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First Impressions Sometimes Lie

By Flora Singer

I stood at the front of the classroom facing my students, who were themselves teachers within the same school district as I was—Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. They had enrolled in the summer in-service class for teachers to study the history of the Holocaust, as well as to learn methods for teaching this history to their own students when they returned to their classrooms the following fall.

One of the teachers raised his hand to ask a question. It was a very probing question, which made me uncomfortable—I almost had the feeling that I was being cross-examined, that the questioner was testing the validity of what I was saying. Usually, I was pleased and welcomed questions flowing forth after I spoke,or when my colleagues spoke, but this man’s questions didn’t seem devised to receive a clarification on something that I had said, but rather seemed to indicate a lack of belief. I had the distinct suspicion that my questioner was probing the veracity of what I was saying.

Later, during another class session, that same teacher brought in several items from his collection of Nazi memorabilia. I wondered why—why would an American high school teacher, a chemistry teacher, collect Nazi memorabilia? Was he in agreement with their philosophy? Did he admire them, or…? Another question troubled me: Why did he enroll in the course we were teaching? We all looked at the items he brought into class. We talked about them, and somehow my suspicions about the teacher’s personal philosophy started to evaporate.

As a culminating assignment for the course, the teachers were assigned an in-depth paper instead of a customary exam, as well as a presentation in class for the benefit of all teachers enrolled in the course. When I reviewed that same teacher’s paper, I was totally unprepared for what I read. The paper was an  excellent in-depth study of the subject of the Holocaust and the lessons he learned from it. My faith in the teacher’s beliefs was totally restored. On the final day of the class, my colleagues and I returned the graded papers to the teachers.

Together we had a light lunch, consisting of contributions from each participant in the class. The teachers talked about what their experience of being immersed in the study of the Holocaust meant to them. They talked about what it meant to them to have spent the last few weeks with a survivor of the Holocaust (me), as well as their meeting several survivors who came to the class one day to speak to them about their experiences. The teachers said good-bye to their colleagues and me and left.

Later that same year, I received a telephone call from an administrator of the local Jewish day school. The administrator was looking for someone to teach the history of the Holocaust to their upper-school students. They turned to me, knowing that I was involved in training teachers in that subject.

The teacher who immediately came to my mind was that high school chemistry teacher. However, I felt compelled to say, “He’s excellent, but he’s not Jewish. Do you want him to teach this to Jewish teenagers?”

The reply was immediate: His religious affiliation did not matter. What did matter was his knowledge of the subject and his ability to teach and share his knowledge with his students. This non-Jewish high school chemistry teacher taught the history of the Holocaust to Jewish students. That teacher was also a chemistry teacher in the Montgomery County Public Schools, where he managed to incorporate the teaching of chemistry, his designated area of expertise, with the teaching of the Holocaust.

Time went by. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was planned and built. As one who survived that horrible period in man’s history, I felt obliged to offer my services as a volunteer to this institution. Imagine my surprise when I learned that a Montgomery County teacher had pledged $50,000 to the Museum. How would the donor make this gift on a teacher’s salary, I wondered. Later I learned that this teacher was my and my two colleagues’ student who had attended the in-service class we taught on the history of the Holocaust.

The teacher, to pay off his pledge, had undertaken a job teaching part-time at a local community college.

Hearing of this high school teacher who had pledged such an incredible sum to the Museum, a local Holocaust survivor was inspired to set up a scholarship fund to enable one student a year from that teacher’s school to study the history of the Holocaust.

So who is this high school chemistry teacher who, with the full support of his partner in life, his wife Marcia, made this incredible gift? None other than Don McComb, who had participated in the in-service course that I taught with colleagues Bob Hines and Sue Shoket, who were also instructors in the Montgomery County Public Schools. The same teacher that I had suspected of harboring pro-Nazi sentiments.

©2005, Flora Singer. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.