Last week I had the good fortune of watching a documentary called “Paperclips”. This movie tells the powerful story of what can happen when just a few people have an idea. The movie tells the story of a middle school in Whitwell, TN, a small very homogenous town of white Christian people. From the desire of a principal and few teachers who wanted their children to know more than their insular community grew a project so profound that it stretched around the globe, through history and back.
In the film it shows a small classroom as the teachers attempt to explain the Holocaust to the students. In a town and school in which diversity consisted of only one black family and less than two thousand people total, the kids had a hard time grasping the concepts of the Holocaust – the magnitude, the hate of someone “not like you”, a desire for a “superior race”. At one point a kid raises his hand and asks “what is six million?”.
What happens when prejudice runs unchecked? That is the message the teachers set out to illustrate. Simply watching the movie trailer again moves me to tears – the story is THAT powerful.
The school undertook the project to bring the magnitude to life. Initially they set out to collect 6 million paperclips to represent the Jews killed in concentration camps. What followed was an unbelievable story in the power of an idea, the universal feeling of love, and the ability for the committed action of a few to affect the globe.
What ultimately happens is mindboggling. Word reaches across the globe, the media starts to tell their story, Holocaust survivors come and speak at the school, and paperclips accompanied by letters and mementos pour in. I mean pour in….they ended up with over 28 million paper clips when all was said and done. A memorial was created at the school from a genuine German railcar that used to transport Jews to the camps. The story behind how that came about is a joy in itself. In that memorial which stands permanently in their schoolyard reside 11 million paper clips (representing 6 million Jews and 5 million gypsies, homosexuals and other victims of the Holocaust). All this because one person, one classroom had an idea and chose to take action.
If you think your ideas don’t matter, watch this movie again and again. No one at that school ever believed the project would take on a life of its own. They just did what committed educators do — find new and creative ways to teach children about themselves and the world. In the end they changed a town and touched people across the world.
I found the lessons in the movie to be not only about how one person can change the world (that’s all that ever truly has – one person at a time) but how deeply people yearn to tell their story and that of their loved ones. To have those they care about live on – to have had their lives mean something. As Holocaust survivors wrote the students, they were able to tell the stories of their families who perished and of those that lived. They were transformed and healed. All by the simple act of being able to tell their stories to people who wanted to listed, cared, and sought to honor those who perished.
If you’re in need of a little inspiration, maybe some feelings of reverence, or simply desire a good story that will move you deeply, check out the movie — it is truly worth watching and is available through Netflix as well as other places I am sure.