Once again, it is my great privilege to hand this post over to one of the program’s most seasoned teachers. For three years in a row, Elise taught Peace Heroes to her third grade classes at a Palestinian school in Jerusalem. What follows are some of her reflections on this experience.
“Miss Elise, I am sick,” Aseel raised her hand to share.
“Oh really?” I responded.
“Yes,” she continued in that adorably confident way of hers. “My mom wanted me to stay home this morning but I told her I couldn’t. It’s Wednesday. We have history! And I can’t miss that.”
I just smiled, happy my little Aseel loved history so much and secretly hoping her sickness wasn’t contagious!
Although Aseel’s extreme enthusiasm for our peace history class made me smile, it didn’t surprise me. Over the three years I taught Peace Heroes to third graders at the school in Jerusalem, I regularly received such enthusiastic responses from all students. “History” was always a forerunner for “favorite subject,” and one year, my class’s New Year’s resolution included “study history twice a week instead of once!” You can’t make this stuff up.
What a joy it was to teach as well. I usually began my lessons by having the class recite St. Francis’ peace prayer, and then we would move into a photo presentation, either of the country we were studying or the peace hero. I found the students constantly captivated by the stories they would learn; there were almost never discipline issues during the lesson. After my teaching, my students would respond by completing a page in their peace heroes’ notebook, perhaps with a mind map of country facts or a drawing of an important moment in a peace hero’s life. They loved acting out stories too, or watching a video of an important event if one existed.
How could I even choose a favorite peace hero?
One thing I loved about teaching the program multiple years was seeing which peace heroes spoke to the children. Each particular class seemed to latch on to a particular hero, and lessons from that hero became embedded in the culture of our class.
The hero who surprisingly made the most consistent impact on our class culture, however, was Mother Teresa. She’s certainly one of the humblest individuals we study, not possessing the prominence of Gandhi or the modern appeal of Malala. And yet, every year she stirred our hearts.
I remember very clearly the first time I taught on her, three years ago. As I solemnly acted out her lifting the dying off the streets in the front of our classroom, I told my students Mother Teresa desired everyone to feel loved and wanted. This included orphaned children, people dying on the streets, and those in the lowest caste. No matter who they were or how much longer they would live, she wanted them to feel loved and wanted.
When it came time to select a phrase with which to remember Mother Teresa as we added her leaf to the peace tree in the back of our classroom, Tala offered the suggestion, “She made people feel loved and wanted.” The class voted and Tala’s suggestion won, so the phrase gained a permanent home on the wall of our classroom.
That’s when I began to notice its gentle permeation of our class.
I first noticed it when Adi wrote a letter to his American pen pal Aijalon. This was Adi’s first year in our school, but this tiny, good-humored boy had no problem with the English and integrated very well. This particular letter went as follows:
I’m eight years old, I like soccer & my favorite player is Cristiano Ronaldo!
You are loved Aijalon. I have just one little sister.
Your name in Arabic is —. Your birthday is in which day of the year?
You are loved, Aijalon. What beautiful words from Adi’s heart, right smack in the middle of his letter. And those words kept coming up. I noticed students writing that phrase to each other. They wrote it to their parents. And Malak’s final note to me included, “You are a loved and wanted teacher.”
It’s a privilege and honor to teach my students about each of the peace heroes we studied. And yet of all the inspiring, motivating individuals we learn from, I am delighted that the simplest notion of sharing the belovedness of another human being is what consistently made a sustaining impact.
And as always, my prayer remains that God would one day raise up peace heroes from among our students to nonviolently end oppression wherever in the world they might find it! And to share the belovedness and value of each human being. It’s certainly our goal and desire to increase students’ familiarity with these peace heroes, giving students examples of individuals they can aspire to be like. So who knows? Maybe one day the names of some of my students will beautify someone else’s peace tree.