Monday morning, as marathon runners and spectators filled the streets of Boston, I had the privilege of introducing Arn Chorn Pond, a survivor of the Cambodian genocide, to the 9th-grade students at Gertz Ressler High School near downtown Los Angeles. The juxtaposition of Arn’s visit and the violence that would break out in Boston later that day became a focus of thought for me as the week unfolded, as it did for many others in the L.A. office of Facing History, which is headquartered in Brookline, just next to Boston. As teachers and students in Boston prepare to return to school Monday, I hope you’ll join me in offering thoughts, teaching strategies, and your own experiences from a difficult week. Whether we were in Boston or California, acts of violence affect all of us in a global community and raise important questions of how our communities heal and move forward in the wake of trauma.
The story of Arn Chorn Pond and Gertz Ressler High School
Arn Chorn Pond was a child living in Cambodia when the genocide broke out there in 1975. Most of Arn’s family was killed during the Cambodian genocide. At age ten he had slaved in a work camp, witnessing wide-scale starvation and murder. When the North Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge forced him to become a soldier until he escaped on foot through the jungle in Thailand. In 1980, a minister from the United States and his family adopted Arn. At age 14, he traveled to New Hampshire as a refugee and became one of the first non-white students to attend White Mountain Regional High School.
The 9th graders at Gertz Ressler have spent the last few months studying the Holocaust with their Facing History teacher, Crystal Greene. They have heard survivor voices, explored the choices of individuals, and are beginning a project in which they will explore the issues in their own community and how they can make a difference.
On Marathon Monday, Arn spoke to the students at Gertz Ressler about the rage he felt, the killing of his sister and brother, and about being excluded and called "monkey" by students at his new school. He also talked about the importance of telling his story: Arn’s classmates did not know anything about Cambodia, so they did not know what he had been through. His experience helped him learn an important message, one that he continues to teach today: Everybody has a story. Arn reclaimed his voice by mastering the traditional music of Cambodia, which had been targeted for elimination by the Khmer Rouge, and teaching it to Asian gang members in New England, to the children of the Khmer Rouge, and to women in Cambodia to give them an alternative to prostitution. Still, he said, he understood the rage behind Virginia Tech, Newtown, and other cases of violence and urged students to seek out others on campus who withdrew or seemed to be feeling anger or exclusion. He encouraged all to take the time now to approach any of these students with compassion, seeking to understand others' stories as well as having the courage to share their own stories.
The students were inspired. For two hours they listened to, questioned, and shared their stories with Arn and Patricia McCormick, who has written Arn’s story from his own voice in the book Never Fall Down. A “hug line” formed afterwards with so many students who wanted to express their care for him and gratitude for sharing his story.
And then, the news came from Boston.
Over the course of the week, the students raised their own concerns. Students saw the connection between what had happened and the violence Arn had talked about. They expressed their fears about participating in an Autism walk to be held just a few days later. They struggled with what to do from Los Angeles to help those in Boston. Here, Crystal shares what happened on Friday:
Class began with students exploring Martin Luther King, Jr.’s quote, "I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham...". After we spoke about what this quote means, we read a Los Angeles Times article from Monday. All of my students raised their hand saying that they were aware of Monday's event. We then looked at CNN student news coverage from Wednesday and began to explore what questions they had. Some of the questions they raised were:
- What will the punishment be for the people committing this crime?
- Do the people who did this feel guilt?
- What would I have done in that situation?
- Why did they do this?
- How can people outside of Boston help?
- Did anyone know about this ahead of time and decide to keep quiet?
They were asked about connections to what Arn Chorn Pond shared on Monday. Student responses included that instead of going for revenge for what was done to him, Arn Chorn acted peacefully; they mentioned Atlanta's run of silence as a peaceful response to this. Arn Chorn Pond connected all the girls in the room to his sisters. One student used that logic to apply it to the victims in Boston.
- "That could have been my family in the marathon running."
- "Arn Chorn Pond taught that violence is not the answer and to see this happen the very same day shows me why he does what he does."
- "You can always help."
Following this discussion, students were asked to create a toolbox for healing. Options for this included creating artwork, a poem, or a letter to victim. I told the students that when the bell rang, we would not be dismissed immediately, but instead sacrifice one of our moments for silence to symbolize respect for those lives lost and victims hurt. I expected push back, I received none. Today was a great day.
Thank you to Crystal and her students for sharing their thoughts and questions from the week.
We'd love to hear from other teachers. How have you helped students think about the events this week? What resources did you use? What do you and/or your students want the students and teachers in Boston to know? Leave us a comment below.