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How My High School English Teacher Introduced Me to My Idol

During a recent conversation with a close friend, I was asked about the beginnings of my passion for social justice. I’d never been asked that question before and had honestly never considered where that passion came from. Describing to her my experiences in the past, I was stuck thinking about “Night” by Elie Wiesel. That book was the first time I had encountered such injustice and tragedy through the lens of someone else’s personal experience. Ultimately, I have had a strong sense of right and wrong from the time I was a little girl. But, the first time I realized that others do not always have that same conviction was during my freshman year of high school reading this book. I still cannot fully comprehend or articulate the influence that my high school English teacher, Mrs. Denise Howe, and “Night” have had on me. Reflecting back now, in my junior year of college, I had no idea as a freshman in high school that what I learned in her class would become the gateway to my appetite for social justice.

My freshman year of high school, Mrs. Howe assigned my English class to read “Night” by Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor’s story recounting one of the most heinous genocides in history. I was frustrated not with the assignment or the class, but with history. We had failed to treat millions of people with the humanity and respect they deserved. That was my frustration. I felt I shouldn’t have to sit in a classroom to learn about these inhumane tragedies that should never have occurred in the first place. How could we let such evil and unjust activities take place? I had learned about the factual and historical aspects of the Holocaust in middle school but had never been confronted with the story of a survivor before.

The text was raw and heartbreaking. It brought the reality of this genocide to light for those who can never truly comprehend that experience, but this book could at least give a better understanding. In class we dug through the text, studying the literary elements supporting powerful ideas like respect, fairness and humanity. The power of Wiesel’s “Night,” was just the beginning of the impact his wisdom and moral voice would have on my life. Recognizing the power of memory, history and activism, I began to yearn for more. Over the next several years, I became fascinated with the stories of not just Wiesel but other activists including Malala Yousafzai, Dr. Denis Mukwege, Martin Luther King Jr., Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Mother Teresa, Barack Obama, Bryan Stevenson and countless others that have shaped and molded my perspective of the world.

In June 2019, I studied social justice in Scandinavia while traveling to cities in Sweden, Denmark and Norway. Little did I know, the Nobel Peace Center is located in Oslo, Norway, and visiting the showcase would be something I cherish for the rest of my life. That day came and went quicker than any other day I can remember, yet it was absolutely unforgettable. Standing outside the undeniably regal building with intricate details, our group began to sort out our tickets to the Nobel Peace Center. The building was once a train station and still seemed to carry so much of the life that traveled through it. I was jumpy with anticipation, and it took everything in me not to burst through the doors ahead of everyone else. Entering the lobby, we were greeted by all of the laureates’ faces dangling delicately from the ceiling in stunning opaque circles colored in burnt orange, caramel and cream.

Overflowing with wonder, I stepped into the blue lighting holding the accomplishments of so many of my heroes. It was completely dark in this exhibit except for an electronic tablet for each laureate, showing their faces and sharing why they received the Nobel Peace Prize. Feet shuffling on the floors disrupted the pristine silence of the garden. Even the faintest whisper seemed to carry and echo against the walls. Out of the corner of my eye, the year 1986 lit up. I hurried over to the tablet and took in a sharp deep breath as Elie Wiesel’s face appeared on the screen. For years, I have admired his work and turned to him for motivation in my endeavors. “The opposite of love is not hate, the opposite of love is indifference,” the tablet showed. As one of my biggest inspirations, his empathy and compassion for others is unlike anything I’ve ever known. Eager for more knowledge about these impressive and inspirational individuals, I stopped at each and every tablet to soak up the passion and energy of the laureates.

Since my time in Scandinavia, I’ve read a book written by a mentee of Wiesel, “Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom” by Ariel Burger. As an avid reader, I have had many books captivate and inspire me before, but this one was unique. Burger dives into the heart of Wiesel, giving me a glimpse into his thoughts, passions and actions. A former professor at Boston University, Wiesel made an incredible impact through his classroom in addition to his many endeavors as a writer, activist and humanist. Through this powerful and moving memoir, I feel as if I were a student of Wiesel, but I guess I’ve been his student for quite some time now. Reading his novel, “Night,” was the beginning of something special. Something that would stay with me for years to come. Without ever meeting Wiesel, I have learned so much from him. One of the most empathetic, brilliant and kind human beings the world has ever known, Wiesel’s wisdom has empowered me, impassioned me and left me hungry for a world of peace, humanity and justice.

All this to say, thank you.

To Mrs. Howe, for being an outstanding and thoughtful teacher who continues to support me and for introducing me to Elie Wiesel, who would become a beloved hero of mine.

To Elie Wiesel, the man who endlessly inspires me, captivates me and empowers me to do something, no matter how small, to make the world a better place.

To the hundreds of inspirational others, who have paved the way for aspiring activists in the fight for social justice.

To Ariel Burger, for bringing me closer to Wiesel than I ever imagined possible.

To Belmont University, for the opportunity to visit the Nobel Peace Center and study things I love.

To my friends and family, that have tirelessly supported and encouraged me in all my aspirations.

Katie is a senior at Belmont University studying public relations and corporate communication. Since elementary school, she's had an immense love for writing and storytelling, which led to her pursuing opportunities to continue these passions in college. In addition to writing and storytelling, Katie enjoys being outdoors, volunteering in the community, reading and spending time with loved ones.
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