I get a ton of emails at work, many of which get deleted without ever having been opened, but when I received an invitation from Goodreads asking teachers to “Join the Conversation,” something told me I should read on.
Goodreads and Netflix had partnered up to promote the adaptation of Loung Ung’s memoir First They Killed My Father, a soon-to-be released Netflix Original directed by Angelina Jolie. They were asking teachers to share the trailer for the film with their students, to open up a dialogue with them, and to submit an essay that captured their student’s thoughts.
Since my classes would be reading To Kill a Mockingbird in the weeks to come, and since genocide is intolerance at its worst, I figured we could use this opportunity as another lens through which to look at discrimination.
The Khmer Rouge took control of the Cambodian government in 1975. I was born in 1978, roughly around the time this genocide came to an end. Only 40 years ago, the mass murder of two million Cambodian people took place while the rest of the world did nothing to stop it. In the twentieth century alone, we have experienced several more genocides: Rwanda, Bosnia, Dafur. Yet in classrooms across America, children are largely ignorant to these suffering. They have all been taught about The Holocaust, but when some of them realized that the more recent genocides took place around the time they were born, they were shocked.
As I shared with my classes some background information and then the trailer for First They Killed My Father, a boy questioned, “Why is this the first time I am hearing about this?”
Yet if we only rewind a few weeks, images of hate flood our screens: the angry faces of Neo-Nazis, White Supremacists, the Alt-Right. Their expressions are illuminated by the same tiki torches that shine on my children on warm summer nights as they roast marshmallows for s’mores, their innocent laughter filling the evening sky.
While the riots in Charlottesville have certainly been mentioned in my classroom, there hasn’t been a direct discussion about them. Perhaps it is easier to talk about The Scottsboro Boys as it relates to a work of fiction than it is to look in our own back yards.
So what did my students think after first learning that there was a genocide in Cambodia in the 1970s, and then after watching the atrocities of it viewed through the dark, attentive eyes of a 5-year-old? What follows are their own words, collectively woven to express why it is important to learn from stories of hardship like that of Loung Ung’s.
Nowadays, we are more likely to pay attention to our own first-world problems. This, in turn, leaves third-world countries to basically do whatever they want. That’s why we learn about the Holocaust and not about more recent acts of mass murder. The same goes for mass terror. We’ll never forget 9/11, but we’ll easily forget the war on terrorism happening in Syria.
The Holocaust was one of the most horrendous genocides. When Holocaust survivors saw the white supremacist groups in Virginia carrying the Nazi flag, they were horrified. A dark-skinned reporter who was sent to interview the Ku Klux Klan was threatened to be burned alive on a cross.
Everyone has scars.
Stories like Loung Ung’s allow people to experience their pain, it forces people to remember. Forgetting the victims is probably the worst thing we can do, because if you forget, it’s like their struggles, and even their lives, never existed. At the same time, stories like Luong Ung’s allow us to appreciate our own lives more fully.
Humanity is losing its empathy towards people because society doesn’t want to read a book. These stories are what teach us to be empathetic. The main thing pushing us to read and learn about the history of our country and the world are our teachers.
Learning about genocide educates us on humanity—and it proves what some people are willing to do out of fear and blind hatred. But just because we learn about the past does not mean that we will prevent it from happening again. People have the power to be cruel, and some will—unfortunately—take that opportunity.
We need to realize that our world today isn’t perfect, it isn’t always a nice, beautiful place. Today, people are still vying for power. Today, people are still unkind. Today, our country is still fighting the same battles we fought in the past.
If it is true that history repeats itself, then we must be prepared for when it does by looking at how we could have prevented previous tragedies.
It is always possible for some dictator to reign over the innocent. If enough people with the same beliefs got together today, and they had the proper resources, they could control anyone; we can’t let awful, horrific ideas pollute the minds of others. With biological and chemical warfare, another genocide could occur tomorrow. Mass murder could come at the click of a button.
There will always be evil people in the world who believe that the only way to remedy a situation is to completely start over. Genocides happens for many reasons, and none of them are good. None of the people who start them are good either. And the villains who lead these events don’t disappear as history moves on.
We should have learned to not let a horrific person rule, but it is 2017 and we are letting history slowly repeat itself. If power is in the wrong person’s hands, then the most unimaginable things can happen; unjust and corrupt government leads to destruction. All it takes is a careless leader and hatred for the human race.
Racism, political beliefs, and religion all divide us. We need to accept people for who they are and not make judgements. The world demands that we learn from past mistakes so we don’t fall further into a hole of corruption, greed, and abused power. As a country, we need to stand up for unjust acts.
The most important lessons to learn are how to treat people, how to stay courageous, how to stand together and protect others against torture and discrimination.
When we learn about the past, we are forced to think about what kind of future we want to have. We can learn to become better people and to bring different countries together peacefully.
Everyone is making history right now.
Whether discussing the Luong Ung’s of yesterday or The Dreamers of tomorrow, the words of my students emphasize the importance of having courage in the face of adversity. With kindness and empathy, there is hope for a better tomorrow.