Transcript of Carpinteria High School Interview 6; Wednesday, June 4, 2003
Interviewer: Jeremy Garsha
Interviewee: Casey Roberts, teacher of 10th & 11th grade history classes (Modern World, US History)
Prepared by Jeremy Garsha, 6/11/03
Jeremy: Did you do anything specific to prepare the kids for Nina’s visit?
Casey: What we did, is we read the book Night, we went through a unit on Holocaust studies. I just told them about the speaker we were going to have.
J: What have you done as a follow-up, after Nina’s visit?
CR: And after, this time we read her letter.
J: Read it again?
CR: We finished what we didn’t get to in class. And we talked about emotions that she had, messages that she gave. And what students got from it. We just talked about, "What did you glean from it? What will you remember?" And we talked about what they should write in the letter, and why that is important.
J: And in the past, what have you done to prepare the students, in post and pre settings?
CR: Pretty much the same stuff. Very similar. I would say it wasn’t any different this go around.
J: How did you choose the students to read? Did they volunteer?
CR: This year, on short notice, I chose all of them. Although, I think in one class I had one strong reader volunteer herself and two other people.
J: Was there any criteria in selecting them?
CR: Not really. In the past I have asked for volunteers and people have come forward. Usually only strong readers will volunteer, and that is usually the way it works—because they are terrified to be up front.
J: Right. You mentioned that on her first visit (Nina) left her notes in the podium. Have you noticed any change in her presentation since then?
CR: I think she feels very comfortable. Way more comfortable in being around students. The first time she was very soft spoken. You could barely hear her. She shook like a leaf. And now, on certain subjects, she is not afraid to really give her, strong, strong opinion. Whether it be—last year it was talking about the Pope. She clarified her commends, she explained that she…she just had a really hard time with this man…apologizing. "What was he doing during the war?" She came out very strong. She felt very free to do that. So I think just her freedom with the class (has changed). That is just what I have seen, and it comes through.
J: Is her emotion still kept.
CR: Yeah, it’s guarded, it’s still guarded. But if you know her enough you can see that she shows it every time she comes, it’s just real subtle.
J: Do you think that the students are able to pick up on it at all?
CR: A few of them. I think the more perceptive ones (are), not all of them. But if they are watching her, they can pick up little glimpses—her not making eye contact, using Kleenex, looking to the ground, looking to the ceiling, those are classic- and her voice when she is reading or speaking.
J: Did you guys have her read anything this time, or did she just kind of sit there?
CR: She read, she always reads the beginning of her letter, the introduction part. Then she sat up front. Other then the very first time, that’s pretty much been the format we always use. And it works well. It saves her her voice and her strength.
J: You guys had to cut a little short so you could get to the Questions and Answers section?
J: Because it was only fifty minute periods?
CR: Only fifty-five minute periods. In the past we have had block days, like today, and it has worked great. We can read straight, then take a couple minute stretch break, and then come back to a half-hour of Questions and Answers. That’s the best way. [Carp. High has an alternating block schedule, where Wednesdays and Thursdays, each period is one hour and fifteen minutes long].
J: Okay. You assigned the letters right?
J: And are there any criteria for that?
CR: I tell them that Nina wants to know—it’s really Nina’s criteria—what did they learn, and what will they remember, and any impressions that they got. And then I include, "make sure you thank her."
J: Can you tell me a typical response on those letters?
CR: A typical response would be, "Thank you for making it alive. Bringing this chapter of history alive more than any book I’ve every read, or video I’ve seen. To her your story is something I won’t forget.
J: Are there any atypical ones that really stand out?
CR: This particular go around, one student that really stood out, was a young woman who keyed in with Nina’s relationship with her mother and how strong that was. She said that her relationship isn’t that good with her mom, and it needs to be better. She identified that. You know, Nina’s relationship with her mother was a very strong one. This young lady realized that hers was not that strong, and that is something she needs to work on in the future. That was atypical. A letter in the past, last year, a Hispanic girl mentioned that she lost a twin brother who died, and related that. I thought that was pretty powerful.
J: What do you think the students gain from hearing her talk?
CR: They see a person that shares the same place and time, same space, same air that they do, whose life was radically changed because of Adolf Hitler. And I think that, more than anything, really blows them away. And I try to emphasis that. It’s not that far back in history. This one woman is remarkably changed because of this man’s policies were carried through. And I mentioned to them that when they are my age and they are having kids—well if they have kids at my place in life—then they are forty-five, forty-six, they will have teenagers taking this class, and it will have been about 100 years since these events happened. And they’ll have the opportunity to tell their students, their children, "I remember Nina Morecki, when she came to my high school and told us about those days and how dark it was when it happened." And how powerful that would be for their children, hearing the story a hundred years later. I just think that is something they will always carry with them.
J: One of your students mentioned that you said something about how Nina is 83 now, and that is might be one of the last times that she can come up. Do you feel that needed to be said? You don’t think that the students would pick up on that?
CR: Well…I think this is something I want to say because it is such a privilege to have her. She makes such a huge effort to be here. And, yeah you’re right Jeremy, it won’t be that much longer. I mean I hope that she can come for another ten years, but realistically, probably not. And the logistics of travel, we just don’t know.
J: And you think that the students are able to pick up on that?
CR: I think so. I think so. I hope they do. They have all been respectful, and that is my main concern—that they wouldn’t be—and they always are. I think that they’ve heard so much, and a woman walks in. Here is an individual who went through that. Here is a story. She opens her letter by saying, "I remember my family's murder. What would that be like for you, if every member of your family was murdered in your home?" I think that the kids just grasp that this is a special person.
J: Do you think there is any different response in males and females, when they hear Nina’s talk?
CR: Well, yes and no. I think that the girls, in the letters, are willing to share more depth and a little more emotion. But the guys letters also have the idea that they were moved, they’ll remember, and they just can’t believe that it happened. I think that (the girls) might be a little more willing to share that than the guys. But other than that, I think that they are very similar.
J: Okay. I just wanted to ask about motivated students compared to the underachievers..
CR: uh huh..
J: Do you think that it really helps to have a speaker come in here, versus assigning them a reading that maybe some of them won’t read?
CR: Oh, yeah. I think for any student having Nina is incredible. I think that Nina kind of fills in all the gaps. For those who don’t read—we read the book Night, which is written for the four and half grade level—it’s very accessible, but I think that it is very hard for many student’s who don’t read at all [Casey Roberts’ class also has a lot of children who have English as their second language]. But having Nina there, whether they be the top end of the charts or the bottom end, I think they…there was a young man fifth period the other day who has very low scores in class. I don’t think he is unintelligent, but he really asked a bunch of questions. He really connected with her. And it is great to see a low achiever really plugged in. So she reached him, and that was great.
J: That is great.
CR: That’s a great question by the way.
J: Thanks…Let me just ask you, how do you think it compares to have Nina talk versus showing the students videos or film clips? Or even if you had video of Nina talking to students..
CR: No comparison. There is absolutely no comparison to have some one there, in the flesh. I don’t know if it’s this generation, or if they have seen so much, but it sort of loses something. I don’t know if it’s the Matrix generation of special effects, but its just more videotape. But to have a person come, there is just no substitute. In fact, in their letters they said that. "I learned so much more from you, than just reading, or studying, or hearing, or watching." So there’s the strength. It won’t be a Holocaust unit unless Nina can come. She delivers about 92% of the whole unit.
J: Do you think it works well to have Nina come at the end, after they have already studied, so they have a background on it?
CR: Yeah. I always think at the end is better, if we can work it out. Now this year it was way at the end. It would have been better if we were right at the end of our current unit, but it just didn’t happen that way. But I always like it at the end, as a closure event, after they have some depth and knowledge, and I can prepare them for a few weeks and point out some things. And then to have someone, an eyewitness, come and bare their testimony about the events is just really powerful. In fact the students said, "we should have more guest speakers throughout the year." And they are right, we should have.
J: Do you think that there are any disadvantages?
CR: If you have a bad speaker. It’s worse than…than…we’ll it would be better not to have one. There is just something about a bad speaker. It’s just painful.
J: What do you think the definition of a bad speaker would be?
CR: Someone who doesn’t connect with students. Someone who may talk too much. Somebody who can’t relate, or isn’t seen as genuine or sincere [VH refers to Mr. Roberts using these very same words, underscoring the point that teenagers are very perceptive about adults]. Or someone who is really not interested in the students themselves. I’ve had them. Where there is just a disconnection. Where a speaker talks down to students, and treats them as inferior, or younger, or not knowing. Nina never does that. Her think is so cool because she respects them so much, and cares about them so much. And they pick up on that right away. They see that she is there for them. She doesn’t have to be here, but she wants to be here. They really appreciate that. But a bad speaker, it’s hard to undo. Especially if you are building up what could be a really good thing and it flops. But you never know.
J: Could you notice that in the students? That they just instantly lose all interest?
CR: Yeah…if it’s a really bad speaker, that can happen. They come with great expectations. It’s something different, and it just doesn’t work. I’m trying to remember in the past…we’ve had guest speakers that kind of flopped, but I’m blanking right now. But I remember. I remember just being really let down. I know one. There was this young woman from UCSB, who was a very religious Jew, and I had asked her to come and talk about Judaism and Israel. It was very preacher, and kind of "holier than thou." As opposed to other UCSB students who have come and talked about Judaism, those were really cool. But this one just didn’t work.
J: And she was still pretty young?
CR: Yeah, she was like 21…Some people just have better people skills, relational skills. I’ve had quest speakers that start out asking kids questions, and finding out about them. That’s always been effective. You never know. Unless you have someone like Nina, then you always know that she is going to deliver every time, no matter what.
J: Okay Casey, I want to thank you for all that.
CR: No problem Jeremy. Good questions Jeremy, it’s interesting. Good questions to think about. Challenging. The whole idea of good speakers and bad speakers. We’ve had people that just can’t do it. Don’t know who their audience is. That’s the trick, get somebody who knows the audience and cares about them, and knows a how to reach them. That’s pretty huge.
J: Yeah. I remember I was prepping Nina for that. I and I told her that when she speaks up at UCSB, Dr. Marcuse’s class is going to be about a hundred people, are you going to be okay with that?—thinking that she is such a small woman—and she was like, "I want as many people that can come as possible, they have to hear this."
CR: [laughs], right. What was the venue, was it a lecture hall, like Campbell Hall?
J: It was a miniature Campbell Hall, and we had her down in the bottom, and all the students were up in stadium seating. And we had all the readers in the front, and the school media service came in to film it. And I was done in the front taking some still pictures. And we just had students come up and read it, and Nina would sit near them. We had her close enough that when students would look at the reader they could see Nina.
CR: How about if you were in the back, could you see her okay?
J: I was never in the back, but the room wasn’t much bigger than this one [standard classroom size of about 40 desks]. The hardest part was just to get her voice to broadcast, and we had her miced up, so that worked really well.
CR: Yeah, that’s good. She…I don’t know what it is, but she said, "Don’t tell anybody, but I just really enjoy talking at Carpinteria High School more than UCSB." I don’t know why that is. If it’s the fact that she lived in this town and her granddaughter went here. She just has a special affinity for this place. And maybe it’s just more familiar.
J: I think it is also the kids. I think she really likes this age group.
CR: How did it come across at the University, how did that work?
J: Her talk last Thursday?
J: I think it worked really well. The only problem was the class—I guess it’s kind of like this class too (Modern World)—the class wasn’t focused on the Holocaust. This was a big, world History class, that covers so much stuff. But I think that he (Dr. Marcuse) tied it really well. With the college level the students were able to read and understand the story a lot easier. I didn’t get to come down here (to Carp.), but I don’t think it had quite the same effect as down here. I just know that she loves this age group. When she spoke to the Freshman seminar last quarter, I think it worked a lot better, just because they are younger people, and she went out to lunch with one of the girls [The girl was Celia Soudry]. I guess she went out to lunch with them this time with two girls and she was just loving it. The girls were having girl-talk, and Harold (Marcuse) told me that she came back with so much to say. Also, I gave her a ride up from Pomona, and it was just two hours of her wanting to know about me.
CR: [laughs], yeah.
J: And I was like, "My life? I want to know about you. My life is boring."
CR: That is her. She is so unique like that. She is genuinely concerned. I talked to her on the phone for about an hour last night. It was mostly about me, but at the end she was like, "Sorry I talked so much." I just thought that was amazing. She doesn’t have an edge. There are other Holocaust survivors that are kind of distant…almost distant from their own story. But Nina isn’t. She is just a real people person.
J: It’s really amazing how she is so in touch with it all. I’ve heard other’s talk. I heard Ruth Kluger talk..
CR: Is she local here?
J: She teaches down at UC Irvine, I think. She’s from Austria; she was a little girl through the Holocaust. But she has a really cynical outlook. I mean I enjoyed her story too, but one of the things she says is, "these people taught you to hate. You don’t come out of concentration camps loving everyone." But Nina, on the other hand, is just so happy to be with anybody new. And she just wants to always know, bad or good, how it was, so she can learn. And I know that is why these letters mean so much to her.
CR: Oh, she said something last night that I should have told these kids. She said, "let me know how I can improve." And I’m thinking, "this woman is 82 or 83, and she wants to know how she can do better next time." Wow, it blew me away Jeremy. I hope I have that when I’m that age.
J: Yeah, she still wants to learn, it’s amazing.
CR: There is a woman, or a man that did some research in the 1960s, I can’t remember his name, but he was a doctor of pathology, and he wanted to know why people live so long, and why some people didn’t. And he chose as his case study Holocaust survivors. And he asked those that lived a long time, "What was it?" I mean they lost everything, and you would think that they would have no reason to live. He came up with a couple propositions, one was—I can only remember one now—was that they were able to manage change. They were able to move from the past, and just manage change in their lives, and keep on going, and not be embedded in their past.