Tuesday, November 29, 2022

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Joe's Neighborhood

A moral education


Great teachers are out there, folks. I’m talking about great teachers who are giants walking today’s earth. Great teachers who will make you lean in, or step back or gasp. Who, when they get done, make you realize you are no longer the same person. The planet has shifted. You have changed life forms. Maybe your teeth are even whiter. I don’t know. But goodness, great teachers are out there, and why aren’t we chasing them down?

Take Professor Jay Holstein at the University of Iowa. He’ll turn your presumptions upside down and inside out — until you’re left on the classroom floor, dazed, wide-eyed, maybe even drooling, wondering if a drone was somehow involved in what happened. Or take Dr. Greg Robinson at Iowa State University. You’re feeling down about humankind? A bit pessimistic? No need to go to a motivational speaker, no need to go to a counselor, heck, don’t even go have a drink — go talk to him. Duh. Or how about Maureen Griffin, who taught chemistry for years at East High School and now is Hoover High School’s STEM  (“Science, Technology, Engineering, Math”) director? You think you’re a failure and can’t succeed? Well, go visit Maureen. She’ll lift you up by your ears, smilingly point you in the right direction, and then give you a gentle kick down the path — all while teaching you a thing or two about life.

I’m talking TEACHERS here, folks, with a capital “T.”

joes1Well, I met a great teacher the other day. In Amsterdam of all places. Ronald Leopold is his name. He’s the executive director of the Anne Frank House, a museum housing the original Secret Annex where Anne Frank and seven others hid for two years from the Nazis. Every year, 1.2 million visitors show up to walk past the moveable bookcase into the hidden rooms where these eight people ate and slept and survived. Until they didn’t. It is Ronald Leopold’s job to hold this legacy of Anne Frank in trust for us.

Take a listen…

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“We don’t know what Anne Frank thought when she was in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen,” he says. “We don’t know whether she kept her hope, her optimism, her idealism, or whether she lost it in the terrible circumstances she was in. We don’t know. I don’t want to speculate about it. What is important is to be sure to know that part of the history as well. When you educate about a life, it is important to know it is not just what she wrote in the diary, but there is more to that. There is these seven months when she was in Westerbork, Auschwitz, and Bergen-Belsen. We don’t know. You have to learn about that. You have to learn that part of history.”

Soft spoken. Kindly. A sad smile lurking at the corners of his mouth like that contemplative guy you see at the end of the bar. He continues…

“This kind of optimism, very much an American interpretation, an American view, how good will eventually overcome evil — maybe also a little bit religiously motivated — is one part of the story. You have to be careful to not fast-forward to only that part of the story. You have to take in history first. With all its tragedies. With all the reflections on different roles people had at that time. On the choices people made.

“How it was possible that people became perpetrators? Why it was, especially in the Dutch situation, how it was possible in Holland that 75 percent of the Dutch Jewery was killed? By far the highest percentage in Western Europe. What does it say about civil society in Holland? What does it say about the choices people made to be a bystander when injustice was done right in front of their eyes? What does it say about people who became a helper? Like the four people here who risked their own lives here in the Secret Annex in order to save the lives of others.

“All these questions are vital questions in the moral education of young people. They have to reflect on these questions. They have to be aware this was not Hurricane Sandy; this was not some disaster that came from I don’t know where. It’s not Ebola. This came from choices people made. And that is very important. I think in order to achieve that with young people, you have to start with history. You have to start with everything that happened. What does it mean to you? Maybe eventually you end up either in optimism — people are truly good at heart — or maybe not. If you really went through this process, it doesn’t matter where you end up. Here is something you have for the rest of your life. It has to do with moral education.”

My goodness. Did he just say all that while sitting in a room alone with an old guy from Iowa that he doesn’t know from Adam? Did he just rattle this off extemporaneously with only a few questions priming the pump? There must be something wrong with this guy; this is too good to be true. He must have an insufferable ego, right?

He pulls back in his chair and sparkles with laughter at my impertinent question.

“I am a human being, with all my weaknesses, and sometimes, when Beyonce or Barbara Streisand or Billy Crystal, or whomever, comes, I’m like ‘wow wow.’ Then I come back to my office and see this picture I place on my computer.  ‘It is this little girl, it’s not you.’ This is not about me.”

joes2By the way, I notice that our Repertory Theater of Iowa is presenting the Diary of Anne Frank, April 10 through April 26, 2015, right here in Des Moines. And it’s interesting that Jim Loos and Randall Vos are co-chairing a Netherland’s International Year at Des Moines Area Community College. Yup, a whole year on Holland at DMACC. Finally, it looks like the major traveling exhibit from the Anne Frank House is also scheduled to be in Des Moines during April. Quite a coincidence.

Shouldn’t we invite this guy to come along for the ride? CV              

JoeWeegBWJoe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, his wife is assisting in the prosecution of war criminals in the Netherlands for several months. He’s along for the ride and writes about being an Iowan in Europe on his blog at www.joesneighborhood.com. Joe can be reached by email at josephpweeg@gmail.com.

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