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The Paper Clip Project
By Suzanne McCabe

To the students of Whitwell Middle School in Whitwell, Tennessee, a paper clip is no ordinary object. It is a symbol of a precious individual—someone's mother, husband, or son, perhaps, who was murdered by Nazi Germans in the Holocaust.

Why paper clips? When students began work on a Holocaust project in the fall of 1998, they found it difficult to comprehend the staggering number of people—including six million Jews—who had been killed.

School administrators suggested that the students find an object to collect to help them visualize the number. After doing some research, they decided on paper clips. During World War II, Norwegians wore paper clips on their clothing to protest anti-Semitism (prejudice against Jewish people).

The project started small, with a letter-writing campaign asking for donations of paper clips. Only a handful came in. But when two German journalists learned of the students' efforts, they wrote about the project in Europe. That was enough to spark international attention. Soon, truckloads of boxes and letters began to arrive in Whitwell, a small town tucked into the Tennessee mountains. Some of the most touching letters came from relatives of Holocaust victims who shared stories of their loved ones.

In 2001, a rail car that had once transported Jews to the death camps was dedicated as a museum in Whitwell's schoolyard. It holds 11 million paper clips, one estimate of the Holocaust's total victims. "You cannot go into that car and touch one of those paper clips without seeing those people and feeling their souls," says principal Linda Hooper."

To learn more about the Holocaust project, check out Paper Clips, a remarkable documentary that opens nationwide this month. Below is Junior Scholastic's interview with Whitwell's principal, Linda Hooper, vice principal David Smith, and teacher Sandy Roberts.

JS: How did you get the idea for this project?
David Smith: Sandy and I had taken a group to Atlanta, to the Holocaust Museum. They had a project called "The Wings of Witness," where they were doing bottle tops—the pop-tops off soda cans—and making butterflies. That's where we sort of got the idea. We were sort of like, "You know, it hits home when you see this butterfly. It hits home what kind of numbers we're talking about."
Linda Hooper: I think it overwhelms anybody who's never seen six million together. I told them, "Yeah, you can collect six million of something but it's got to be small."

JS: What were you trying to teach the kids?
David Smith: What we're trying to teach is what happens when you have hatred and when you have intolerance, bad things can happen.
Linda Hooper: We have 400 students. They're predominately white. I almost say we live in a protected environment. They didn't know a lot about different cultures. This was a very different culture, this was a huge historical event and this was just a need.

JS: This project required a lot of hard work. How did you find the time and energy to do it?
Linda Hooper: Grandmothers counted paper clips, aunts counted paper clips, cousins, mamas, kids, anybody who had a spare minute counted paper clips.
Sandy Roberts: When the letters came in, David picked them up at the post office, and then he and Mrs. Hooper opened them. We would receive 12 crates of mail a day. They were delivered to my classroom, and the mail was sorted. The children would take the paper clips out, highlight donors who had given 1,000 or more, and then they were sorted into individual states. We had one girl who did all the foreign mail. She could pick up a letter, look at a postal code, and tell you where it came from. It was incredible. We kept every piece of paper, regardless of size, from scraps of paper to stamps. Those children who did all that cataloguing are now high school seniors.

JS: How did the students react to 9/11, which happened while they were working on the project?
Linda Hooper: They began to have discussions among themselves that these are the same types of conditions, the type of feelings that allowed the Holocaust to take place. They realized that as Americans we were being lumped together as ugly Americans, not people who saw themselves as individuals. They began to see how easily you could fall into the trap of hating or being intolerant of another group and the consequences of that. We all look at ourselves as individuals, but we look at other people and treat them as a group, not as individuals.

JS: What surprised you most about the project?
David Smith: The children. These kids came and worked, receiving no academic credit. They would spend hours and hours and hours doing this. It shows you how resourceful kids are, and how important they are.
Sandy Roberts: I was amazed at the amount of public response. From all over the globe, people would write in. They just poured their hearts out and told these children so many details. They taught our children so much better than any textbook could. These were first-hand accounts looking through their eyes, seeing historical events. We had letters that came from people who were liberators. We had letters that came from people who hid Jews in their home.

JS: Do people still send you paper clips?
Linda Hooper: Occasionally we get a few, but by and large that trickle has stopped. We already have more than 30 million paper clips. We'd love to hear your story, but please don't send any more [paper clips].

JS: Do students at Whitwell still give tours of the rail car to visitors from nearby schools?
Linda Hooper: Oh, yes.
David Smith: In larger cities you have museums with Holocaust artifacts, but in rural Tennessee this is a rare thing—the actual piece of Holocaust history. So it's a great opportunity for schools to come see, and actually touch, a piece of Holocaust history. Our kids enjoy sharing what they know and what they've learned with other kids. It makes them feel important.

JS: What does it feel like inside the rail car?
Linda Hooper: Every paper clip we have came with a story, and every paper clip is representing somebody. When you go into that car, you feel those things. You understand the pain, and you remember the stories. I can visualize people in there. You cannot go in that car, you cannot touch one of those paper clips, that you do not see those people and feel their souls. It's like you're linking yourself to them.

JS: What did you learn from this project?
Linda Hooper: Kids want to be involved. I think a lot of people look at teenagers, eighth-graders, and they think, "Oh these are just kids. We can't give them this kind of responsibility." These kids can do as much as any adult if it's expected of them, and you let them do things. They are our future, after all. They're going to be running the country. Might as well start now!
David Smith: I think teachers and principals need to not underestimate their students. If any child in the country gets the chance to do something like that, I think they'd put forth that effort. These kids have done something great in their lives.
Linda Hooper: Don't be afraid to jump off the cliff. Somebody will catch you, or you'll fall on your you-know-what, and if you fall on your you-know-what, then you've learned a lot. You've learned what not to do next. Sometimes, I wonder if I did the right thing by allowing this project to go forward. Sometimes, I think, "Well, should I have focused all this attention? Is it good?" All I have to do is drive up at night and see that rail car and remember that our children were able to take a symbol of death and transform that into a symbol of overcoming. If one person, one group, will just stand up and do something about what's not right, we can overcome evil.

To view the Paper Clips trailer, visit this site from Miramax.com.