Friday, March 06, 2009

The Peaceful Swastikas

Now that you know a bit about 6C, you will appreciate this story:

When I first walked by the Hindu temple in our neighborhood, I saw a swastika (not unlike the one this person is holding) painted in a mural on the temple wall. I'm sure your brain would have reacted like mine did- "hey, wait a minute...why is that symbol painted on this temple?"

Well it turns out that Hinduism claimed the swastika long, long ago - and you know what it means? It means "good luck and well-being."

So, 6C:

As I've mentioned, we are reading a book about the Danish Resistance during WWII, so one of the first things we do in this unit is learn about the history of the swastika symbol. I mean, wouldn't it be strange for them, with Hindu temples all around, to learn about the Nazi swastika and its meaning and the fact that it is outlawed in Germany because of the horror it represents, when it means "well-being" in their own culture? Of course, they are fascinated by the topic. I describe my reaction to seeing it on temples in the neighborhood and they ask their usual 6C bright questions. For each unit, I have tables name themselves according to what we are studying, and one table names themselves "The Peaceful Swastikas"; for their gesture, they make the swastika symbol with their arms and hands.

That was a few weeks ago.

Yesterday, I have 6C for a double period at the end of the day, which means I have them for 50 minutes, then they have a ten minute snack break, then they come back to me for another 50 minutes. Right before break, they take a vocabulary test. As the bell rings and they are heading out the door, Lucky says, "Hey, Ms. Marjorie, look..." and he shows me the back of his hand: he has painted a swastika on it with white correction liquid. "Lucky!" I yell after him. Then Sam walks by with his sleeve rolled up; he has painted the symbol on his shoulder.

"Hey, don't leave like that!" I yell after them. But I am too late; they can tell I am a bit frantic, and they see it as a little game now. The two of them run away with their swastikas as Ami, Khai, Vinh, Tommy, Tyler, Johnny and Mindy all flash me their signs as they pass, too - on their hands, arms, and wrists. They must have done this right after their test, and it had to have spread within about two minutes. My class is heading to the cafeteria for a snack - where the whole school, my colleagues and my administrators will see the little pack of Nazis I have dispatched from my classroom.

I'm sure you can understand how long this ten-minute break seems to me.

"Now, why do you have swastikas painted on yourselves?" my colleagues must be asking.
"We did it in Ms. Marjorie's class!" they must be answering.

When they return for part 2, I say, "6C, we need to have a little talk."

They are all still kind of laughing about their little solidarity game, but they quiet down right away (because that's how they are). "Remember when I told you how strange it was for me to see the swastika on some of the Hindu temples when I first came to Vietnam?"

"Yes," they answer.

"Why did it make me uncomfortable?"

Alex raises his hand (he did not paint on himself). "Because it's a symbol of hate."

"But it's also a symbol of peace," says Lucky. "I put it on as a symbol of peace."

"Right. OK. I know that in your culture it symbolizes peace, but think about this...every single foreign teacher who sees you with that symbol is going to react the same way I did - they are going to see it as hate. I'm going to tell you what else that symbolizes, other than the holocaust: to them and to me, that symbol means not only hate for Jewish people, but hate for blacks. Hate for any other color of skin than white. Hate for asians."

Their eyes grow big, worried.

"You haven't done anything wrong. It's just a cultural difference, but you need to be aware of it..."

All of them, together, begin to rub off their swastikas - frantically. "Can I go to the toilet?" asks Tommy. He can't get his off...

So, yeah, I sent a bunch of eleven year olds from my classroom with swastikas painted on their bodies. Teacher of the Year. This one is going to be filed under "Only in Vietnam with eleven year-olds learning about Nazi Germany in their Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu, Christian culture."


Mungo said...

Okay, Marjie... THAT is the first post where I thought, "this could be a movie..."

Starring YOU, of course.

Amy T. said...


You know, you really taught more the second time, didn't you. They acted, they felt, they put the pieces together.

You dun good.

Brian Bowker said...

Yet another example of why you are such a phenomenal teacher, Marjie!

That's my big sister!

Kinda makes me want to paint swastikas on myself as a symbol of Marjie's teaching skills.

Cecilie said...

This is a kind of lesson that is learned for life, right? Not one single student in 6C will ever forget that this "peaceful" symbol means hate for anyone but whites in some cultures. You are a pretty darn good teacher, and come up with excellent ideas for what to teach kids and how to teach them!