WHITWELL, Tenn. -- "Please add this paper clip to your collection. It is in memory of my bigoted grandfather who ..."
"These paper clips are in memory of an entire Polish village that was herded into the village church and exterminated. Thank you for making sure no one ever forgets."
These are only two examples of the pain expressed in many of the more than 8,000 letters that have been received at Whitwell Middle School in the past three years in response to the school's project to commemorate the Holocaust. The children are collecting one paper clip for each of the millions of Jews and others who died in the Nazi killing machine.
Why has the Holocaust become a central theme at a middle school in southeastern Tennessee's Sequatchie Valley?
Teachers, students, parents and community members share a love and respect for each other that is unique in an era when violence and divisiveness seem to form the fabric of life in America. But the mountains which shelter the valley from the outside world also leave its inhabitants without the tools necessary to survive in an environment that has become increasing hostile.
The students needed to become aware of the hate and intolerance that exist outside the valley. A 1998 conference that presented methods of linking small rural schools to the outside world inspired us to begin studying the Holocaust.
What better way for a group of students from a small, rural community to learn about hate and intolerance than to examine one of mankind's most inhuman events? The study was planned with the help of Sandra Roberts, a creative story teller and language arts teacher. Little did anyone realize what was about to unfold.
Administrators and teachers understood that the literature such as Elie Wiesel's "Night" and the graphic nature of Holocaust events would be disturbing for students. It was decided, therefore, to include parents in the after-school study.
As the study progressed, the group wanted to find something -- anything -- that would symbolize the horrifying consequences of intolerance.
One afternoon, using Internet search engines, the students discovered that Norwegians had worn paper clips as a silent protest of the discrimination against Jews. The students decided to send letters requesting that people send them a paper clip in memory of someone who was exterminated during the Holocaust.
A chain reaction brought responses from all 50 states and many other countries. Letters that have come from presidents and celebrities, but most of all from people who are dealing with the suffering and pain that is a lasting effect of intolerance -- letters which the group reads, which the group sometimes cry over, letters filled with paper clips.
The paper clips represent the 11 million people, 6 million of them Jews, who were eliminated during the Holocaust.
The numbers are staggering. Knowing there are only 4.2 million people in all of Tennessee, the students often feel overwhelmed. But permeating it all is a sense of resolve.
This group will take the love that has been nurtured in this valley and reach out beyond the mountains to heal the pain that hate and intolerance has caused. When the 6 million paper clips have been collected, a memorial will be erected to honor those Jews executed in the Holocaust. We will take an authentic World War II cattle car and fill it with the paper clips.
To learn more about the project, visit the Whitwell Middle School Holocaust Group Web site at: www.marionschools.org/holocaust. Letters and paper clips can be sent to the group at Whitwell Middle School Holocaust Group, 1130 Main St., Whitwell, Tenn., 37397.
Linda Hooper is principal and David Smith assistant principal at Whitwell Middle School in Whitwell, Tenn. Mr. Smith is the founder and co-sponsor of the Holocaust Group.