Mrs. Miller, You Set Us Up Barbara’s story As told by Clarissa Bowers
Early in my teaching career, I took a course on multicultural education in an effort to bring the world outside a little bit closer to our small town in Indiana. Most of my students had never left the borders of our county, let alone the confines of our county. So, I felt like I had a responsibility to bring whatever cultural experiences I could into my teaching. Like most teachers, I was dedicated to leaving my students a little better than I had found them and looking back on it now, that is what kept me going throughout this experience.
During that time in my life, I found myself teaching in one of the more rural schools where diversity wasn’t something that was regularly experienced. So, like many things that are unfamiliar to us, it wasn’t regularly embraced either. Having just spent much of my time working to understand the importance of multicultural acceptance, I chose to do a reading to my 10th graders from Hiroshima Diary: The Journal of a Japanese Physician, August 6 – Sept 30, 1945; a book written by a doctor that spent his days tending to the victims of the atomic bombing in Japan. As I walked throughout the classroom, I implored my students to feel what these people were feelings and worked my hardest to paint a picture of what they were experiencing. At one point, I felt my own heart break a bit as I read the excerpt, “And they had no faces! Their eyes, noses and mouths had been burned away, and it looked like their ears had melted off. It was hard to tell front from back.” I paused expecting to hear the sharp inhale of my students match my own and was instead rendered speechless as the quiet country kid slumped over in his chair blurted out “So what? They were the enemy.”
Years have passed and I still couldn’t tell you what words I found to fill the silence that filled the room or how I finished my lesson. Where had I gone wrong in this? I was trying to teach about humanity and the struggles of other cultures around the world and here I was face to face with a student that felt nothing at the thought of this innocent person being maimed.
Admittedly a bit defeated, I spent the next few days trying to find a way to build some sort of cultural connection for my students but mostly I just needed a connection for one. Simply reading to him hadn’t done the trick; I needed to find something to forge a stronger connection. These kids didn’t need another adult telling them how to think; telling them how to think was likely how we got here in the first place. Instead, I chose to meet them on their level. If words weren’t going to make them feel something, perhaps a movie could.
Over the course of the next week, my students learned to live and love alongside Guido in the 1997 movie, Life is Beautiful. The movie tells the story of a goofy Jewish shopkeeper that spends the first half hour finding ways to win over Dora by way of comedic yet romantic gestures and endearing moments. Like most romantic comedies, he eventually does just that and the end up married with a beautiful son. Unfortunately, World War II breaks out and they are transferred to a concentration camp where Guido uses his comedic ways as method of distraction for his son. Throughout the course of the film, you can’t help but fall in love with Guido as he turns each horrific aspect of the concentration camp into a fun game for his son, each time putting his own safety at risk for the sake of a smile from his son.
By the end of the week, the whole class had fallen in love with Guido and his son. They loved his sense of humor, they were glad he got the girl, and they couldn’t help but adore him for the risks he was willing to take to protect his son from the tragedy that was all around him. Every student was captivated by Guido’s story and eager to see their story come to its happy end. They were finally connecting to another culture despite it being “unrelated” to their own. In the last scene of the film, Guido tells his son to hide in a box until everyone is gone in hopes that rescue teams will find him. With one last wink, he comically steps around the corner with a guard and we see his son laughing while hiding in the box for this one last game. As Guido slips from view for the final time, the only sound that is heard is the wail of a single machine gun.
In that moment, you could have heard a pin drop. After a short while, the silence was broken by that same boy who was so lacking in compassion. “Are you kidding me? They KILLED Guido?” I looked at him and simply said, “What do you care, he’s the enemy right?” In that moment, his face just fell. He had been just as engaged as anyone and he said “Mrs. Miller, you set us up.” It was just such an incredible moment that even now, I get Goosebumps.
Here was a kid, that through no fault of his own, was taught that the Japanese were our enemy and that was all there was to it. How do you consider anything else if that’s all you’ve ever been told? Maybe it was by a grandparent or an uncle that fought in World War II but how could you ever know to consider an alternative if an alternative was never offered?
I think about that experience often and I realize how much it has sculpted who I am as an educator. Multicultural education isn’t just about teaching a story that comes from another country. The idea is about providing and creating experiences for kids, authentic experience that give them a chance to relate to people from other backgrounds, not just other countries, kids that they rival against in sports from across the county, or the kids that just moved in from out of state. Overall, it was really a watershed moment for me to think, who am I teaching, what am I teaching. I realized, I’m not just teaching dangling modifiers and prepositions to these kids. That day, I was teaching kids how to think and how to be compassionate and those aren’t standards anywhere.
Clarissa Bowers is the Learning and Development Manager for a New York based company, as well as, an adjunct instructor at Ivy Tech in Anderson. This is Clarissa’s fourth time serving as a writer for The Facing Project and is thrilled to be part of such an important discussion for our community (and our world).
Over the past eighteen years, Barbara Miller has taught in three area high schools, as well as for Ivy Tech and Ball State University. Before that, she was a preschool teacher. Barbara participated as a writer for the Muncie Facing Racism project.