Friday, March 1, 2013

The First Donation

In a prior POST, I wrote about one of the first lessons that I used to teach my Modern World History classes when we reached our last unit of the year – our unit on the Holocaust. This morning, the incredible generosity of one of my former student's family reminded me of another lesson from this unit (and this one was actually born from my own brain).

The final project of the final unit of the year was a very open-ended one. My four World History classes set out on creating their very own Holocaust museum in a large classroom at the end of the Social Studies hall at Canton High School. I introduced the project by talking about the internationally recognized United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Like many of my students, I had visited the museum in my younger days, but it wasn’t until I read a book about the making of the museum, its structure, and its historical content that I started to grasp how remarkable that place really is.

One night, I scanned the heck out of the photos in that book. I dropped them into a PowerPoint and my students and I took a virtual walk through the Holocaust Memorial Museum. We talked about what a curator does (although I’m not even sure there is someone with this precise title there). We talked about the particular placement of certain exhibits, what sorts of emotions a particular photograph or display evoked or tried to evoke, and how sometimes less is more when it comes to teaching someone something. I generally think that people love “behind the scenes” type information, you know, chances to learn why something was made the way it was made, and I thought this fascination was why my students were always really interested in this lesson.

Then came time for my freshman to start working on their own exhibit for our museum. Essentially, there were no rules. The kids could choose their own topic – from French children of the Holocaust to the food that prisoners ate in the concentration camps to the story of the brave people who aided victims in their escape from persecution. They could make a video, a photo collage, write a song or a poem, sew a piece of clothing, anything as long as it taught those who would visit our museum something about a piece of the Holocaust.

One student in each class was the curator of his or her class's museum. The curators didn’t create a project, but rather, they organized and arranged everyone else’s project. The curators would make a brochure to help guide the museum-goers around the room and they would often add wonderful creativity to these brochures. Usually a few kids wanted to be the curator so I made all interested parties write a brief explanation of why they would be good at the job and what ideas they had for it.

One of my favorite parts of this project was that so many kids would end up telling me about their parents' skills and talents and interests. For instance, I’ll never forget the pride on one of my student’s faces when he explained that he would be a great curator because his father arranged food at the local supermarket and he watched how well his father displayed the meat in the meat case. I remember thinking that if my future kid ever looked as proud to talk about me as Greg was to talk about his dad, then I would have done something very right in my life.

Now that I really think about it, I also loved this project because even at the end of the year -- right when I thought I knew a lot about my students -- I would learn so much more about them. Kids that I never knew had incredible technical abilities would create a video with a computer program I had never even heard of. Other kids would create something so big that it took a few friends to help them drag it into the building. And others created something small, but which evoked deep thought and emotion. Wandering around that museum was never easy because the topic is such a tragic one, but at the same time, it was one of my most cherished days of my teaching year. This day more than any other, I realized that each brain in my classroom, or any classroom, is so unique.

This morning, as I stood on the platform waiting for my train, I skimmed through my email. The moment I saw the last name of one sender, I knew exactly who she was, and I knew exactly the project that her son had created for the Holocaust museum in his World History class some eight or so years ago.

Way back then when Alex was a freshman in my classroom, he made a miniature replica of a Holocaust museum. When he brought it in, I remember how proud he looked to say that his dad was an architect and he had helped him with the project. For all I know, that project wasn't fun for anyone involved, but I got the feeling that maybe it was -- that perhaps it had offered a chance for a dad to show his son a glimpse of his profession.

In her email, Pauline wrote that I may not remember Alex. I love when parents think that I won't remember their kid because it’s fun to surprise them with the fact that not only do I remember their kid, but I remember so many fun details about him or her. I admit, sometimes I get confused with names like Mike and Mark, but I never forget a student that sat in my classroom.

Pauline had written to tell me that her husband, Gary, was headed into Dana-Farber today to donate his platelets in my honor. It’s hard for me to explain what that email and that amazingly generous gesture meant to me. In some ways, it was like my pink envelopes because Gary didn’t go to Dana-Farber today for any recognition or compensation. But within the next five days, a cancer patient who is most likely struggling through a bad bout in his or her chemotherapy treatment will receive Gary's platelets so that his or her blood will clot properly, and thus not cause much more serious complications.

I had no idea until Wednesday’s trip to Dana-Farber that platelets only have a five-day shelf-life. But that’s the truth – platelets can’t be frozen like blood can. A Dana-Farber employee told my Mom something even more significant – last year Dana-Farber needed 10,000 units of platelets. They ended up 3,000 short. I wondered what they did to make up for the shortfall. I have no idea.

The Dana-Farber employee also told us that bad weather is especially tough for patients in need of platelets because people don't donate. I can speak to how scary this must be because a hurricane or a snowstorm takes on a whole new meaning for chemo patients (and likely other patients in similarly vulnerable situations). Storms aren't cozy and fun. Instead, they bring with them a heck of a lot of worry that you would need help but not be able to get into a hospital or a transfusion suite to receive it.

When my Mom first asked me to post her blog requesting platelet donors, I read it and was really touched. But today, the power of that gift really hit me. Before today, I had heard from a few wonderful family members and friends that they have appointments set up to donate. But until Pauline's email, I hadn't yet heard that today is the day it will happen. All day, I thought about Gary's donation. And every time I thought of it, I could feel in my bones, or better yet, in my own little platelets, how special of a gift it was.

On Tuesday, my sister will donate her platelets in Washington D.C., and after her, I know one of my cousins, my parents, and even the head of Teddy and Annabel's school will donate. Incredible. Because each of those days will feel like my birthday.

I never knew until I got cancer that platelets stop bleeding. That means, I suppose, that platelets are the first step in healing a wound. And that means, then, that because of my Mom's idea, all of you remarkable donors are healing people’s wounds for my birthday. I can’t imagine any gift I’d ever want more than that.

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