Sunday, October 27, 2013

A New Understanding of Humanity

Friday, our last day here in Poland, was strange, somber, and beautiful all at the very same time.

Our day began early with an interesting breakfast next door to our hotel. We had placed our order the night before, but when our food came, it was much different than the descriptions detailed. Exhausted from a week of traveling and excitement, we laughed it off and chalked it up to a good lesson in language barriers.

On our walk to our bus, we tried to keep the mood positive as we knew that the adventure to Auschwitz was to be emotionally draining and would undoubtedly forever alter us as people. On the hour-long drive, we passed beautiful countryside landscapes, homes decorated in traditional polish fashion, widespread farms filled with all the perfect colors of fall, and of course, city centers presenting the unwavering symbol of what resilience means.

As we pulled into our location, a sweeping sense of reality shifted through the bus. We were here at the location of genocide. We had prepared for nearly a year in attempt to be ready to experience such a place. Little did we know, no amount of planning could truly prepare us for what we were about to experience.

I know this is a blog and I know that our goal is to describe our experience in as much detail as possible, but the truth is that there aren't any words that can do justice to our experience at Auschwitz. It is something that makes you rethink the capacity of humanity and reflect on your own humanness. The tour of Auschwitz is something that every person in this world needs to experience as once you do, your entire understanding of humanity, good, and evil are reshaped and strengthened.

The students were extremely reflective and respectful throughout the 4 hour tour. To see young people be able to endure such a heavy experience with maturity and critical reflection was incredible to say the least. There is no doubt that these students are forever changed by what they saw today. It is our hope that they use this experience and these memories to continue to motivate them to work for a more peaceful and just world.

After our return from Auschwitz, we took a little while to relax and reboot. After all, it was our last night in Poland, and we had promised one another that despite the heaviness of earlier, we would muster up enough energy to experience the rest of what Krakow had to offer.

Boy am I glad we held to this promise as our last night in Krakow proved to be one of the best yet! We found ourselves back in the main square. A clean-air protest in the center of the square didn't hinder the liveliness of the food stands, market tents, and concert stages. You could feel the happiness all around- from isle to isle, the smell of Polish foods and desserts were complimented by the sounds of people bargaining, and musicians playing. This is what it means to travel, this is the feeling that lights a fire inside of us and renders us helpless to curiosity and culture.

We sat at a table beneath the lights of the city, the sounds and smells of the square still swirling around us. We entered into a reflective conversation about all aspects of our trip thus far, including our experiences from earlier. The conversation was latent with deep thoughts, critical questions, and impassioned plans for the future. I was nearly driven to tears hearing what the students had to say. "This is just the beginning of a life full of traveling," "We now have a responsibility to act and we can't ignore it," "I don't want to go home."You could see it, you could hear it, and you could feel it- these students are on fire with passion and curiosity.

The night continued on as we wandering city streets, trying new food, singing, and laughing.

The boys had a brilliant idea to maximize the deliciousness of the food. They went to the sandwich stand and got an open faced treat with onions, lard, and pickles piled on top. Then, they went to the meat stand and got a couple kielbasas. They combined them to make a deliciously Polish treat!

Combination sandwich. Yum! 

The boys chowing down! 

We all went to the dessert stand where they had beautiful chocolate-covered fruits. We all made pretty safe selections like bananas & chocolate and strawberries & chocolate. Xavier, on the other hand, had a great idea to branch out and try a chocolate covered chile pepper. Moments later his eyes were watering, his face got red, and he was dancing around the square out of pure pain from the heat. To our disbelief, all of the students joined in and wanted to try out this new treat! Of course, I got suckered into trying it as well and, as a result we can all say distinctively that you should never underestimate the hotness of a chile- even if it is covered in delicious chocolate. That is of course, except Mr. Ives who bought is very own chocolate-covered chile and ate it all with no eye-watering or dancing. We made ourselves feel better by saying he must have just gotten a milder chile....but we know that's not really the case. 

The hottest dessert in history.....

Loving their desserts!

Crying from the heat of his chile! 

Kaylanie scared to try the chile!

As it became late, there was a sense of sadness in the students' eyes. They didn't want this to be over. With an early departure time in the morning, we knew we had to head back to the hotel. On the walk, students never stopped laughing and singing. It was perfect; their happiness was untouchable. 

We made sure students were safe in their rooms and we said our last goodnight. Mr. Ives and I reflected on how important it is to see kids this happy and how perhaps this kind of happiness can be inspired through traveling. We are so proud of our students as they have surpassed our expectations and proven their excellence at every turn. 

While our trip to Poland is over, we can say with certainty that the passion, resilience, and motivation that our students have developed on this trip is truly just the beginning of an incredible future. 

The city square at night! 

Friday, October 25, 2013

A Sense of Home in Krakow

Today tested the patience and willpower of our students.  The morning deadline was 5:50AM, much earlier than previously required.  To add insult to injury there was a stair-filled, luggage wrestling, 20-minute walk to the train station.  Yes, there’s more!  Watching our students find the willpower and moral fortitude to carry on, board a claustrophobia inducing train, hold up a village railcar, and shuffle over cobblestones to a presumably haunted bed and breakfast in Krakow was inspiring and worth the sweat and swallowed tears.

Krakow, one of the few cities left standing in its original splendor after the war, provided our students with the jaw-dropping, camera-filling awe and wonder we were hoping for.  Our ever-fearless tour guide and leader skillfully weaved the delegation through back alleys and secret passages.  Her knowledge and familiarity with the surroundings provided an experience only a native could.  She told of a legend of the dragon bones found deep beneath the castle which captivated the audience and inspired glimmers of apprehension and skepticism in the eyes of both young and old. 

Touring Through Krakow

Traditional Polish Restaurant 

Read for Some Food!

All of our sore toes and aching backs were soon forgotten as we passed through the intricately adorned wrought-iron gates of Wawel Castle.  We were further rewarded by an flaming orange sunset, plunging through the horizon, and setting ablaze the clouds in reds, purples, and yellows.  A walk back to the main square in the shadow of the castle revealed a town center transformed into a busy, bustling village with street vendors, food carts, and even a blacksmith!  Our students marveled at the texture of fabrics, the glint of jewels, and intricately carved wooden toys. 

                                                              Installment Art in the Main Square

It would come time for our sense of hunger to give in to our sense of smell.  The scent of roasted nuts, grilled vegetables, and steaming stews danced past the Adam Mickiewicz Monument and through stone archways of Cloth Hall.  We were defenseless.  Sitting below the Church of St. Mary to our left and Town Hall Tower to our right we reveled in the atmosphere, enjoying authentic Polish offerings. 

Medieval Structures!  

Hanging out in the center of the city!

Today was a turning point for one of our students in particular.  While on a phone call home, Ms. Gleeson overheard her student tell his mother he, “never wanted to come home.”  This brought me to thinking about the phrase “home,” and what it means to our students.  Everyday we watch our group support, challenge, and grow together.  So, what is home?  Is home even a place?  I am apt to make a bold statement and suggest home is a state of being, not a location.  Do we not feel at home when we are comforted by those around us?  This powerful thought will travel with us tomorrow as we venture forth to a location that has been weighing on our minds the entire trip, Auschwitz.    

The Castle

This blog entry was written by Mr. Ives, Behavior Technician at the Nursing Academy and fellow chaperone.

The Closing of a Conference, The Opening of a Mind

Who would have though that in just three short days our minds and hearts could grow so much.

As we met in our usual spot in the morning for breakfast we were, of course, excited for the day’s events, however there was an underlying tone of melancholy, as we all knew that this adventure was coming to an end. To lighten the mood, we stopped at Starbucks for some caffeine courage. Since the closing ceremonies were the largest of all three days there was a lot of traffic. This yielded the kid’s first lesson in Murphy’s Law for Travelers. We tried to hail a cab, but there was a 20-minute wait and at least a 10-minute commute to our venue. So, we had to walk over 1.5 miles to the venue! Good thing we opted for an extra dose of caffeine!

As we were rushing toward the venue, we were all secretly worrying that we wouldn’t make it on time and if we did, would we get good seats? Would we miss an opportunity? Approaching the venue, we saw a large line that extended all the way outside of the front entrance. We quickly established a plan, shifted quickly through the security checkpoint, and headed into the venue. Expecting to be one of the last to arrive, we realized as we entered into the Opera House Theater, that the first rows were reserved for us. We chose the second row from the stage.

(Second Row!)

We thought that the day couldn’t get much more surreal than second row seats until Professor Ives waved us over to the other end of the theater. “Come quickly,” he gestured. Like a flock of ducklings, our group moved quickly not really knowing what to expect. As we approached Professor Ives we quickly noticed that there was a small crowd of people near him- we knew there was someone important. Before any of us could gather our thoughts, we were being introduce to Nobel Laureate, Muhammad Yunus. He was so happy to meet our students and so impressed that they fundraised the money to attend the conference. He encouraged them to keep their interest in world issues and thanked them for coming! As we retreated to our seats, the students were glowing with excitement. Their energy was tangible- they were awestruck.

Muhammad Yunus

His Holiness the Dalai Llama, Betty Williams, Mairead Maguire, and other dignitaries filled the room with their candor, thoughtfulness, and passion. Words and phrases swirled about the theater. It was as if we were witnessing the discovery of the anecdote for human suffering. The laureates reached out specifically to the youth and since we were sitting in the second row, our students shared some truly unforgettable moments.

As His Holiness turned to speak directly to the youth, his eyes locked with our students. As he spoke, he maintained his position, never wavering, with  a conviction that was palpable for the students. Betty Williams followed up by asking the students directly if they had been involved with Peace Jam. Immediately their hands shot into the air. Betty was honored to have “peace-jammers” in attendance at the summit. Our students felt a direct sense of pride from this Nobel Laureate herself.

The Dalai Llama

When the sessions had ended, we made a mad dash for the exit in hopes of getting some more face time with laureates. We thought all was lost, when Mairead Maguire and Mother Angus stepped into the hallway. Xavier took a particular liking to Mother Angus and her story, so he took the opportunity to introduce himself to her. The genuine happiness you see in the photo radiated through all of us.

We had just one more session before the conference officially came to a close. The students were overwhelmed even to tears in some cases as they reflected on the past three days and just how much it has meant to them. The ceremony was moving, but even more poignant was the looks of incredible determination and confidence I saw on the students faces as they exited the theater. I knew in that moment that they had been deeply empowered and inspired. As an educator, it is a moment like this that I will remember vividly to remind myself continuously of the capacity of my students. 

Closing Ceremony

Last dinner in Warsaw!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Stand in Solidarity for Peace

After an extraoridinarily exciting first day of the World Summit, our hopes were high as we stepped back into the theater hall this morning. Our first session focused on Unheard Voices, Inequalities in Social Justice. Nobel Laureates Muhammed Yunus and Lech Walesa were joined by Colin Archer from the International Peace Bureau, Jayantha Dhanapala from the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, and Shan Cretin from the American Friends Committee. The discussion attempted to reach conclusions regarding peace, democracy, and justice. Can the issues of our world really be confined to boarders? Do we need to break down boarders literally or figuratively in order to appropriately solve these issues? How do colonialism, racism, and poverty contribute to the systems that perpetuate certain issues? All of these questions were address and debated. the conversation was intense, informative, and of course, moving.

Muhammad Yunus made inspirational remarks where he referred to the world's poor as "Bonsai People." He went on to explain that a Bonsai tree is grown from the same seed as a full size tree from the forest. The difference is that, a Bonsai is planted in a flower pot, thus isn't given sufficient soil or space to grow into the giant that it has the potential to be. Poor people, like the bonsai, are from the same seed of humanity with the same potential, but aren't given adequate environments to properly grow.

Fourth Row from the Stage! 

Laureates getting their peace on. 

The second morning session talked about Old and New Threats to Human Rights. Shirin Ebadi, F.W. de Klerk, Steve Crawshaw, and Lee Hoesung led a riveting conversation that extended from terrorism, to human rights, to democracy. Essentially, one major thing that came out of the discussion was the idea that we must know and understand the root of a problem in order to ever solve it. Although a simple statement, we must promise to keep it as simple when applying it to the very real, very complex social issues plaguing our society today. As various social issues were discussed, it was agreed upon that poverty is a root cause of most, if not all, of the major social issues of our time.

Hanging around in between sessions

Heated Discussion

Mr. Ives showing off his socks!

Xavier getting some advice from Professor Ives

Session on Millenium Development Goals

Our afternoon sessions were incredible. The students helped out Professor David Ives and Anat Biletzki by distributing the reading material for their session. Of coure, the students sat front row- as they always have been doing- and listened as a discussion flourished about the Millenium Development Goals (MDG). The students were surprised that the session, in fact, focused on criticisms of the MDG's. Furthermore, both Dr. Bieltzki and Mr. Ives called upon students for the solutions to some of the issues with the MDGs. The students took pages of notes and we debriefed after the session to answer or expand upon any questions that they had.

The sessions ended a bit early today so we decided to do a bit of shopping. From local shops and street vendors to the comercial shopping center, we were certain to open ourselves up multiple types of shopping. While we were shopping, the students mentioned that they had never eaten gelato before. So, of course we let them have dessert before dinner! They thoroughly enjoyed the delicious treat, but were still quite hungry from today's events. As you may have read from yesterday's post, the students fell in love with pierogis. Pleased that the students enjoyed a traditional food so much, we took them back to the traditional Polish restaurant we had eaten at just a couple nights before. The food was just as delicious the second time around and I was happy to see that the students ordered something new and different!

First Gelato Experience!

Boys will be boys!

Who knew Belgian Fries could be so enjoyable? 

On the walk back from the restaurant, Xavier and Kaylanie wanted to try Belgian Fries. Not even 10 minutes after ordering, you would find 5 excited teenagers raving about the deliciousness of Poland's fries and chicken tenders! We are glad to see that students are open to trying to new things and are truly building strong friendship in the process!

Tomorrow will certainly prove to be an exciting day! It is the last day of the conference and, of course, the busiest. We can't wait to update you!

TIme to Talk Peace

As we walked into the hotel restaurant before breakfast, plates were clinking and people were chatting. Everyone was dressed for the conference and the students looked so professional! Taylor and I arrived to breakfast a bit late and t our pleasant surprise, the students had already found seats with the students from Quinnipiac! We are so very proud of their confidence and maturity!

Soon after breakfast the moment had finally arrived- it was time to leave for the conference! Of course we left a bit early so we could be sure to be on time. Adorning our official badges around our necks, with tickets in hand, and curiosity in our hearts we marched proudly to the Palace of Culture and Science for the first conference session. When we arrived, we picked up our wireless translation devices. These are used in the sessions for laureates and leaders who speak other languages- they are translated in real time so that everyone can fully participate. Each device has upwards of 7 different language channels! These devices represent the diversity and magnitude of this event.

As we entered the auditorium for the opening ceremonies we were awestruck by the beauty and antiquity of the room. Massive ceilings, golden accents, and intricate Soviet designs grabbed our attention from every direction. The ceremonies began with a warm welcome from the Mayor of Warsaw and were followed by speeches that set the tone for the conference; they geared us up for important conversations on human rights.

There were two morning pannel sessions. The first was entitled Stand in Solidarity for Peace and Security and was given by Nobel Laureates Mikhail Gorbachv, Frederik Willem De Klerk, Shirin Ebadi and Physicians Against Nuclear Weapons advocate, Ira Helfrand. These individuals charged us with "remembering our humanity" when approach social issues and formulating effective solutions to pressing problems. Human and Social Values was the title of the second session. Lech Walesa, Muhammad Yunus, Mairead Maguire, and Peter Tieffenthal left us with the messages of understanding tragedy through a very human lens. This means considering the role of non-violent movements in our modern world and establishing peace from the bottom upwards.

After a short break for lunch we were right back at it! The second half of the day offered us a choice of 2 specific workshop sessions to attend. We spread out to cover all the ground of what the conference had to offer. Some attended a session hosted by Mairead Maguire on Non-Violence. In this session, students were given a very real perspective on Syria as well as a look into some of the non-violent movements that exist amidst the violence. Frankie and Keren spoke with Ms. Maguire after her session and asked profound questions with equally profound responses!

Yahaira attended a session with former South African President F.W. de Klerk surrounding apartheid and the issues that S. Africa is still facing today. The other sessions were about Nuclear Weapons/War. In one session, the international relations/ policy side of the issue was address and in another session, the practical implications of nuclear war were address. Dr. Helfran gave students a detailed depiction of what would happen to our world post-nuclear war on both a small and large scale. Although the session was extremely intense, the students were so engaged and passionate about what they heard that they went up to Dr. Helfran after his session. After Keren told him how much he influenced her, he offered to come visit Hartford High to give a talk to some other students about the same topic!

Needless to say-we were exhausted! Did we go right to bed? No! Instead, we walked 1.5 miles to a castle for a orchestra concert and a fancy feast. We felt like royalty in this renovated castle and of course, the food was splendid.

Taylor and I have been receiving countless comments and compliments about the students. Most people are shocked to find out that they are in high school because they are so "well spoken, mature, and smart." We are just so proud of their hard work. They are representing our school, our city, and our country with excellence and poise.

In the evening, we had a debriefing session where we shared our thoughts on the sessions and debated different topics. The students went to bed feeling recharged and confident for the day ahead!

We've made it!



Lech Walesa

Laureate Pannelists

Mairead Maguire and Mother Agnus

Frankie Connecting with A Marvelous Laureate, Ms. Maguire