Sunday, October 31, 2010

How can I remember when they are not my memories

At our school we are starting to plan our Remembrance Day Assembly.  We look for meaningful ways to give the students an idea as to what this day means.  Our school, along with many of the schools in my district, has used a great video by A Pittance of Time by Terry Kelly that does a pretty good job of showing why we have our moment of silence.  For the past two years we have brought in veterans, but many of them are elderly.  We try to explain what this day means and why we celebrate it.  We talk about it, we try to show it and we do our best to make them understand it, even though many Canadians are disconnected from what November 11th represents.  Truth be told, I am not certain that I fully understand it.

My closest connection to what this day means is my grand-father.  My grand-father was an amazing man, someone that I miss dearly.  In the last few years before he passed away I developed a very close bond with him that I will cherish forever.  When I look at his life I am constantly amazed.  He was 19 when World War II started and shortly after was captured and would spend the next 5 years of his life in a German POW camp.  When was I the exact same age I was in University unsure of what I was going to do.  I took 5 years to do my BSc., undecided as to what I was going to do next with my life.  I finished my degree and went to work while I tried to figure out the next phase of my life.

My grand-father and I lived very different lives.  While he was on meager rations of food trying to survive, I was hanging out with my friends ordering burgers and chicken wings.  While he struggled to keep his sanity, I was playing video games.  How can I fully appreciate what he, and other men who enlisted or were drafted into the army, went through, even though I benefit from their sacrifices?  The closest I can even come close to some form of understanding what he lived is watching the Omaha Beach scene in Saving Private Ryan when you see the Americans landing and being systematically killed.

When my grand-father passed away my mother was going through his personal effects and came across a journal that he kept during his time in the prison camp.  Towards the end of his journal he was describing his journey as he was been marched daily while in the process of being released at the end of the war. I remember my grand-mother describing his release as she went to the train station every day hoping he would be on that train.  She would wait with mothers and wives.  She would hear children asking their mother, pointing to servicemen as they descended from the train if that was their father as many children had never met their fathers.  She went to the train station daily for a week.  The last page of that journal was the day he got off the train and there was one word written, Suzanne, my grand-mother's name.  His 5 years of hell were over and he was back in his country with the woman that he would marry a few short months later.

My brother and I would try to ask questions about the war, but he would never answer them.  One day my brother found some of his old service gear and asked him about them.  My grand-father avoided the questions and then moved his stuff.  I sometimes wonder if he never told us because if he did, he would have to remember what he went through.  I can't even begin to imagine what he went through.

I live in a free country, where I have the freedom to choose my career and walk into stores that sell products that are far from essential but sure make life enjoyable.  I do not have to live on rations as my family did after the war, walk miles to get my limited amount of coal to heat my home nor sell my worldly possessions to be able to feed myself and my family.  I live in a country that has not had a war on its soil in over a century.  I do not fear being persecuted for my faith, having armed men firing their guns in my streets and children are all expected to go to school.  Most of us are 1, 2 or 3 generations removed from anyone in the family having witnessed war.  I give thanks for those brave men and women who have fought to give us the freedom that I enjoy, and am proud of Canada's continued role in other countries trying to afford them the same freedom and choices I have.

I do what I can to help the students understand something I struggle to understand and fear that I won't do a good enough job.  I worry of having a generation of children who live in the richness of our country and do not understand why we have all that we do.  I will continue to do my best and hope that they understand.  I will spend November 11th thinking of my grand-father, the amazing man he was and give thanks that he was able to come home.  I wonder what my students will be thinking on that day.


  1. Great post, Remi. Every year I am in charge of putting together our Remembrance Assembly and struggle with how to make it relevant to our students as well as respectful to our veterans. The beginning of our assemblies are always traditional and follow the same pattern. The second half of the assembly is where I try to make Remembrance Day a little more 'real' for our students. One of the best assemblies we had focused on staff's family members who had served. It was very powerful. Staff members involved wrote a short profile of their family member and what their service meant to them. I had the student readers read them. We then had the staff light a candle for their family member while the choir sang. Lots of tears that day. The last two years, I've focused the second half of our assembly on Afghanistan. Last year we had the armory in Vancouver involved. This year I'm focusing on the families left behind. My point to this long rambling is that to me, this is a very important job and I welcome it every year. I remember all the stories my parents told me of the blackouts (they were both in their late teens; my dad was not allowed to participate because of health reasons but wore (and still has it) a special pin so people would know he wanted to go), the dances when the boys came home, and the stories of those who didn't make it. As classroom teachers we need to provide a lot of background before going into the assembly using stories and writing to make it more real to the kids. Sorry this was so long!

  2. Thanks for the great response. I only have stories that have been passed on, and if that is the case for me, what is it like for the kids. Those stories will soon be all that there is as many of the vets pass away and we need to do get out in full force to help them know what it is about.

  3. Thanks for this post Remi. As someone who is even further removed than you having no close family connections to any wars I really appreciate your story. It reminds me of why observing the day is so important - perhaps more important than ever.

  4. Very touching post, Remi - and thank you for including the stories about your grandfather. These are the stories that make Remembrance Day that much more important.

  5. There are two parts to Remembrance Day for me:
    1) lest we forget;
    2) never again...

    You see, my family background is German. My father was a German soldier at the end of the war, was captured by the Americans and "traded" to the French and spent two years as a POW in France.

    So I've always had some mixed feelings sitting in Remembrance Day ceremonies. A certain sense of being from the "bad" side. I wrote about it last year, as I finally figured out some of those feelings:

    And that's where the second point above came from - the other thing we need to talk to our kids about is how we, as individuals, contribute to world peace and work towards "never again".

    It's funny, I have stories from the "other side" that I hesitate to talk about, because I'm not sure if that would be disrespectful. Yet, they are also the stories of war and families who waited. Sons who didn't come home. Homes lost. Fear.

    So, knowing it was so terrible on BOTH sides, what can we do to make sure it never happens again? I keep thinking it has to do with how we love our children today - and how they learn to love others by our example. Without judgement. Accepting. Recognizing and respecting differences. Unafraid of failure.

    No small undertaking, but worth it!

    Thanks for sharing your stories!

  6. Heidi, I think that it is important that people remember/know that the "bad side" had many good people as well. Most of those soldiers were young, impressionable, fearful of disagreeing, unaware of the decisions that were made and so on. We also need to remember that there were soldiers on the "good side" who were far from saintly.

    I think our history books spend too much time vilifying the leaders and forgetting the young men on the other side who were fighting for their country. We also need to remember the Christmas Truce
    It is easy to condemn from a distance and a different time.

    I don't know what I would have done had I grown up in Germany or Italy during that time.

  7. Hello again!
    Perhaps I'm just arguing semantics, but I think there's something in what you said that we need to reflect on.

    We have an opportunity to remember something even bigger - not that there were many "good" people on the "bad" side, but that we're all just human. We have that common bond that goes beyond borders or countries - like the Christmas Truce points out.

    And, as such, we all make good and bad decisions. We react from fear. Or we ignore things because it's easier "not to see" than to face that we might actually be able to go against the tide.

    It's easy to see, in hindsight, that there were alternatives. It's a bit harder to imagine that, even though I'd like to think I'd make "better" decisions, I might actually have made similar "bad" decisions.

    As you point out - "it is easy to condemn from a distance and a different time." So how can we teach our children to know that ANY of us could have stood in the shoes of the German people who were silent bystanders while the Jews were marched away, or who chose to hide rather than help. Who followed - not because they were "bad" or because someone held a gun to their heads, but simply because they couldn't see beyond their own needs.

    I think, sometimes, the most important thing we can teach our children is that we're all just human. Not good or bad, but all of the above. None of us are entirely virtuous. And none of us are pure evil. But all of us are imperfect.

    We will all be bystanders at some point. We will all stay silent when we know, in our hearts, we should have said something. We will all follow someday because it's easier than being the one to stand up and complain. I can think of times when I've done each of those things!

    And that doesn't make us "bad" - it just reminds us that we're human. But we're still worthy human beings, even when we've made mistakes. That is true love.

    The challenge then is, as parents and educators, how do we strive to make sure every thing we do, everything we think, and everything we say aligns with this belief - not just on November 11th, but every day? And when we fall short (and we will!), how do we support each other and help find alternatives, rather than condemn?

    How do we discipline our children? How do we acknowledge mistakes? How do we right our own wrongs? How do we respectfully disagree? How do we be brave enough to stand up for what we feel is right? How do we love each other and ourselves? How can we be kind? And how do we forgive ourselves when we fall short?

    These are the things that I think about...