For the past five years, since 2008, students at Mount Hebron High School have been working on a project trying to comprehend what those words stand for and to create something tangible that could adequately represent their meaning.
As part of their curriculum, incoming freshmen read “Night,” a memoir by Elie Wiesel about surviving Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Many students had not heard of the Holocaust or had difficult questions, struggling to grasp what six million means. High School teacher Cyndie Fagan wanted to help them understand.
She began by showing students a book from the Paper Clips Project (Tennessee high school students collected 15 million paper clips to have a tangible reference and commemorate those who perished in the Holocaust), and Fagan’s class thought something similar would help them comprehend the number and the gravity of the Holocaust. The class decided stamps would be a good way to commemorate the lives lost.
Fagan, who collected stamps as a child said, “Each of those postage stamps tells a story, just like each person who died had a story.”
Dozens of ninth-graders each year become involved with collecting, cutting out and counting the stamps. The completed work is stored in dozens of huge plastic tubs in closets and Fagan’s classroom. They get lots of donated stamps (they’ve inherited them from deceased collectors, and a parent who owns a utility company regularly donates several hundred stamps from mailed-in payments). They still have a long way to go, and many students remain involved well after ninth grade.
“It’s kind of a way to make people aware because six million is so intangible,” said sophomore Tara Bellido de Luna. “It’s hard to realize how many stamps and how many people that really is. … It does represent people in the Holocaust, but it could also represent what potentially could happen if we don’t start tolerating people. … People don’t fear other people, they fear the difference in what they don’t know. That’s kind of what starts it all.”
Junior Emily Kader has been involved since her older brother Joey was a freshman, the year the project began. She’s collected stamps when attending Camp Louise; neighboring Camp Airy participated, too. Her synagogue, Beth Shalom in Columbia, also contributes.
“My zayde [Fred Kader] was actually a Holocaust survivor, and so the whole cause is important to us; he helped us cut and count the stamps and has been a part of the process,” said Kader.
Freshman Amogh Arun just joined the project, and he’s building a website to get out the word for more stamps. Freshman Evan Johnson’s brother chose this for his bar mitzvah project, so his family has been gathering stamps the whole year. Collectively, the students are working on a video to send to the Ellen DeGeneres show, “Ellen,” in hopes that she’ll help get the word out and that stamps will start flowing in.
Special Education teacher Janna Freishtat co-teaches the English class with Fagan. Her grandmother is, and her late grandfather was, a Holocaust survivor.
“What I can bring is the personal story, and it makes it more real for them because they say, ‘Oh, you mean you wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that they lived?’ They were shocked that I would have been affected if I lived at that time. They couldn’t grasp that until we explained, ‘Your teacher or your neighbor could be taken,’” Freishtat said.
Fagan is determined to complete the project, and Freishtat claims, in addition to stamp donations and the students’ work, it is Fagan’s energy and perseverance that keeps it going. To give some perspective, six million stamps would cover three-and-a-half football fields. When finished, plans are to create a mural with the stamps dedicated to tolerance of others, and the remaining would be held in a giant Plexiglas cylinder near the mural.
Part of the goal is to help students connect the experience and the project to something bigger.
Fagan said, “My hope is that something we shared with them during this ninth-grade year, that when they’re adults, they will hear something or see something, and it will trigger that ‘aha’ moment for them.”
No donation is too big or too small
Mount Hebron students have collected two million stamps, and they need more. As the students are saying: “Please send stamps!”
Mail stamps to:
Mount Hebron High School
Attn: Cyndie Fagan
9440 Route 99
Ellicott City, MD 21042
For more information, visit click here.
Melissa Gerr is JT senior staff reporter and digital media editor — firstname.lastname@example.org