When a school, a community, and the world are held together by a paperclip
By Judith A. Yates
A 1988 history lesson at Whitwell Middle School began simply. “Six million Jewish people were exterminated in the camps during the Holocaust,” teachers Sandra Roberts and David Smith explained. One student raised a hand and asked, “How many is six million?” And more than a history lesson began.
Whitwell is a town of 1,600 nestled in the Sequatchie Valley of the Tennessee Mountains. Ninety-four percent of the population is white, only 65% has a high school diploma; it is a Christian, blue-collar, rural area where education can be a privilege rather than a given. Whitwell is hardly a place where one would find a memorial to eleven million victims of the Holocaust. The Memorial location, Whitwell Middle School, is a most extraordinary school though.
With the permission of principal Linda M. Hooper, students researched something to collect that would represent “six million people” and give meaning to their project. Paper clips seemed to be the answer. Norwegian Jew Joseph Valler invented the paper clip; Norwegians wore paper clips on their lapels to silently protest the Nazi occupation in WWII. Students began collecting the paper clips; each one representing a life lost in the Holocaust. They contacted famous people for paper clips, asking for a letter with a reason to share the paper clip. Now the project boasts over 30 thousand documents, books, letters, art pieces, and artifacts. It is the responsibility of the students to count, catalogue, and maintain the items in the Children’s Holocaust Memorial Research Room at Whitwell Middle School. Students act as docents for the thousands of tours that arrive at the school. This is the only Memorial managed and designed by children.
A WWII German railroad car used to carry people to their deaths now sits in front of the school as part of the Memorial. It holds the 30 million donated paperclips (extended to represent not only Jews, but others exterminated in the death camps). When the car arrived, the town rallied and worked together, donating the materials and labor to build the cover and stairs for the car. Educators saw a development in the citizens. Whitwell’s people reported a change; bigotry and prejudice became things of the past for many.
According to the statistics at Whitwell Middle School, bullying (from name-calling to physical fights) decreased dramatically since the introduction of the Paper Clip Project. Linda M. Hooper, now the Volunteer Coordinator says, “A child learns name-calling in the cafeteria can lead to bigger things.” Students understand how Adolph Hitler’s campaign to exterminate people started out subtle, with “name-calling …we teach that it’s the little things you do can make you a better person, or not.” One student volunteer reports there is some teasing from a few who do not understand the project, but the overwhelming majority of students are proud the Paper Clip Project is at Whitwell.
A 2004 award winning documentary “Paper Clips” introduced the world to the project. A book was published in 2005, to include a turtleback school and library binding edition. The project has grown to an interactive service-learning program for 5th grade students and above.
And it all started with the raise of a student’s hand and a simple question.
For tour and Memorial information, here:
For information on the interactive service-learning program “One Clip at a Time”:
To purchase the documentary go here:
Judith A. Yates is currently completing a PhD in Criminal Justice. She has taught at several schools, within the field of law enforcement; has worked as trainer, attended classes across the country, and has been a mentor in several programs. Her website can be found at judithayates.com.