In some places, fall is the time to harvest. In most schools where I have taught, spring is that time. The traditional academic year is ending, and we can look back on what students have produced during our time together. I have one such piece in mind, for now, because when I first read it, it signaled gratifying growth for this student, a girl in the tenth grade.
First a word about the exercise. We had recently read Elie Wiesel’s Night. During our reading, I had introduced a particular method for noticing and recording details in this memoir. After pointing out a feature I had missed or forgotten–that the chapters contain what I came to call episodes, set off visually by extra spaces and capital letters–I asked students to start creating titles for each episode. I showed them some of my titles: “family strength,” “God’s mystery” and “playful bystanders.”
Once we had finished the book, I asked students to write down three different episode titles that especially resonate with them. (This idea of resonance we have been using all year, and evidence suggests that they have come to understand this idea.) Then, from these three titles, they state an idea about Wiesel’s experience.
After everyone has written his or her statement, I compile the ideas on a single list. Since I teach two sections of this class, I give the Section A list to Section B, and vice versa. On this sheet, students rank the top five statements: How clear is the idea? How easily and productively could you develop this idea into a brief essay? After the ranking, each person chooses to develop one. Most of the time, students choose their number one idea.
Before I attach the featured writing below, I wanted to give this background, so that readers know the process of arriving at the range of main ideas being pursued. The students generated these ideas–by reading carefully, recording their summaries, noticing resonances, making connections and noticing patterns among those resonances, expressing a single idea about someone else’s (Wiesel’s) experience. After evaluating other students’ single ideas, they choose one to develop.
As I said, this piece represents significant growth for this writer. Also, this brief essay contains several strong examples of parallel structure. I don’t know how much responsibility belongs to a particular lesson earlier in the year with Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address; I said nothing about this rhetorical device in the Night instructions. Seeing these examples, however, lifts my spirits. I love seeing young writers notice and use such tools to express themselves.
So here is the unedited student piece:
If you witness your family, friends, neighbors, being incinerated would you still believe in God? As fear consumed you could you stay strong? That is exactly what the Jews in the concentration camps had to endure as they were stripped of their names, clothes, and all dignity and forced to work as cheap labor. In the novel, Night, by Elie Wiesel, the concentration camps engender doubts about the Jews’ faith, which eventually leads to their loss of God completely and their gain of fear. Fear is powerful; it can move mountains, shake cities, even cause you to lose all hope. What are you left to believe in?
“Not far from us, flames, huge flames, were rising from a ditch. Something was being burned there. A truck drew close and unloaded its hold: small children. Babies! Yes, I did see this, with my own eyes… children thrown into the flames” (32). Wiesel shows readers continually how death surrounds the camps. The Jews were powerless against the guards so they turned to God, praying for Him to end the suffering. When God did not come to the rescue of the Jews, they began to question if He was actually there. How could He let them suffer like this? Where was He? Many of the Jews thought they were in some kind of a never-ending nightmare: “Was I still alive? Was I awake? How was it possible that men, women, and children were being burned and that the world kept silent?” (32).
As the questions pile up, anger over their suffering did too: “For the first time, I felt anger rising within me. Why should I sanctify His name? The Almighty, the eternal and terrible Master of the Universe, chase to be silent. What was there to thank Him for?” (33). However, this anger soon dies as weakness begins to consume all of their bodies. They have been beaten, forced to run naked through the cold, and given numbers instead of names. Fear begins to creep into the peoples’ heads. If God isn’t here to help us, who is?
The Jews felt abandoned and their faith was put to the final test. Some remain strong, but many fall to the mercy of their own fear: “Where is God’s mercy? Where’s God? How can I believe, how can anyone believe in this God of Mercy?” (77). Because they have no one to believe in, there is nothing stopping them from losing all hope. ‘There is no way we will make it’, that is what all of them are thinking. So, they give up; they sit quietly, in their fear, and wait for death to find them. When it comes, they do not fight it, they go quietly into darkness. This is what Wiesel is trying to show in this book, just how horrible the camps were. He wants the audience to remember his peoples’ suffering, and the pain he was caused.