One of the few regrets I have from college is not taking a class with Elie Wiesel. Many of you have read his book Night. The Nobel Peace Prize winner was a renowned Holocaust survivor, writer, philosopher, and transformational teacher at Boston University where I went to school.
To get into Wiesel’s class you had to apply through his secretary and make a strong argument as to why you should be considered for the course. I never spoke up to make my case. I did not have enough confidence in myself and I certainly did not understand the rare opportunity I was giving up. Instead I settled for hearing Elie Wiesel speak a number of times during large and small lectures thinking it was enough. But it wasn’t. Missing out on the opportunity to learn with Professor Wiesel's is one of my biggest regrets.
So, when I learned of a book written by one of his former students and teaching assistants, I could not wait to read it. The book [Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom by Ariel Burger
] transported me into the classroom I never had a chance to enter. I was so struck by the words Wiesel shared about teaching and the way they resonated with this year’s theme.
The book’s author shared that Elie Wiesel would begin each semester by telling his students with the deepest authenticity, “As much as you will learn from me, I will learn from you”(Burger, 2018). He continued to explain that Wiesel believed that students, like you, should be contributors and not passive recipients of information. That, together, teachers and students form a living ecosystem.
At Brimmer, your voices are important and help create our ecosystem. Whether it is the oceans or our school, we know that every ecosystem needs balance. In class we need you to participate to your fullest, bringing your understanding and experiences to discussions. In the hallways, you have the ability to create the community we strive to be through the ways you interact and hold each other accountable.
How do we learn from each other and attain what Wiesel strived for in his classes? To do it, we must bring people together with different perspectives and listen as we disagree. danah boyd, author and researcher, shares that as much as Social Media brings people together, it also creates segregated online micro-communities. We become closed off to the ideas of those who we disagree with, because we tend to follow people who have similar values and ideas as our own, thus shutting us off to alternative view points (Jenkins, Ito, and boyd, 2015). Both danah boyd and Elie Wiesel understood the dangers of only hearing one perspective.
What I learned from Elie Wiesel is that developing your voice is just as important as learning to use your voice to make a positive change on your community and the world. There are so many places that you hone your leadership skills at Brimmer- through sports, in Student Senate, in Clubs, and through performance groups. We talk about the skills you learn through these programs often, but right now, I want to focus on the little moments that go unnoticed. It is in these moments that Wiesel believes you have the most potential to build community. Being a leader does not require a title like captain or president. We are too often focused on the big and flashy moments that come from leadership. However, every day, each of you has the opportunity to lead this community through your choices. What does responsible leadership look like to me?
It’s when you see another person looking down, and check in with them to see how they are feeling; it’s when you invite someone who is sitting by themselves at break or lunch to eat with you; it’s choosing to clean up a mess you did not make; it’s being willing to call out a friend when they are not speaking kindly about another person.
Elie Wiesel understood that he was given an incredible opportunity to use his voice and experiences to guide the moral leadership of many world leaders. He also believed that our collective success in responding to world changing events is measured by the small moments and encounters we have as humans. He believed that if we can act with greater sensitivity to others, if we act with courage and choose humanity over inhumanity, we can have a larger effect on trajectory of history. (Burger, 2018)
My hope for you this year is that you will carry out the legacy of Elie Wiesel and continue to develop the power of your voice and learn to use it to be a positive force in our community and world. Whether it is through official positions of leadership or small, meaningful acts, you have the ability shape our community and world.
Burger, A. (2018). Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Jenkins, H., Ito, M., and boyd, d. (2015). Participatory Culture in a Networked Era. New York, NY: Polity.