Choosing a word for the year seems to be a buzzy topic lately. The intention is to choose an affirmative word every January as you set your goals for the upcoming year to be your theme or mantra for the next 52 weeks. I’ve always been quick to make a decision and stick with it, but perhaps because I have a tendency to be wordy, this practice is just not for me. How can I possibly be expected to choose just one? Last January I went to the first yoga class of the new year and we were all given a card with a word to meditate on and use as inspiration for the upcoming year. I can’t remember what my word was, but I do remember it was lame and I let my annoyance with a lousy word distract me the rest of class. Placing so much weight on a single word isn’t the best motivation for over-thinkers.
I do, however, appreciate the notion of a single word or phrase opening up a year’s worth of possibilities. Returning to school after winter break, my 7th grade art students picked up where we left in December working on a heavy topic: The Holocaust. I have each of my middle school grades do some sort of self portrait every year and for my 7th graders it is in the form of an identity box. They spend weeks working on this project. Students decorate the outside of their boxes to represent themselves and their personalities while they fill the inside with things they make in class and treasures they bring from home. Needless to say, they are very special and personal.
Building upon the ideas of the art teacher before me, when the students come in for class excited to present their self-portraits they learn that their identity boxes are gone. Their possessions and all the things that represent each individual student have vanished (hidden in another teacher’s closet). This loss of self always creates a panic and opens up an insightful discussion about what it means to lose everything and have your identity erased. We then dive into the basic history of the Holocaust. The students study this topic in depth in their social studies class so the focus in art is the importance of not letting the history of those who survived and the ones who did not get erased. In the old testament, God commands the Israelites to build monuments commemorating trials they overcame so that future generations would not forget the suffering endured by their ancestors.
He said to the Israelites, ‘”In the future when your descendant ask their parents, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the Jordan before you until you had crossed over. He did this so that all peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the Lord is powerful and that so you might always fear the Lord your God.”Joshua 4:21-24
After a raw discussion, my students get to explore the stories of survivors. We spend a few days in the computer lab listening to the recorded testimonies of survivors and rescuers. As they scroll through the footage, I always try to emphasize that these people are all gone now and it is up to us to continue sharing their stories. These recordings are provided through Chapman University’s Holocaust Art and Writing Contest. As part of the contest, students are instructed to choose a single word or phrase from the recorded account of a Holocaust survivor. That word then becomes the inspiration for an art piece representing that person’s story. It is an interesting thing for a twelve or thirteen year old kid to realize that the old person they are watching a video of is talking about these unimaginable things they endured when they were around the same age.
I emphasize to my students the importance of the fact that they have been entrusted with sharing their survivor’s story through their own artwork now that the survivor is no longer here to tell it. Students take one word from another person’s testimony and depict a lifetime of trauma and inhumanity, but they ultimately depict a story of survival. When God instructed the monuments to be placed in the book of Joshua, it was so that after those people were long gone future generations would remember what they went through, and ultimately know what they overcame. It is important to remember what came before us. If I had to pick one word to focus on it would be salvation and it wouldn’t just be for the unfolding year. God dried up the Jordan river just as he parted the Red Sea to bring his people across. They overcame the obstacle before them by His will. Even though we don’t deserve it, we are all offered salvation now through Jesus and a way across the river. Life is full of pain and trauma, but through our salvation we already know that we are survivors.
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