“Did you know that a group of people in the South have found a way to live forever?”
As I settled into my chair in the back of the classroom, I pretended to contemplate Dr. Lyles’ obviously ridiculous question before raising my hand to ask her to clarify. My grandma always told me to be “slow to speak and quick to listen.” That was an afterthought to me at the time. I did not hesitate for humility or wisdom. No. I hesitated because I thought eagerness was a sign of weakness. In an attempt to retain an ounce of cool, which I was sure I possessed at the time, I only lifted my index finger while resting my elbow on the corner of my work area.
“How can we know that such a claim is true? Even if the source is credible, how can they ever prove it?” Again, I was voicing my skepticism, but Dr. Lyles just smiled,
“I use the word, forever, loosely in this context. What I propose is to show you this group of individuals and let you decide for yourself.”
Moments later we were on our way to our first out-of-class activity. As the charter bus pulled to the front entrance of The Children’s Holocaust Memorial, Dr. Lyles pointed towards an object ahead and said, “In Whitwell, Tennessee, the children live eternally.” Peering out the window, I saw an iron monument of two children playing with a butterfly, and I felt an eerie impression that maybe these inanimate objects were actual children. Suddenly, this scene transformed in my mind. The lifelike object before me personified lost innocence. The more I stared at it, the more I shuddered at the realization that so many precious lives had been claimed by the evils of extreme racism and prejudice.
When I first entered The University of the South in Sewanee, I envisioned myself as a soon-to-be writer in residence: a modern day Tennessee William, training to hone my literary skills in hopes of publishing something so new and wonderful that production companies would gather around my dorm room and impatiently await my arrival. What I did not realize was that my experiences over the next few semesters would shape my future into something completely different. By the end of my Junior year, I was poised to become a teacher. Finally, I had come to accept that the world was full of countless injustices and that the journalistic approach to exposing those atrocities no longer appealed to me. Our trip on that pivotal spring day in 2006 reminded me of that conviction. I could hardly stomach the facts surrounding The Children’s Holocaust Memorial. When we stepped off the bus, Dr. Lyles focused her interpretation of the artwork around us.
“Can you see the forever now, D’Anthony? Can you see the beauty as The Forever Children play?”
As I beheld the smooth curves of the iron children against the backdrop of the midday sky hovering in suspended animation above the rough Tennessee clay, they almost appeared to leap towards the iron butterfly. Staring wide-eyed at this beautiful portrait of an endless Spring, I whispered to myself,
“What a vision!”
For me, this strange monument immediately resonated with an image of death, yet, even then, I could not dismiss how this image somehow resonated life as well.
Whitwell, TN is a poor, almost totally white town of meager means. In fact, it is one of the poorest areas of Tennessee. Aside from that, in the early 1900s, Tennessee had its fair fight within the New South Rebellion, which led to race riots and conflict over the use of prison laborers. Mining for red coal and laying railroad offered only limited opportunities for the working poor in the South. There were even less opportunities for African Americans and other non-white Southerners during that time. Poor southerners could barely survive given their inferior working wages, and when free convict labor and sharecropping measures threatened to reduce that livelihood, people reacted violently. Although the motivation was driven by hunger and human survival, the economic tensions between the poor only compounded the issues of segregation and unequal access to opportunity. No matter how hard they have tried, it has been difficult for the inhabitants of Tennessee to overlook their own soiled past of racial and civil upheaval. Nevertheless, the one honest way of cleansing oneself from the horrible blemishes of the past is to educate the future generations to live more tolerant, violent-free lives.
Interestingly enough, as I researched Tennessee’s history, I discovered it provided a different outlook for me. I was pursuing higher education in a school that was founded on land secured by General Lee during the Civil war, and this same state witnessed race riots erupt to a violent pitch during reconstruction. Later, during the 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marched and fought alongside Memphis garbage workers who also felt the injustices of racial discrimination. In the moments of despair that accompanied my thoughts, a resurgence of activism and education ambushed my senses. I recalled that the Highlands School for nonviolence and civil disobedience, located only miles from Whitwell, was the place that Freedom Riders, Freedom Marchers: King, Parks, and James Bevil had received their trainings in classrooms, which included members of diverse races as well as socioeconomic levels. Every one of those participants withstood intense training and preparation in order to become successful change agents. Overlooking the shame of the past, members from the community throughout Whitwell embraced the ideals from The Highlands School and sought to incorporate others in celebrating diversity and promoting equality. They remembered the dark past, but they were looking towards a more radiant future. And, now I was touring this monument with my classmates in an inclusive environment where we all felt welcomed.
For the inhabitants of Whitwell, the butterflies at the monument have already lived through their own metamorphosis, emerging from their chrysalises as embryos spawned from earthly survival, their grace and fortitude etched in the outline of their hallow haloed wings. These children of iron, much like the Children of Whitwell, are a physical embodiment of their parents’ hopes, dreams, and wishes. When we are children, before something has happened to darken our experience of the universe, we are relatively young beings: we humans are still relatively young beings. When these families look up at “their iron children” and down again at their own human counterparts, parents remember that the still, iron children are images of a sordid past where children of injustices could not play with the butterflies, because theirs had been replaced with bigotry. While this monument represents those European children who had their childhoods stolen, it also represents the Southern born children who could not understand why they were forbidden to play with their friends who shared different heritages, customs, and beliefs. During those physical reflections upon a segregated past, one is given the opportunity to witness the present privileges of integration and tolerance. For the few African Americans who live and visit Whitwell, the neighborly charm of the community accepts them as family. This monument teaches a lesson that we all share the diverse colors of clay, humanity enriched with natural iron. While the forever children play atop a reddened iron frame, their human relatives play atop the reddened dirt of the Appalachians, and this entire message of hope began with one lesson from one teacher.
In 1998, after a detailed classroom lesson on The Holocaust and its social, political, and individual impacts, Whitwell Elementary students gathered together to reflect on their shared experiences while researching and learning. They decided that merely receiving the information via research and lecture was inadequate for self-expansion, and they wanted to translated a classroom lesson into a living experience for the injustices they learned about through various narratives of victims, such as Eli Weisel, Anne Frank, and Pavel Friedman, the child author of the poem, “I never saw another butterfly.” Although they could only reflect upon the experiences and memoirs shared by those adolescents who were first-hand witnesses of such horrors, the students felt the necessity of creation. These children could not fully wrap their minds around the enormity of death that the world bare witness to. They needed some way of enumerating things, so they improvised: “After some research on the Internet, the students decided to collect paper clips because they discovered that 1) Joseph Valler, a Norwegian Jew is credited as having invented the paperclip and 2) that Norwegians wore them on their lapels as a silent protest against Nazi occupation in WWII”(Whitwell Middle School). The students sent letters to celebrities, survivors, and family members of the slain, and received such an overwhelming response that over 30 million paperclips ended up in Whitwell, Tennessee! Soon, their classroom project became a permanent memorial.
With The Forever Children, the living youth of Whitwell demonstrated how tolerance has evolved into love and oneness, the oneness of song, the universal melody of life. These 5th grade children created a beautiful harmonious song without any malice, selfishness, or ill-intent.