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Gonzaga Prep class reflects on ordinary people who do evil

While Christian Birrer’s sophomore English class was discussing how boys in the novel, Lord of the Flies, came to hunt each other, one student told the class about Temple Beth Shalom’s 2008 creative writing contest to reflect on the ordinary lives of Nazi concentration camp guards.

Gonzaga Prep class
Christian Birrer with Ayana Croft and Annie McEwen

Christian, who has taught honors and freshman English at Gonzaga Preparatory High School for about 15 years, decided it would be a good class project.

They watched a three-minute video from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum with photos depicting the everyday, ordinary lives of Nazi concentration camp guards, people who committed atrocities and genocide.

Photos show them smiling, playing with their children, having a birthday party and engaging in activities like anyone.

“We had talked about the power of the mob mentality related to The Lord of the Flies, how ‘group think’ influences lives in subtle ways,” said Christian, who graduated from Gonzaga Prep and earned a bachelor’s degree in English at Gonzaga University in 1992.

The students had also recently studied World War II and Nazi Germany in their history classes, looking at how good people could do awful things, how people could lose their individuality and sense of individual responsibility so they would fit in, he said.

He likened the dynamic to students yelling at a referee as part of a crowd at a basketball game, caught in the frenzy of the moment, doing things they would not ordinarily do.

Students told him it was hard to put themselves into the minds of people from Nazi Germany, to understand the pressures that influenced so many to be part of Hitler’s regime.

Christian, who attends Assumption Catholic Church, encouraged students to think about how people can do evil things.

“How could people who looked like us and our neighbors, who did not have that different a culture be party to the atrocities they did?” Christian wondered after viewing the photos.

Two sophomores, Annie McEwen, 15, and Ayana Croft, 16, who both attend St. Aloysius Catholic Church, discussed their experience of writing for the contest.

Annie had also read The Wave, a book about a high school teacher in California who set up a role-playing experience to help students understand the impact of the bullying, propaganda and abuse people experienced under Nazism. 

In another English class, Annie had read Night by Elie Wiesel, the story of his experience in a concentration camp.

Sophomores have also discussed such issues in their morality class.

Ayana had not thought before of Nazis “being like us.”

In her essay, she talked about conscience.  She knew from her history class about Ann Frank, the Dutch Jewish teenager who hid in an attic and was eventually taken to a concentration camp where she died.  Ayana had also read Night.

Both Annie and Ayana experienced role playing in another English class, as an exercise to learn about pressures people in concentration camps faced. 

“It created empathy to understand what goes on,” said Ayana, who was part of a group that decided to escape the camp.

Annie said she didn’t know what happened, because she had to sit with a bag over her head.

Christian, who required students to write something but did not require that they submit it to the contest, pointed out that sometimes people put in a powerful position fall into abusive behavior.  He also said that Lord of the Flies lets students realize how vulnerable anyone can be.

“The best way to combat our vulnerability is to be aware of the human potential to be drawn into doing evil,” he said.

“It’s scary, because it’s not just about our being overcome by evil, but also about others being overcome with the evil within,” Annie said, noting that she realizes people can co-exist with the evil within.

Christian added that human relations tools, such as Gonzaga Prep’s five tenets for students’ behavior, can help prevent vulnerability.  The tenets are for students to be intellectually competent, loving, religious, open to growth, and committed to doing justice.

“I can pull back from the evil by being loving and following my morals so I am not caught in peer pressure,” said Ayana.

Annie believes her upbringing, which has instilled awareness that killing is wrong and that she is to love others, would keep her from falling into group pressure to hurt someone.

Ayana said she wants to go into the film industry to create productions that put ideas from the real world on the screen to encourage people to discuss those ideas.

Having students write the essay has inspired Christian to propose that the morality and history teachers dovetail their units on World War II and “group think” with Lord of the Flies in the future in a “cross-curricula” opportunity to encourage deeper discussions of these issues.

When students told him they found the assignment hard and too distant from their lives, he asked them to look at their experiences of peer pressure, gangs and even going to class when the bell rings as a microcosm of pressures.

Ayana is aware of the power of peer pressure such as how the popular group sets fashion.

“I step back and think about what is me and not them,” she said.

Each year, Christian said he begins his classes by reading Emily Dickenson’s poem, “Much Madness Is Divinest Sense to the Discerning Eye.”

With that in mind, he draws an eye on the board, to remind students to look with a discerning eye, to think critically and to look for the truth, rather than jumping to conclusions based on what they first see.

“It’s easy, for example, to dismiss the entire German culture because of the Nazis, but there were also people like Oskar Schindler, who made good decisions that protected Jewish people despite the risks to their own lives and families,” he said. 

“Today, it’s easy for young people to believe what media say,” he said. 

He draws “a discerning eye” to challenge students to step out of themselves and see if what seems cool is cool, if what seems right is wrong, or if what seems wrong is right.

The winning entry will be read at the Yom Hashoah service May 1 at Temple Beth Shalom.

For information, call 483-8511 or email cbirrer@gprep.com.