why it must last a week. It takes time to wear off. It has to become rote for them to put it on each day, for it to become part of their identity, for their friends to become so used to seeing it on them that there is no more fun to be had in mocking it. I want them to learn how easy it is – dangerously so – to become accustomed to a new normal. And what’s even scarier is that the people around them will no longer notice it. One of my former students, Mason Cole, said, “[My badge] became a part of me, a part of my identity that everyone just accepted. I don’t know if that’s a bad thing or not.” Another student told me later than he had stopped wearing the badge for two weeks before one of his friends noticed, though this friend was one of the first to notice when he put it on.

But why do I have my students do this?

I want them to connect the literature to the life that fed it, to understand how the author felt going through all the atrocities he endured.

I want them to get a sense of empathy, a marginal understanding, even though it will be only a tiny fraction, of what it was like to be branded and singled out.

I want them to have an appreciation of everything that happened, of how intensely privileged they are live here. I’ll not deny that this country has problems, but in a world that has more oppressed people than free people, we are pretty damn lucky to live here. I want them – need them – to know that.

I want them to examine their lives and know who they are.

I want them to find that voice that I know is inside them and use it give a voice to others.

The 11 million who died didn’t get to have their voices heard. We have a voice. We can be voices for the voiceless. We mustn’t let fear, or indifference, or apathy keep our voices silent. Speak out. Whether you speak out for one or one million, just speak.

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