I walk into the library, where we are interviewing and am surprised to see one of our eighth graders sitting at a computer. M turns around when she sees me.
"Dr. Wilcox, do you know how to spell Holocaust?"
I spell it for her.
"Yeah," she says, "that's how I spelled it. I found three definitions and I'm not sure which one is right." She reads the three definitions to me.
1. Great destruction resulting in the extensive loss of life, especially by fire.2.a. Holocaust The genocide of European Jews and other groups by the Nazis during World War II: b. A massive slaughter: 3. A sacrificial offering that is consumed entirely by flames."You're trying to find out about Hitler, and Germany, and the Jews, right?" I say, still not entirely sure where the conversation is going.
"Yeah" she says. "I never heard about that before," she says. "I never heard about the Holocaust.
"No?" I say, a little surprised that this smart, smart girl, one of our top eighth grade students, has somehow missed such an important event in history. "I think it's the second definition you want, then."
M continues. "And I don't think anyone else in my family did either. I think I'm the first person in my family to hear about the Holocaust."
I am surprised again. "You are?" I say.
"Yeah," she responds. "My dad and mom never finished high school. They don't know about stuff like this." Then she seems worried that I will think badly of her family. "But they are really smart," she says. "My dad is a really good mechanic. And my mom knows a lot about people. She's really good with people."
"There are all different kinds of smart," I say. "It sounds like your mom and dad really are smart people."
"There are a lot of websites for the Holocaust," M says, eyeing the really long list that has appeared on the screen. I look over her shoulder and see that the second or third one down is for the National Holocaust Museum.
"Try this one," I say. "I'm sure that will be a good resource."
"Did it really happen?" M asks. "Why do you think people would do that to each other?"
I tell her I don't know, that I am sometimes surprised by how people can be so incredibly cruel.
"But what did they do in those camp things? What were they? Did they just work?"
I try my best to explain, as simply as I can, in the two minutes I have, a little about concentration camps. That people were taken there against their will. Because of their religion. That sometimes others who helped the Jews were taken too. That all of their things were taken away. That the conditions were horrific- crowded, no beds, no food, no heat, families split up, etc. That many were killed. And that others died because of the conditions.
"And is it true that they killed people in the showers? Did they really do that?"
I think she is talking about gassing people. I try again to explain it.
My principal comes in on the end of the conversation, all ready to interview. She stops long enough to give M a hug. "You doing ok?" she asks, completely unaware of the Holocaust discussion, and referring instead, to a difficult family situation that I have only heard rumors about.
I can tell that M is not quite done with her research. "Do you have a computer at home?" I ask.
"We don't have internet," she says.
I tell her she can go to the library and use the computers for free.
"I don't have a card," M says. "The computers were down when we went to get one. We have to go back again."
"Maybe you can do that over break," I say.
I head into the library to interview and M heads out the door.
And once again, the reality of life in an urban school completely breaks my heart. A smart kid. Bilingual. Good grades. Plenty smart enough to go to college. With a family who loves her.
And yet a kid who doesn't have an extensive pool of background knowledge. Or the resources to acquire it. That can't even get the system to work well enough to get a library card.
And I wonder, for about the millionth time, about this land of opportunity.