A school wax museum in which some third-grade students planned to report on and possibly dress as Adolf Hitler might have gone on as planned if a substitute teacher had not raised concerns, the school’s principal says.
Emily Bivins, principal of Frank Porter Graham Bilingüe, said she did not learn about students’ chosen historical subjects until a teacher texted her last week that the substitute was upset some had chosen Hitler, along with Mother Teresa, and was planning to come talk with her.
Bivins did not name the substitute but said the substitute was concerned about trivializing the atrocities of the Holocaust and also about students who might dress as Hitler getting labeled and later ridiculed.
Four out of about 120 third-graders in different classrooms had picked Hitler for the wax museum, which was to take place Wednesday night.
In an interview Thursday, Bivins said teachers did not give students a list to choose from and she did not know why four students picked Hitler.
She also did not know if any of them planned to actually portray the Nazi leader. Students had the option of “dressing nicely” for their presentation, but she said in wax museums over her 12 years as principal most children have looked forward to dressing as their subject.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Bivins said she told the substitute. “There’s a fine line between censorship and telling kids what they can and can’t study and the appropriateness of that, versus a free for all.”
However, Bivins said once she became aware some children had chosen the Nazi leader “there was no question of the children dressing up and portraying Hitler in the first person.”
Columbus and Trump
Bivins next spoke with teachers and learned other students had chosen Christopher Columbus and Donald Trump, also controversial subjects in the dual-language school where 55 percent of the students are Latino.
At first, Bivins said they planned to cancel the event.
The next school day, however, they decided students had already spent weeks researching their subjects and should be able to use that information.
At that point, teachers went back and talked with the students who had picked controversial figures about choosing another subject. Bivins contacted their parents.
But the next day, the decision was made to replace the museum with a different event in which students would portray their future selves and describe how what they had learned about historical figures had affected them. That event takes place Friday night.
“It was too inflamed to move ahead,” said Bivins. The incident had divided the faculty, she said, and the decision to cancel was made in collaboration with the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools central office.
Were we not thinking of the potential impact this could have on Jewish students in the classroom or families or staff? It just didn’t come up.
Emily Bivins, principal
Bivins said the museum might have proceeded if the substitute teacher had not spoken up.
“People (who attended) may not have said anything. People could have come to the wax museum and there could have been a blow up there,” she said. “I can’t predict what would have happened.”
Not students’ fault
Bivins said the school guidance counselor and social worker met with the students who were asked to pick someone else to reassure them “they had done nothing wrong” and that it wasn’t their fault that the culminating project of the school’s biography unit had changed.
“I think they were very general. ... We made the decision not to tell them explicitly why,” Bivins said. “That’s an adult problem that we need to deal with.”
The school will now look at holding “restorative circles,” where teachers can freely discuss their feelings, as well as a panel discussion where people of different faiths come speak. Bivins said she has spoken with a local rabbi and will look at offerings in the school media center to make sure all students feel represented.
She called the substitute teacher “courageous.”
“I think the unfortunate thing for us as a school is that there are many educators who were in and out of the classrooms in the last five weeks, so there are many of us who could have raised the concern ‘I wonder what this is going to look like when an 8-year-old portrays Donald Trump or portrays Adolf Hitler.’ Those concerns were not raised.”
“And I think as a faculty, at least to me as the leader of this school, that’s a huge reflective point as to why no one said anything. Were we not thinking of the potential impact this could have on Jewish students in the classroom or families or staff? It just didn’t come up. I think as a faculty we have a lot of learning to do.”