Changing the World — One Clip at a Time

Changing the World — One Clip at a Time

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Create Your Best Future

Changing the World – One Clip at a Time

Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has.

~Margaret Mead

In 1998, principal Linda Hooper wanted to start a project that would teach the students at Whitwell Middle School (Whitwell, Tennessee) about tolerating and respecting different cultures. Mrs. Hooper sent her eighth-grade history teacher and football coach, David Smith, to a teacher-training course in nearby Chattanooga. He came back and proposed that an after-school course on the Holocaust be offered at the school. This in a school with hardly any ethnic and no Jewish students.

Mr. Smith and eighth-grade English teacher Sandra Roberts held the first session of the project in October of that year. The teachers began by reading aloud from Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl and Elie Wiesel’s Night. They read aloud because most of the students could not afford to buy books.

What gripped the eighth-graders most as the course progressed was the sheer number of Jews put to death by the Third Reich. Six million. They could hardly fathom such an immense figure.

One day, Roberts and Smith were explaining to the class that some compassionate people in 1940s Europe stood up for the Jews. After the Nazis invaded Norway, many courageous Norwegians expressed solidarity with their Jewish fellow citizens by pinning ordinary paper clips to their lapels, as Jews were forced to wear a Star of David on theirs.

Then someone had the idea to collect six million paper clips to represent the six million Jewish Holocaust victims. The idea caught on, and the students began bringing in paper clips from home, from aunts and uncles, and friends. They set up a Web page. A few weeks later, the first letter arrived — then others. Many contained paper clips. By the end of the school year, the group had assembled 100,000 clips. But it occurred to the teachers that collecting six million paper clips at that rate would take a lifetime.

The group’s activities have long spilled over from the classroom. It’s now called the Holocaust Project. Down the halls, students have created a concentration camp simulation with paper cutouts of themselves pasted on the wall. Chicken wire stretches across the wall to represent electrified fences. Wire mesh is hung with shoes to represent the millions of shoes the victims left behind when they were marched to death chambers. And every year now they reenact the “walk” to show their love and respect for those victims they never had a chance to meet. The “walk” also gives students at least an inkling of what people must have felt when Nazi guards marched them off to camps.

Meanwhile, the paper clip counting continues. Students gather for their Wednesday meeting, each wearing a paper clip on the lapel of their group’s polo shirt emblazoned: “Changing the World, One Clip at a Time.” All sorts of clips arrive: silver- and bronze-colored clips, colorful plastic-coated clips, small clips, large clips, round clips, triangular clips, and even clips fashioned from wood. The students file all the letters they receive in ring binders. With the collected paper clips, the students wanted to honor the victims with a memorial.

It was decided that the memorial would be more meaningful if the clips could be housed in an authentic German railroad car. With help from German citizens, the school obtained an authentic German railroad car from the 1940s, one that was actually used to transport victims to the camps. The car, transported from Berlin, Germany, to the tiny town of Whitwell, now sets in front of the middle school loaded with eleven million of these symbolic paper clips from all over the world. The principal, teachers and students took their vision and turned it into a reality. Having collected over twenty-nine million paper clips and over twenty thousand letters, the students and teachers at Whitwell Middle School have achieved a response that no one could have predicted.

For generations of Whitwell eighth graders, a paper clip will never again be just a paper clip. Instead, it will carry a message of perseverance, empathy, tolerance and understanding. One student put it like this: “Now, when I see someone, I think before I speak, I think before I act and I think before I judge.”

Can one person, or one small group, truly do anything to help bring humanity together in understanding and peace? Just ask the students at Whitwell and all of those around the world who are helping them collect paper clips!

~Steve Goodier

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