Monday, February 22, 2016

The Power of Children: A Student’s Perspective

By Ellie Herrmann, Stratford High School

The Power of Children exhibit at the local Altharetta Yeargin Art Museum is not what I or my peers were expecting. It’s different than most museums that students get the opportunity to attend – inside are the stories of people our age, kids just like us trying to find their place in the world. (Located on the Westchester Academy for International Studies campus, the exhibit isn’t the only student attraction – the museum itself has an enticing and colorful front.)

Once inside the building, there are three distinct areas to explore, dedicated to three impactful children: Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges, and Ryan White. The first in history, as well as the first inside the door, is Anne Frank’s section.

Anne Frank

History for the average kid can get kind of redundant. Most of us have been taught in school and have heard stories about the Holocaust. Some are even familiar with Frank’s story.

What I found, walking around her exhibit, was that I had a fascination with how real everything was. Though World War II might have been more than 70 years ago, the pieces put on display were in stunning condition.

In most museums, things seem so distant – roped off, guarded, barely visible. But here, it was incredibly personal. There weren’t any long lines to stand in, no masses of humanity to contend with to get a better view of some display.

Behind a thin plastic box hangs a yellow patch in the shape of a star, the word “Jude” sewn on. It’s the Star of David. Beneath the display, it reads, “The Nazis forced all Jews to sew yellow stars on their clothes.”

This star is not a mere reproduction of what a Jewish citizen might have worn. It is the actual thing. A person, maybe even a student just like those in Spring Branch schools, had to walk in their hometown, through groups of friends and neighbors, into the offices or buildings where they may have worked, adorning this symbol of difference.

For us, it’s strange. Most students haven’t lived tremendously long lives, and what we have lived so far has not been filled with anything near the segregation of much of Europe in the WWII era.

It’s difficult for us to imagine such a simple object as this cloth star is the representation of so much prejudice and hate, and yet, there it is. To me, proximity means something. It’s impossible to be bored with history when it’s staring you and you alone in the face.

Another display in the Anne Frank section of the exhibit is a case filled with miscellaneous items from the time period. A Captain Marvel Adventures magazine is propped up in the back, and a page of Life magazine flipped open proclaiming “WAR DECLARED.” But located in the left corner of the case is something a little different. It’s a gas mask.

I realize the only reason I know what one looks like are from the movies and photographs I’ve seen depicting this time. Not so long ago, this item was not only to be seen in media dedicated to the remembrance of innocent lives, but also seen in action to be put between these lives and cruel, untimely deaths.

I’m desensitized to the meaning behind the object until I spy the attached card. It reads, “Your Gas Mask. Someday this mask may be the means of saving your life. Examine it, wear it, put it on and take it off until you can do so quickly. Read this booklet until you know by heart what it contains.” These demands are not some directive assigned to the adjacent Captain Marvel, not some new technology given to him in order to aid in his quest to save the world. They are the last resort to dying people, a glimmer of hope in a chamber of death.

Though Frank’s exhibit is filled with many objects that reflect on the cruelty she experienced, it’s an authentic testament to her life, a critical part of the history of our world. There are many educational and interactive pieces in her section as well, all to help tell the story of this young girl.

Through her diary, she brought the reality of her and so many millions of others’ suffering to the rest of the world; her power made a difference in the way we all see one another.

Ruby Bridges

Next in the museum is little Ruby Bridges. She was only six years old when she became the first African-American child to attend an all-white elementary school in Louisiana. Her exhibit teaches people about the prejudices present in the United States during the Civil Rights Movement, and what people were doing to change them.

Unlike Anne Frank, whose life and story took place halfway across the world, young Bridges grew up in the society we call home today. The very people who took part in her story and the Civil Rights Movement are some of our relatives, grandparents who fought for or against the racial segregation of our country.

In the 1960s, the U.S. was much different than it is today, but that just emphasizes the importance of the history – how we got from there to here. And, with movements like Black Lives Matter gaining more and more momentum in the press and society, Bridges’ story is becoming more and more relevant to the present.

One of the most interesting pieces in her exhibit is a depiction of two different water fountains. One of them is shiny and rectangular, sporting a convenient handle and glittering spout. Attached by a thin pipe is a far less superior version of the same thing: a simple bowl with a lower spout.

Being forced to drink at the inferior fountain for any reason would be unacceptable, as portrayed by the rotating labels above them. When the shiny fountain says “rich,” the lower says “poor.” Same for “popular” and “unpopular.” After a collection of distinctions, helping viewers understand the unreasonableness of the whole ordeal, the rotating labels flip to “white” and “black.”

The idea finally hits home – this was a reality for so many citizens living in the United States during this time. And not only was it a reality, but one harshly rubbed in by the majority of the white citizens and their cruel superiority complex.

Ruby Bridges’ story gave meaning to many things I take for granted. The diversity among my classmates did not just happen, it was fought for. The lack of segregation on buses, in restaurants, and even for water fountains isn’t just the way it’s always been. Ruby and her family took an unwavering stand against injustice, supplying a foundation from which much equality was able to grow, leading way to the country I, as well as millions of students, are proud to call home today.

Ryan White

The last section is dedicated to Ryan White. He became known for his fight against HIV/AIDS misconceptions, as an avid supporter of the research and education of the virus. As you walk through the pieces in his exhibit, you get to learn his story: White was a mere three days old when the scene for much of his life was set. He was diagnosed with hemophilia, a disease that means your blood fails to clot; the smallest cut could be life-threatening, never ceasing to stop bleeding.

During the 1970s, a common treatment for this disease was called Factor VIII, which contained a protein non-hemophiliacs have that allow their blood to clot successfully. White received weekly transfusions of this, living a mostly healthy childhood until 1984.

He was undergoing a surgical procedure after becoming ill with pneumonia when once again his world spun on its axis. The doctors diagnosed him with AIDS, a disease they knew almost nothing about. The cause, they told him, had been from a tainted dose of Factor VIII, the disease instantly becoming his as soon as it was injected. He was given a life expectancy of six months.

The following year, when he miraculously began to feel better, White wished to return to school. He was 14 years old when the rumors about his condition prompted parents and teachers to sign a petition that would ban him from returning.

After a strung out legal battle, he was finally admitted back. But it wasn’t what he had hoped. In the exhibit sits an entirely ordinary blue-colored locker – except for one thing. Carved into the locker are the hateful words White endured on a daily basis. “Get out,” it reads, “No one wants you here,” and “You’re disgusting.”

When you open the creaking locker, the recorded voices of hate and ignorance spit out, “Don’t let him touch you!” “He shouldn’t be here.” “He’ll spit in your food!” “Keep away from him.” “Watch out! There he is.”

Listen to the recording >>

Attached to the side of the locker is a quote from White himself, “I couldn’t believe all the rumors going around about me.” To think that on top of the suffering he was condemned to battle for the rest of his life was also placed the prejudice and hate he received from nearly everyone around him is almost unbearable. But White didn’t give up. He knew people were afraid of the falsehoods they had heard about his deadly disease, so he decided to do what few others were – educate.

Towards the front of his exhibit sits a director’s chair, monogrammed with the name “Ryan White.” In 1988, White assisted in the making of a TV movie titled The Ryan White Story, a film to appear on the ABC Network in January of 1989.

The movie tells the story of the discrimination White faced, resulting in his banishment from school and the legal fight to return. The white and black director’s chair in the museum is similar to what White himself would’ve sat in while on set, watching the story of his life unfold not just before his own eyes, but before the eyes of millions.

There is a quote that goes along with the chair. “If enough people saw it, maybe other kids with AIDS, kids I’d never know, would be treated better,” White said. He constantly pursued a world full of understanding for his disease, not hateful ignorance.

Ryan White’s power was his resilience through constant pain and disease. His personal motto is something I find equal parts intimidating and beautiful: “My personal philosophy was no complaints, baby, no surrender.”

He lived his entire life defying odds and proving the impossible, turning death into life and hate into hope. Changing lives as he did is something every student aspires to do, every student has the potential to achieve, and yet not every student accomplishes.

From everything I learned about Ryan White’s short life, it all seems to lead up to one thing. White left a legacy of courage and of forgiveness not for us to be amazed, but for us to be affected. Let the pictures and quotes and facts of his life speak to you themselves – White never gave up in his battle for knowledge, and neither should we.

History is often shameful, full of people and ideas set on making others’ lives miserable. But from that misery rises the faces of heroes, people willing to put their own happiness on the line for a chance to show the world that they’re really not so different.

Anne presented the world with truth through her writing, the truth that regardless of race or religion, every human has value and worth that cannot be taken away.

Ruby created a new standard for humans in America, fighting what was accepted as the norm in society and replacing it with the just.

Ryan embraced the cruelty and discrimination he received, turning his experiences not into a reason to hate others, but a reason to teach them how to love other kids with his disease.

Together, Anne, Ruby and Ryan changed the course of history, putting a stop to the evils that filled and dictated their own lives, liberating us, and every other future student of the world, from the prejudices they bore. But as life rolls on, so does history, and just as the battles for knowledge and equality waged on then, and the children of the past made their stance, so the fights wage now, waiting for the children of today to grasp their own power and make their difference.

Read more about the exhibit >>

Stratford High’s Ellie Herrmann is a student intern in the SBISD Communications Dept.


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