We all know that if and when another troubled youth takes possession of his parents' guns and fires on school grounds, the media will be there to show us every gruesome detail. It's their job, they'll say, and of course they're right. But I'd like to challenge the media to investigate a very different phenomenon taking place in a small school in Tennessee.
The students of Whitwell Middle School, located in rural Tennessee, have been collecting paper clips to commemorate the Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust. Their original goal was six million clips to be used to erect a monument in the victims' memory.
This has been quite an undertaking. The students have been working on the project since 1998 when David Smith, Whitwell's deputy principal and football coach, took a course on the Holocaust and subsequently proposed that a similar course be offered at Whitwell. Fifteen students and fifteen parents showed up for the first class. As the eighth-graders tried to comprehend the sheer numbers of dead, they were told that some courageous Norwegians expressed solidarity with their fellow Jewish citizens by pinning paper clips on their lapels. One student suggested that they collect six million paper clips in remembrance of the dead.
Since then, they have worked toward their goal. Wearing polo shirts emblazoned with "Changing the World, One Clip at a Time," three successive eighth grade classes have dedicated themselves to this project. The school's Web site (www.marionschools.org) featured this project. Clips were received from 19 countries (including hundreds of thousands from Germany and Austria), 45 states, former president Bill Clinton, actor Tom Hanks, Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, Henry (the Fonz) Winker, and the Tennessee Titans and the Dallas Cowboys football teams. Amazingly, the school's Web site recently proclaimed that they have received more than 20 million paper clips.
How did this happen, especially in a place like Whitwell, which is situated 100 miles west of Pulaski, Tenn., where the Ku Klux Klan was founded? Whitwell Middle School's enrollment of 425 students includes a "minority enrollment" of just six African Americans and one Hispanic. The school population is overwhelmingly white, Christian and fundamentalist.
How could this have happened in a school with no Jewish students and very few minority students at all? What's going on with these kids' teachers, parents, peer groups? What makes these kids tick?
It is just as important to discover why some students take actions aimed at mending the world as it is to understand why other students lash out in violence. Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles has taught us that children seek moral intelligence from stories from real life as well as from fiction. The "Paper Clip Project" is an ongoing example of what he refers to as "the moral curriculum."
I challenge the media to investigate the kids at Whitwell Middle School. It's their job.
Patrick Henry is the Cushing Eells professor of philosophy and literature at Whitman College and a speaker for the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous.