A few weeks ago, my family and I gathered for our Passover seder, one of my favorite rituals in Judaism. This is when we intentionally look back at our history to collectively retell the story of the Jewish people escaping slavery in Egypt, and then ask ourselves: what’s our role in ensuring history does not repeat itself?
To tell this story requires everyone at the table to participate. Most importantly, the youngest person able is asked to set the stage, reciting “the four questions.” As my 10-year-old son led us (with his six-year-old sister watching with both awe and trepidation knowing next year we will be turning to her), it became ever more apparent to me the importance of repeating and returning to our shared history over and again, knowing each time we come back to it, we will have something new to learn.
The week before Passover, I learned about the passing of Margot Stern Strom, co-founder of Facing History and Ourselves and a visionary who reshaped education in this country. It struck me how much of Margot’s life and teachings echoed the traditions of Passover, asking us to remember our shared history, pass down the knowledge to the next generation, and learn in community so we gain compassion and empathy for all others who are persecuted.
To Margot, everyone was a teacher and everyone was a student, herself included. Her mastery, her genius, was bringing forward primary sources from the past, including the most egregious and horrific acts of oppression, bigotry, and hate, and trusting each one of us to fully face our history. In doing so, we are called upon to connect the lessons of the past and apply them to the choices we make every day. Margot believed, and ultimately proved, that such an approach to teaching and learning would help nurture and shape a more informed, engaged, and compassionate citizenry. Because of Margot’s work, many more teachers and students are mindful of who they are and how they interact with the people and world around them.
To me, Margot was that visionary, and she was also a mentor, a partner, and a close confidant who taught me to unearth the nuances in every story, appreciate complexities wherever they show up, and be a life-long student even on topics that I thought I knew well.
I met Margot in 2007, just a few months into my job at Einhorn Collaborative. Our first conversations quickly turned into visits to an old school building in Brookline, MA where her office was located. True to form, Margot’s office felt like a classroom. Not rows of desks and the teacher at the front, but rather a large circle of chairs. In the midst of a conversation, or mid-sentence, she would hold up her hands and say: “Wait, so-and-so must be here. One second!” and she’d run down the hall and bring that person into the room, adding another chair to the circle. I always knew when I was on a call with Margot that I was on speaker, and sure enough, minutes into the call I’d realize that more and more people were being pulled in to offer their thoughts. This is a Margot-ism that I absolutely love and still try to remind myself of often: always bring in diverse perspectives and experiences, and include as many people as you can at every turn, because we never have to grapple with big questions on our own.
In our years of friendship and partnership, Margot was most passionate about listening to students. She trusted and believed in young people in a way that was not the norm during those days. Adam Strom, Executive Director of Re-Imagining Migration, an organization with a poignant mission, beautifully said of his mother in an essay, “To her, students were budding moral philosophers who could and should engage with uncomfortable experiences from our past and present. Schools were the training grounds of democracy, whose job was to nurture the next generation and socialize them in civic engagement. My mother believed education needs to help young people understand human behavior, as revealed in the histories, art and literature she taught.”
I can’t help but think the core tenets of Margot’s approach to teaching and learning were shaped by the beautiful tradition and rituals of Passover. We tell stories of the past. We ensure every voice is included, especially our youngest, and we start with them. We do this with others, in community, always adding more chairs to the circle. And, we remember the people we loved who we have lost and dedicate ourselves to keeping their stories alive.
In this tradition, I think of Margot and her invitation to look back at where we have been and deeply reflect on who we are today so we can build toward a more beautiful future.
We can go toward freedom by going together.