Hope, faith, dignity and forgiveness.
Not topics teenagers are likely to discuss openly or care to elaborate upon . . . especially in front of their peers. But as an educator in my eighth year of teaching, I've been surprised by my teen students' willingness to share their vulnerabilities. And, oddly enough, it all started with a book and a 70-plus year old story.
It wasn't just any book. It was Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. The incredible tale of Olympian, Louis "Louie" Zamperini and his time during World War II, including 47 harrowing days in a life raft after surviving a plane crash, years as a Japanese POW and the struggles in his post-war life to deal with his brutal treatment. Despite the war being over, the war never truly left him, until a momentous night in 1949 when he attended Billy Graham's tent revival service in Los Angeles. His life so completely changed that he returned to Japan and personally forgave the captors who had brutalized him.
It was my mother who suggested this book, and from the moment I picked the it up, I was hooked. This was the type of story you want to tell people about so they can experience it for themselves. And we kept coming back to the notion of how teens needed to hear this story and discussed how to make this relevant today.
Teens are in such a precarious spot in the modern era. It has always been a challenge to endure the teen years, but the challenges that inundate students today are different and more widespread than the challenges I faced as a teenager. Feeling lost and hopeless seems to be their constant state of existence.
Add a dash of hormones; mix in the mad, unforgiving world of social media where comparison abounds; couple that with the realities of bullying and you have a recipe for disaster. No one can deny that teenage struggles, family dynamics and culture have changed in the United States. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but we need to be honest that this change has occurred. Ultimately, our classrooms must change as well to reflect the needs of young people today.
Within my school district, the economic disparities are evident and vast, but the social and family issues aren't quite as different as our students may think. Drug issues, divorced families, poverty, wealth, grandparents raising their grandchildren due to jailed parents, families torn apart for a myriad of other reasons— are just a few issues that plague students, not just in my district, but frankly, all over our nation.
Yet, we often don't discuss these openly, and we're missing an opportunity. It is an opportunity for dialogue, for learning, to further our education about an experience we've not experienced ourselves, an opportunity for self-improvement and reflection.
This concept was always evident to me, but how do you bring it to life in a classroom? How could I make 14 and 15 year olds realize this and care? Become engaged? Learn hope? Compassion? Forgiveness?
I made the decision to read Unbroken aloud to my students—300 pages to six separate classes.
That's a hard sell these days. Especially to teens who unabashedly declare they're not fans of reading or books, but would rather spend their free time streaming shows, scrolling through social media or playing video games.
I was absolutely blown away by their reaction. On the first day, there were audible groans of disappointment when the bell rang because we had to stop reading. They were hooked, just as I had been.
And what an impact it has had during the four-plus years I've been doing this. Some of my students had seen the first UNBROKEN film in 2014, but realized the book went further and covered his traumatic post-war life. This period of Louis' life, including the forgiveness of his tormentors in the POW camp, was often the most impactful to them. Recently, several of us pre-screened UNBROKEN, PATH TO REDEMPTION that will release nationwide this Friday and loved it. A man who overcome so many obstacles, deprivation and torture crumbles when the war ends, tormented by nightmares and PTSD. How does one overcome this cruelest chapter in his life? One word––Forgiveness. Thus began a life dedicated to the service of others, a legacy that the Louis Zamperini Foundation strives to continue.
Over the course of reading Louie Zamperini's amazing story, the more I asked students what their own personal beliefs are on hope, faith and dignity, how their own journeys echo that of Louie's, the more they have to say. Through Louie's story, the students find their own voices. They begin to cultivate a revolutionary environment: one in which teenagers listen to one another, build each other up and explore their own personal belief systems.
One activity that always cultivates more compassion and empathy during this curriculum unit is our Life Raft lesson. I tape out the standard size of a WWII military raft (2-feet by 6-feet) on our classroom floor, enough outlines for all students to sit three to a raft, just as Louie did.
They are obviously not in the middle of the ocean, but the confines of the space—paralleling Louie's confined existence for 47 days in the middle of the Pacific—actually creates a demarcation for hope. Countless times I hear, "If they can sit in a raft for 47 days, I can sit on the floor for three days," or "Sitting here makes me so grateful for what I have in my life." They talk more of their passions, of their hopes for the future, this arbitrary tape actually breaks through the limits placed upon them from either themselves or societal and environmental factors.
At the conclusion of the unit, students write a letter to Louie Zamperini. These letters often reveal the innermost challenges and thoughts of the students, and illustrate the power of forgiveness.
I was once asked, "What does reading this story mean to you and your students?" I surprised myself by crying, because it's more than reading, more than a curriculum unit in the classroom. It's a journey we endure together, and when we come out on the other side, we're no longer teacher and students, but comrades.
Comrades who allow our vulnerabilities to show, who raise each other up, who allow our encouragement and support to be unbroken. Comrades who encourage others to find their voice and use it with purpose.
I never tire of reading the now well-worn pages (since launching the unit, I've read a total of 7,200 pages aloud) because I know the power of those words. They renew my own faith in the next generation, because the passion of these young people to emphasize the importance of dignity, hope, compassion and faith (whatever path they may take) makes them world-changers.