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Persecution 101



Apathy is hardly a trait in short supply among the high-school set, but nobody could accuse students in Adam Wallach's 9:05 a.m. world history class of not exercising their right to dissent on this February day. It's guaranteed, after all, by the country they're not pledging allegiance to.

When it is time to pledge, not a single student stands. No right hands over hearts. Heads nod on desks and chatter carries on despite the drone from the public address system: "… and to the republic for which it stands …"

Like any high-school history teacher, Wallach picks his battles in the uphill fight to make his subject interesting.

The monotone voice over the P.A. hardly changes inflection as it winds toward a bored finish: "… with liberty and justice for all."

Unexpectedly, two-dozen glazed gazes come back to life. The hum of gossip ceases. Cheeks deeply creased by spiral binders used as makeshift pillows rise from desktops.

All eyes are on Wallach. The Pledge of Allegiance and all the history it represents doesn't grab, but Wallach does.

"All right, listen up," begins a compact, stocky, bald man at the front of the room, silencing a few stragglers still talking near the back.

Wallach, it seems, is winning his uphill battle -- getting an audience of inner-city high-school students using a technique uniquely suited to teaching history, but so infrequently employed: He tells history as his story.

"Everybody knows the general things about World War II and the Nazis," says Curtis Cobert, a 2006 graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School where Wallach teaches. "Not many people get the inside story. A book is not going to tell you that."

Wallach tells his classes of mostly black students about his grandparents and his father, all survivors of Nazi oppression against Jews in Germany. And on the assembly line at a Ford plant in 1908. And he puts them in the trenches during World War I.

"That was just a fun way to explain why trench warfare was the stupidest thing ever invented," says Cobert, now a Virginia Commonwealth University student studying mass communications. He's one of a half-dozen former Wallach students who came back on a recent school day to see the teacher who helped them chart their own life courses.

Cobert recalled being stunned when Wallach's WWI lesson went from lecture to experience. Mid-lecture, Wallach suddenly broke down the imaginary wall between students and teacher by piling desks on top of each other to create two "trenches" in the middle of the classroom. He divided the class into two sides and set them to trying to gain the upper hand in a paper grenade fight.

But it was the lesson about the Jewish experience in Nazi Germany that hit home hardest, Cobert says, recalling a lesson that started with a chilling account of survival and fear and a desperate family's flight, capture and eventual escape from Germany.

It wasn't until the end of his tale that Wallach revealed the characters in his narrative as being his own father and grandparents.

"He explained to us how in parallel how what happened to the Jews there was similar to the experience of slaves here," Cobert says.

It's an approach to learning that's earned Wallach recognition. Earlier this year he was named as a recipient of an R.E.B. Award for Teaching Excellence. The annual award comes with a cash grant of up to $10,000.

"It's my family's history," says Wallach, who plans to use the money to travel to Germany, to retrace the footsteps of his family's flight. "I think that's what the kids are most taken with … that this story impacted real people. A lot of [his students] have never left Richmond."

The fact that it's a story both of hardship and redemption, Wallach says, helps him connect with his mostly minority students, many of whom come from modest means. He recalls an honors student in one of his classes who was homeless for three weeks: "He never said a word. This was a college-bound senior."

And as much as Wallach sees the Holocaust as a lesson that allows his students to understand their present, he also sees it as a way to learn about his own choices in life, which include leaving behind a high-paying corporate job to do what he knew was right.

"It's vital for me because it's part of why I'm a teacher," he says. S

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