Troy University students on Tuesday were challenged to consider their own legacy by the teacher who leads an after-school program at a Tennessee middle school that gained national attention for its lasting tribute to the victims of the Holocaust.
Sandra Roberts, an eighth-grade language arts teacher at Whitwell (Tenn.) Middle School, was on the Troy Campus on Tuesday to discuss “The Paperclip Project,” which began in 1998 as an after-school study program to examine the Holocaust. Roberts delivered lectures to area middle school students during the morning and to TROY students, faculty and staff on Tuesday afternoon. A public lecture was scheduled for the Johnson Center for the Arts in downtown Troy Tuesday night.
“You are the future leaders of this community, your home communities or other communities around our country,” Roberts told the audience gathered in the Trojan Center Theatre. “What will your legacy be? What will people say that you champion? What is it that you are passionate about? In your lifetime, we will lose the last Holocaust survivor. What happens then? Will there stories be lost or will we remember and choose to honor their legacies through our own lives?”
In an effort to quantify the number of victims of the Holocaust in a manner in which the students could understand, the after-school group began collecting paper clips, a symbol commonly worn by Norwegians as a silent protest against Nazi occupation during World War II. At the end of the first year of the program, 752,000 paper clips had been collected.
“By the fall of 2000 we had received several large packages, and then the paper clips just stopped coming in,” Roberts said.
That all changed when the program received national media attention, first from NBC Nightly News and then from both the Boston Globe and the Washington Post.
“The article ran in the Boston Globe on the first day of Passover. The next week was our spring break,” Roberts said. “The principal called me the first night of spring break and told me to come to the school. When I arrived we went to the cafeteria and every table was stacked up with letters and packages containing paper clips. For the next six weeks, the Post Office was no longer able to deliver our mail.”
The students began meeting before school to read the letters and count and categorize the paper clips. The project began receiving half a million paper clips daily, Roberts said.
“As a teacher, the whole time I wondered if the students really got the purpose of the program and the meaning behind the paper clips,” she said. “Then one morning I came in and one of our students was sitting off in the corner with a paper clip in her hand, just turning it over and over. When I asked what was wrong, she said that her mother, who had cancer, had just received a treatment and had a rough night. She then held up the paper clip, turned to me and said, ‘What if this one person knew or would discover the cure for breast cancer and yet died all because of hatred.’ At that point I knew that she had truly learned the impact that hatred can have.”
Roberts’ lectures will continue on Wednesday in Dothan where she will lecture to area school children Wednesday morning. A public lecture and reception will be held at 4 p.m. in the Sony Hall auditorium inside the Library/Technology Building on TROY’s Dothan Campus. Roberts also will deliver the public presentation “Learning from the Holocaust” at Temple Emanu-El in Dothan at 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 23. The event is free and open to the public.
Roberts will deliver her presentation to students, faculty and the public in Montgomery on Jan. 24 beginning at 6 p.m. in the Rosa Parks Museum Auditorium. Earlier that day, she will also lecture to Montgomery area middle school students.
The lectures, which are a part of the University’s Year of Holocaust Remembrance, are co-sponsored by Troy University, the Alabama Humanities Foundation, the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center, One Clip at a Time, the Troy-Pike Cultural Arts Center, Temple Emanu-El in Dothan and Troy University’s College of Communication and Fine Arts.