Project teaches students, community dangers of inaction in face of injustice

Rick Wagner • Mar 29, 2009 at 12:00 AM

An effort to broaden the cultural horizons of students in a homogeneous East Tennessee community has grown to international acclaim.

Over 11 years, it has resulted in the only Holocaust museum in the world conceived, managed and operated by middle school students, as well as a book and a documentary film that tell the story.

And it all happened one paper clip at a time.

According to the teacher who helped launch the program, it has taught students, teachers and the Marion County community of Whitwell — population about 1,600 — the dangers of inaction or looking the other way in the face of intolerance and injustice.

Whitwell Middle School eighth-grade teacher Sandra Roberts spoke recently at Northeast State Technical Community College on the Paper Clip Project, an outgrowth of a Holocaust class Roberts began teaching in 1998 that resulted in the Children’s Holocaust Museum in Whitwell.

“Nothing they learned will ever be learned on a standardized test,” Roberts said, recalling that one tearful girl whose mother was battling breast cancer held a paper clip and asked what if the person it represented “knew the cure for cancer.”

Roberts, then Assistant Principal David Smith and Principal Linda Hopper got the paper clip collection going in 1999, and it soon became a schoolwide project.

“I’m here to tell you a story. It’s not my story. It’s not Mrs. Hopper’s story,” Roberts said during her lecture. “It’s the story of a group of children who wanted more.”

The community is predominately white, with a few Hispanics and African-Americans and no Jews or Catholics, Roberts said. Seventy-five percent of the students are below the poverty level, and the average education level in the Chattanooga bedroom community is the sixth grade, she said.

In addition to collecting paper clips representing lives lost in the Holocaust and bringing to house the clips one of the railcars used to transport Jews to the extermination camps, the project has collected more than 30,000 letters, memorabilia and other items from people who sent in paper clips, including ones from people who were the sole Holocaust survivors of their family.

Whitwell, about 23 miles outside Chattanooga, is a former coal mining community far removed from the genocide of the Nazis. But Smith got the idea of focusing on the Holocaust during a conference and came back to tell Roberts she would be doing most of the teaching.

She began with 16 students, who each had to bring a parent, and met from 5 to 7 p.m. The group studied the Holocaust and books about it, learning that 6 million Jews and 5 million others were systematically killed by Adolph Hitler’s Nazi regime. But it was hard for even the adults to grasp the meaning of those numbers. So the teacher and class began to think about a way to represent the lives, turning down the ideas of buttons and pennies until a girl one morning came up with paper clips.

After all, Roberts said, Norwegian Jew Johan Vaaler had once patented a paper clip, and Norwegians wore paper clips on their lapels as a silent protest against the Nazis during World War II.

So in the fall of 1999, the class began writing letters seeking paper clips, getting its first one Aug. 17 from Lisa Sparks in Tyler, Texas, followed by a jewelry designer in California who sent 100,000, and then more from a New Zealand village, making for a total of 750,000.

Eventually, the paper clips came from all 50 states, all seven continents and 44 countries.

The collection continued to grow, with the Davis Academy in Atlanta sending 1 million paper clips in the fall of 2000, packed in 45 cases delivered by a beleaguered UPS delivery man.

Then the collecting reached what would be the first of a series of plateaus, and Roberts thought the collection would be a memorial to the more than 1.5 million younger than 16 who died in the Holocaust. The 2 million paper clips — two tons’ worth — didn’t even reach the level of the dead from Poland.

However, in February 2001, “NBC Nightly News” came calling, followed quickly by the Boston Globe and Washington Post. The school — along with the U.S. Postal Service, UPS and FedEx — was deluged with paper clips over six weeks that brought the total to 27 million.

The total has grown to more than 30 million today, with more still trickling in.

The 1917 railcar, purchased by benefactors of the program, arrived in the United States in September 2001 and was in transport to Whitwell when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred. The cattle car was refurbished, stocked with more than 11 million paper clips — six tons — and dedicated in November 2001.

The railcar and other exhibits are staffed by 13- and 14-year-olds from the school. The class, which grew to 25 students and must do 40 hours of Holocaust education community service, has had members address the United Nations General Assembly, dine with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Washington, D.C., and travel to South Africa.

College scholarships worth $75,000 have been awarded to members of the class, and the first group of students who participated in the class will graduate this spring.

For more information visit www.whitwellmiddleschool.org/homepage_pc.cfm?id=78.

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