As TinyTuna hurtles towards her teenage years, I find her challenging me on every word uttered and every decision made, as only a 12-year old expert on EVERYTHING can do. It's not a surprising turn of events, but it is both trying and tiring, to say the least.
By the same token, when she isn't being trying and tiring, we have had some very thoughtful conversations about choices and responsibility. I'm grateful for these moments, and try to remember them when I am so frustrated I want to sell her for gas money.
Middle school age is so volatile, it's hard to know what you might face from day to day and minute to minute. And perhaps because kids this age are so unpredictable, it seems nobody expects much of anything from them at all. To many, the goal of the middle school is survival, and if everybody comes out in one piece on the other side, it's a real victory.
Now don't get me wrong; when compared to the alternative, I'm all for survival. But I also believe that kids -- all kids -- are capable of so much more. Kids have the power to do great things. And it was for this reason that we took a (huge) side trip and started our vacation in a small town in rural Tennessee. We took TinyTuna to a middle school that did -- and is still doing -- great things.
Several years ago, eighth graders at Whitwell Middle School studied the holocaust as a way to learn about diversity, intolerance, cruelty and the power of the human spirit. As they discussed how six million lives were lost, one of the students asked what six million was -- because they had never seen six million of anything. From that simple question came the inspiration for The Paper Clip Project, whose success led to the Children's Holocaust Memorial, whose inspiration led to the award-winning documentary film.
Year after year the eighth graders picked up where the previous class had concluded. They learned. They worked. They inspired others. These kids from whom we often expect so little did great things.
This past year TinyTuna and her Grammy-Award winning MSU Children's Choir gave a world premiere of a large-scale choral work called Voices of a Vanished World. Through music and poetry the kids -- many of them middle-school aged -- learned about the people of the Holocaust. The work was a combination of traditional Yiddish and Hebrew folk-songs, as well as original compositions that explored complex themes: family, grief, loss, lives forever changed, and the eternal belief that in spite of all the destruction, goodness and humanity will prevail. Pretty heavy stuff for pre-teens. But they sang. They discussed. They learned. And in the end as they sang in concert, they sang with a sense of sympathy and intensity and understanding far beyond their years. It truly was a great thing.
TinyTuna had seen the Paper Clips documentary and decided she really wanted to go to Tennessee to see what the kids of Whitwell had done. So off we went. As we drove into town we recognized several places from the documentary, and were quite excited when we reached the school. We were given a tour by two Whitwell students, who shared with us everything they had learned. TinyTuna presented the students with a poster from her concert, along with a copy of the choir's Voices of a Vanished World CD that they recorded earlier this spring.
To watch this exchange between kids from whom we often expect so little was overwhelming. I saw new friendships being forged from the rural south and suburban north. I saw kids sharing stories and information about a time before their own, about people they never knew, and about injustices they never faced. And they did this with a deep respect and a sincere hope that through their respective projects, they would make a difference in this world.
On that hot afternoon in Whitwell, Tennessee, I had no doubt.
These were kids who, when given the opportunity, did what they do the best: