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644: Random Acts of History

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Prologue

Ira Glass

This story begins with a random encounter with history. Our senior producer, Brian Reed, was spending a lot of time in Alabama a few years back doing reporting. And one morning he went for a jog near his hotel-- he was in Tuscaloosa-- and he got to this park.

Brian Reed

Where the ruins of the old state capitol are. And then I ran down this little pathway down the hill, and I saw this marker, one of those historical markers. And I have never forgotten this thing. Like, it stayed with me. And every time I went back to Tuscaloosa, which was a number of times, I would go, at some point during the trip, walk over and read it again. I brought my wife one time. I brought her to see it, a friend. I've been there a bunch.

Ira Glass

It made an impression.

Brian Reed

Yes.

Ira Glass

So you have the text here, I know.

Brian Reed

Yeah. So the marker's titled "The Indian Fires Are Going Out," in quotes. And it explains that the Trail of Tears led thousands of Creek Indians through Tuscaloosa, back when it was the capital of Alabama, on their way to the West as they were being driven from that part of the country.

Ira Glass

Mm-hm. And their homelands.

Brian Reed

Yeah, and their homelands. And during that time, a Creek chief addressed the legislature on their way out of the state with these words. He gave this speech. Quote, "I come here, brothers, to see the great house of Alabama and the men who make the laws and to say farewell in brotherly kindness before I go to the far West where my people are now going. In time gone by, I have thought that the white men wanted to bring burden and ache of heart among my people in driving them from their homes and yoking them with laws they do not understand. But I have now become satisfied that they are not unfriendly toward us, but that they wish us well.

In these lands of Alabama, which have belonged to my forefathers and where their bones lie buried, I see that the Indian fires are going out. Soon they will be cold. New fires are lighting in the West for us, they say, and we will go there. I do not believe our great Father means to harm his red children, but that he wishes us well. We leave behind our goodwill to the people of Alabama who build the great houses and to the men who make the laws. This is all I have to say."

Ira Glass

And what do you make-- what a strange speech to make, as you're being exiled, to the people who are exiling you.

Brian Reed

Exactly. Yeah, that's what struck me about it. I mean, first of all, super sad. And I found it very moving. But also, I read it and reread it, and I just wondered, is this speech kind of subversive in some way? Was this chief standing there in front of the Alabama state legislature, which was partially responsible for kicking his people out, and kind of mocking them slightly or being slightly sarcastic in this speech? Especially this part, "In time gone by, I have thought that the white men wanted to bring burden and ache of heart among my people in driving them from their homes and yoking them with laws they do not understand. But I have now become satisfied that they're not unfriendly toward us, that they wish us well."

Ira Glass

Right.

Brian Reed

Like he's saying, you guys have yoked us with your laws and driven us from our homes, but we know you wish us well. And I just wondered if there was something slightly arch about that.

Ira Glass

Something arch that went right over the heads of the legislators at the time and also over the heads of the Alabama Historical Association when they approved this marker over a century and a half later. And so recently, Brian decided to look into it. What did the chief mean? Did he say it under duress? Did this even happen? And what we found was, yes, the speech really did occur in the Muskogee language, interpreted into English at the legislature. He found the primary source for us knowing about it-- the only source-- a newspaper article in The Huntsville Democrat in 1835. It says legislators teared up at the speech.

Brian Reed

And I talked to several historians, including two experts who are Creek themselves, and there does not seem to be evidence that this was sarcastic.

Ira Glass

So but the people who are Creek, what did they make of it? What did they say to you about it?

Brian Reed

Well, I talked to one woman, named RaeLynn Butler. She's the manager of historic and cultural preservation at the Muskogee Creek Nation in Oklahoma. She'd never seen the speech before. And she lives in Oklahoma. Her ancestors were part of this group of people who left Alabama at this time and came to Oklahoma, and she'd never seen the speech before till we sent it to her to ask her about it.

Raelynn Butler

I was very confused when I read the speech because--

Brian Reed

Really? You, too?

Raelynn Butler

Yes. It did not sound accurate to me. He talks about how we're being driven from our homes, and then, in the same breath, goes on to say, this is for the betterment of our people.

Brian Reed

Yeah, so she reacted to the same thing in the speech that I reacted to. So anyway, so she ended up getting her whole team involved at the cultural preservation office, and they started looking through their archives. And she told me, as they were researching, they were hoping to find evidence that this wasn't exactly right, that maybe the interpreter had messed up or something else was wrong about this speech.

Raelynn Butler

I was hoping for that.

Brian Reed

And you didn't find it.

Raelynn Butler

No, and we did not find it.

Brian Reed

So the reality is kind of sobering.

Raelynn Butler

Yes.

Brian Reed

Did it bum you out when you heard about this speech?

Raelynn Butler

Yes. I was bummed to read the speech mainly because I felt that it misrepresented the way that I felt and the way I know my family feels about removal or about assimilation. It's just hard to accept the fact that he says, we know you mean us no harm. It just seemed to go a little bit too far. You lose the game, you shake someone's hand to acknowledge a good game and that we lost. But in this speech, to me, it seems like Yoholo Micco is not only shaking their hand, but he's giving them a hug or even a kiss goodbye.

Brian Reed

Yeah. Yeah.

Ira Glass

So basically, Brian stumbled upon this random bit of history three years ago. He started sharing it with people who usually had just as strong a reaction as he had-- reactions of various kinds. And it kind of ricocheted around from person to person, piercing into each one this bullet of information from the past.

And since we don't actually know a lot about this speech-- we don't know for sure which chief it was, we don't know why he said it, the only account of it comes from this one newspaper reporter and leaves crucial questions unanswered-- in the end, it's unclear what to think. And even after trying to research it, what we're left with is our own personal reactions and feelings.

Well, today on our program, we have two stories about people who bump into unsettling facts from history. They're both stories that's in a setting designed to actually teach them a little bit of history. And in both of these stories, what they learn is so different from the lessons that they are supposed to get from the past. In fact, it's not even close.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: The Miseducation of Castlemont High

Ira Glass

Act One, The Miseducation of Castlemont High.

So we begin with a bunch of students who were taken on a field trip to learn about the past. They were going to see a film that covers some history. They were also going to go ice skating, which a lot of them were especially looking forward to.

This happened back in 1994. And what happened on that field trip with this group of black and Latino students became kind of a big deal, talked about all across the country because of what they did not learn. BA Parker has worked on our show, and she also incidentally used to be a film professor, and she tells what happened.

B. A. Parker

It was actually a school holiday-- January 17, Martin Luther King Day. And even though there was no school, the teacher was known for his great field trips, so 70 kids showed up. That morning, most of them crowded onto a single bus and headed to the Grand Lake Theatre, this beautiful classic movie house in town. As soon as they got there, they noticed that almost all of the other patrons were white. And according to the kids, those patrons noticed them back. Tracy Wilson was one of the students on the field trip, a freshman.

Tracy Wilson

Just the looks that we were receiving.

B. A. Parker

What kind of looks?

Tracy Wilson

In a matter of, what are you doing here? We don't look like anybody else that's standing in line, but no one said anything to us. No, I take that back. There were those bold ones that asked the question. Oh, are you guys on a field trip? Yes. What school are you from? Castlemont. Oh, OK. And you guys are here to watch a movie? Yeah. What movie are you all watching? And then they're like, ah, OK. You know? Then we get into the theater, and downhill from there.

B. A. Parker

The movie they were going to see was Schindler's List, a film about the Holocaust. They walked into the theater. It was chaotic. The teacher had made arrangements ahead of time, but no one remembered him calling. So the 70 teenagers just sat where they could, a lot of them in the back. The four chaperones sat in the front-- four of them for 70 kids.

If you're not familiar with Schindler's List, basically, Oskar Schindler, a real-life German businessman played by Liam Neeson, tricks the Nazis into letting him save 1,200 Jewish people in Poland. But that plot isn't clear for a long, long time. And it's artsy in the beginning, almost impenetrable. At least, that's how I felt when I was a teenager and my teacher showed us the film. Long shots with nobody talking, and you don't know what's going on. And it's three hours long and in black and white. At 14, Tracy felt the same way.

Tracy Wilson

It opened up with a candle.

[MATCH STRIKING]

And I was like, OK.

Rabbi

[SPEAKING HEBREW]

Tracy Wilson

I mean, to us, we were probably like, oh God, black and white. Where are the subtitles? Is this a foreign film? Is this a documentary? Oh God, we have to sit through this to go skating?

Tanzania Enskip

Well, I remember I was seeing a movie that was in black and white.

B. A. Parker

This is Tanzania Enskip, also a freshman on the field trip. Today, she's a teacher.

Tanzania Enskip

A lot of violence. There was a lot of violence in the movie. And I remember seeing a lot of things that high school kids shouldn't be seeing. I remember one scene. I was like, wait a minute. That should only be in sex education, not on this screen. A lot of kids were like, oh, my God.

B. A. Parker

For a film about a concentration camp, Schindler's List has a fair amount of sex and titillating nudity in it, which, again, weird thing to show a bunch of high school kids on a field trip. This is Tracy.

Tracy Wilson

Yeah. We were probably-- no, I wouldn't say probably-- we were definitely unruly. It doesn't matter what type of movie it is, people talk. And we didn't want to be there, so probably heard some [CLICKS TONGUE] aw, man, teeth-sucking, attitude.

B. A. Parker

All the kids admit today they didn't behave appropriately during the movie. They were restless. They talked and horsed around with each other. Some went out to get drinks and popcorn. Others even snuck into other movies. House Party 3 was also playing that day. Those who stayed in the theater were shushed several times by the other patrons and also an usher and a chaperone. When one of the moviegoers told them to be quiet, they reportedly bombarded him with popcorn.

Nathaniel Osborne

I do recall a scene where the young Jewish girl is talking to the German soldiers.

B. A. Parker

Nathanial Osborne was a senior when he went on the field trip. Now he teaches special education. The Jewish woman in the scene he's talking about was the foreman on a construction project.

Nathaniel Osborne

They were building a concentration camp. And the way they were building it was incorrect. She said it was going to cave in.

Diana Reiter

Herr Kommandant, the entire foundation has to be torn down and re-poured. If not--

Nathaniel Osborne

So she was expressing that to them. The general or the guy in charge there--

B. A. Parker

That would be Ralph Fiennes in the film.

Nathaniel Osborne

You know, looked at her.

Amon Goeth

And you are an engineer?

Nathaniel Osborne

Looked at his constituents.

Amon Goeth

Unterscharfuehrer!

Albert Hujar

Ja wohl?

Nathaniel Osborne

And--

Amon Goeth

Shoot her.

Nathaniel Osborne

--then he told them to shoot her.

Tanzania Enskip

And I remember I heard somebody says, oh my God, he's not going to shoot her.

B. A. Parker

This is Tanzania.

Tanzania Enskip

Then one of the kids said that out loud. And I was thinking the same thing in my head. I said, he's not going to shoot this woman. She's just trying to try to let them know that they're doing something incorrectly.

Diana Reiter

I'm only trying to do my job.

Amon Goeth

Ja. I'm doing mine.

Albert Hujar

Sir, she's foreman of construction.

Amon Goeth

We're not going to have arguments with these people.

Nathaniel Osborne

And the guy simply pulled out his gun and shot her.

[GUNSHOT]

Tanzania Enskip

That's when I remember a lot of students were like, oh! Oh, my God! Oh! He shot her! Whoa!

B. A. Parker

Tracy Wilson.

Tracy Wilson

Back then, what did we say? Dang! You know? Or, man, that was crazy. Or--

B. A. Parker

What one of the Castlemont kids-- we don't know who-- actually said-- the five words that would come to define this incident-- "Oh, man. That was cold."

Tracy Wilson

But he probably said it as, Aw, man. That was cold.

Tanzania Enskip

He said it really loud, I believe. He was like, Aw, man. That was cold.

B. A. Parker

And just quickly, there was something else about the scene-- the way the actress fell after she was shot. She bounces abruptly, up and down again, into the snow. It looks unnatural.

Tracy Wilson

Her body was very involved. Like, OK, that's a bit much. As we would say nowadays, extra.

Nathaniel Osborne

And that's when I recall the giggle, shall I say.

B. A. Parker

Some kids in the theater laughing while blood poured out of the woman's head.

Tracy Wilson

It wasn't at the fact that she got shot. It was her overdramatizing being shot.

B. A. Parker

And so then what happened?

Tracy Wilson

You would see some people get up that were not students and head out the theater.

Allen Michaan

I was in my office upstairs, and I decided to go downstairs and get a cup of coffee.

B. A. Parker

This is Allen Michaan, the owner of the Grand Lake Theatre.

Allen Michaan

I went down into the lobby, and there were several dozen very angry, agitated people that were screaming at the manager-- what are you going to do about this? This is outrageous. You've got to do something about this. Angry. They were furious. And there was one woman that was in tears.

B. A. Parker

Allen asked the manager what was going on. The manager told him. There were 500 people in the theater that day watching one of the most upsetting films of the 20th century, and some of them-- the teenagers-- were laughing and carrying on. And these people in the lobby, some of them told Allen they were family of Holocaust survivors.

Allen Michaan

And I only thought of one thing, and that is, I have a riot situation on my hands. So I went into the projection room and I told projectionist, I said, stop the film.

Nathaniel Osborne

I remember the lights coming on.

Allen Michaan

And I went out into the auditorium.

Nathaniel Osborne

A guy walking up on the stage.

Allen Michaan

And I said, would the class field trip from Castlemont School please assemble in the lobby?

Tracy Wilson

And we were officially kicked out.

B. A. Parker

Again, this is Tracy.

Tracy Wilson

I think there might have been applause. That was so uncomfortable.

B. A. Parker

Allen, the theater owner, didn't know when he stopped the movie that the Castlemont students were kids of color, mostly black. But Tanzania told me and my producer, Sean Cole, that, as the students walked out of the theater, the audience definitely knew it.

Tanzania Enskip

People were clapping. They were applauding. I remember I walked past one gentleman. He told me to go back to Africa.

B. A. Parker

[GASPS]

Sean Cole

What?

Tanzania Enskip

Yeah. I said, whoa. I said, wait a minute. I didn't do anything. That's all I could say. I remember I said, I didn't even do anything. But yeah, it was a gentleman. Becaust I remember I was walking back up, and he was on my left. I felt embarrassed.

B. A. Parker

I get that. I was also a black teenager who went to the movies with her friends, and there was always a feeling of being policed or policing yourself if you're young, brown, and carefree in a white space. That can harden you really quick. Tracy again.

Tracy Wilson

At that point, I was, for lack of a better term, pissed off. You're clapping? We're kids, and you're adults. But now that I'm an adult, I could see why people were clapping. We were offensive in some of our actions. And with the movie being what it was, it makes sense to me now, most definitely. 15? No.

B. A. Parker

Again, Tanzania.

Tanzania Enskip

It's starting to come back to me now, everything. And when we were outside in front of the theater waiting on the bus to come back and pick us up, they told us we couldn't wait in front of the theater. And I felt embarrassed by that. I felt bad about it because I said, wow, we're not even good enough to just wait here?

B. A. Parker

They didn't go skating. Two days after that, Tanzania remembers she was walking to school.

Tanzania Enskip

I'm about to get ready to go to class. Let me grab a juice. And I stopped by a store that was close by the school, and I looked down at the newspapers. And it was saying, Castlemont High School students get kicked out the theater.

B. A. Parker

They were in the newspaper on the front page at the very top.

Tanzania Enskip

And I said, wait a minute. We're bigger than the earthquake?

B. A. Parker

There'd been a huge earthquake in California the day before-- 6.7 magnitude. 57 people died. That was on the front page too, below the story about Castlemont.

Tanzania Enskip

All we did was get kicked out of the theater. I was like, how are we bigger than the earthquake? That should be headline news.

B. A. Parker

The article read, "To the horror of many in the audience during Monday's matinee, some of the African-American and Latino teenagers seemed to laugh and applaud at scenes depicting Nazi atrocities." It went on, "People attending the film were shocked and angry by what they felt was insensitivity to the Holocaust." Other news organizations picked up the story as a theater-going version of a hate crime, that dozens of black and Latino kids in Oakland were cheering on the murder of Jewish people.

Talk Show Host

Hello, caller. You're on the air.

Female Theater Patron

Hi. I was in the audience with my 13-year-old son and two other friends.

B. A. Parker

This is from a local call-in show, Flashpoints, that was featured in a documentary called Blacks and Jews from the mid-90s.

Female Theater Patron

And I was going like, who spends money to see a film on the Holocaust just to disrupt it? And I thought, are these Nazi sympathizers? I couldn't understand who these people were.

B. A. Parker

From this point, what actually happened in that theater and the motivations of the kids who were there became less important than how other people chose to see them. They weren't kids who goofed off on a field trip. They were African-American and Latino teenagers applauding at Nazi atrocities. They were anti-Semites.

Tanzania Enskip

I was just like, wait a minute. That's not me.

B. A. Parker

Tanzania didn't even know back then what anti-Semitic meant.

Tanzania Enskip

If you would have asked me when I was 15, I would've told you no. I would have been like, what is that? What is that word? What does that mean? But after hearing it, though, you look it up in a dictionary, and you figure out what it is.

Sean Cole

Yeah. That's a hell of a way to learn it.

Tanzania Enskip

Yeah.

B. A. Parker

Jewish people just weren't on their radar-- to hate, to love, anything. Nathaniel didn't even know if he'd ever met someone who was Jewish.

Nathaniel Osborne

No. And if I did, I didn't know they were Jewish.

B. A. Parker

Did you know that some of your white teachers happened to be Jewish or anything?

Nathaniel Osborne

No. I want to say Mr. Finkelstein. That's what I want to say had some Jewish ties.

Sean Cole

That sounds about right.

Nathaniel Osborne

But, no.

B. A. Parker

There was another thing the students didn't know about-- the Holocaust. They got an hour-long lesson on the basics before the field trip, but that was it. Some of them had learned a little bit about it in middle school a few years earlier. Others had never learned the first thing about it. One boy reportedly thought the Holocaust meant the US bombing of Hiroshima in 1945.

Within Castlemont, what happened on the field trip just became known as "the incident." And everybody was talking about it-- in class, outside of class. It was clear the administration had to respond publicly. And the way they chose to respond was to say that these kids, who'd grown up in the rough, open flatlands, had seen so much violence-- seen people shot, had guns pulled on them-- that they were desensitized to it.

One Jewish Castlemont teacher told The LA Times, "They're not Afro-American kids laughing at Jewish horror, they're the inner-city hip-hop generation desensitized to violence because they see it every day." The staff wasn't alone in pushing this theory. It was a dominant explanation in the media. The whole story was told as a morality tale about black teens and what was wrong with them. But Tanzania basically said that doesn't make any sense.

Tanzania Enskip

I mean, yeah. Yeah, they've seen a lot of violence, but when you see it, it's not a laughing matter. We're not numb to it. You know, we have empathy. We have all that.

It's just when you're seeing it and you're looking at it, it's like, how do you cope with it? And I remember watching the movie. And it's like, my emotions, I was like, how do I handle that? And like you said, the one student was like, oh wow, that was cold.

B. A. Parker

It was cold. Murdering someone for no reason is cold. That was an appropriate reaction. In fact, one of the school administrators said she was happy the students reacted that way because she knew it had affected them.

After the newspaper articles, a barrage of angry phone calls flooded into Castlemont High School, many of them from the local Jewish community. People were disappointed in the students and the faculty. The high school administration decided it needed to nip this controversy in the bud. Or they decided the kids needed to nip this controversy in the bud. So that same week as the field trip, by the end of the week, they organized a press conference, and the students were strongly encouraged to speak.

Kandi Stewart

Hi, I'm the student body president at Castlemont High, Kandi Stewart, and I would like to introduce our student speakers for today, which is Tracy Wilson--

B. A. Parker

Four of the students from the field trip, who were also members of the student council, sat at a table in front of news cameras. They were dressed professionally. Imagine a '90s era high school picture day. 17-year-old Nathaniel, who you heard earlier, was in a crisp white shirt and black necktie. Tracy Wilson wore a dark navy dress with puffy shoulders and brass buttons, looking like someone much older than she was.

Tracy Wilson

To the management and patrons at the Grand Lake Theatre and anyone else who was offended by our actions, we apologize for any discomfort and pain we may have caused you. We are sorry for the disruption. It was not our intention to offend anyone. We believe our teachers' hearts were in the right place. They wanted to teach us about the Holocaust.

B. A. Parker

Tracy and the other students took on all the blame. Never once during this press conference did the principal or any of the teachers make a statement.

Tracy Wilson

We will never have a chance to make another first impression, but we have to rise above this.

Oh, that caused such mess.

B. A. Parker

This is Tracy in the present day.

Tracy Wilson

This needed to be fixed. And if it takes an apology so we can get this to blow over, so be it. Let's get the kids to apologize. But that didn't seem to calm the storm.

B. A. Parker

For one thing, a lot more media picked up the story-- CNN, The Washington Post, The New York Times-- but the anger and reprimands just kept coming over the next few days and weeks. In a letter to The LA Times, a boardmember of the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue wrote, quote, "I feel angry that anyone old enough to understand the meaning of man's inhumanity to man could act as callous as these kids apparently acted." Another reader wrote, "There is no excuse for what those kids did-- not lack of education, not lack of being prepared, nothing." One of the four students who apologized on camera received death threats in the mail.

Anisa Rasheed taught English and African History at Castlemont at the time.

Anisa Rasheed

It seemed like it made it worse. And some entities felt that the kids didn't apologize for what they felt they should be apologizing for.

Sean Cole

What did they feel they should be apologizing for?

Anisa Rasheed

The kids were trying to apologize for their behavior, for the way that they behaved. But it felt like the greater powers that be, or the certain elements, they wanted the kids to apologize for their feeling and their thinking, that they should apologize and own being insensitive to the pain and suffering of Jewish people, and that they're sorry for that and they'll never do it again. And now that they've been reprimanded, they're going to try to be better people.

B. A. Parker

The kids didn't own being insensitive to the pain and suffering of the Jewish people. But to be fair, they hadn't witnessed the full spectrum of the pain and suffering of the Jewish people yet. There were still two more hours and 20 minutes of the film that they never got through-- the film that they hadn't been properly prepared for and that they hadn't been taught.

From their perspective, here's what happened. They misbehaved on a field trip, and they said they were sorry. And now they were getting death threats for not being sorry in the right way. Now they were fed up and defensive. They were tired of talking about how ignorant they were. They wanted to talk about something else. There had been a lot of discussion about what happened a while ago to a persecuted minority who wasn't them. And so when some Jewish people offered to come to Castlemont to teach them about the Holocaust, they weren't in the mood for moral lectures on someone else's history.

Student 1

I don't want to hear anything-- no disrespect, but I don't want to hear anything about anybody else's Holocaust before I hear my own.

B. A. Parker

This recording is from the Blacks and Jews documentary, which has a long section on Castlemont.

Student 1

You cannot sit here and fill me with your knowledge until I have my own.

Student 2

As black people, Latinos, and other races, Indians, they don't understand their own Holocaust. We don't understand our own Holocaust, because I'm black and Indian. She's Latino. She's Jamaican-Indian. First, we need to learn about our own Holocaust, and then maybe we can understand your Holocaust.

B. A. Parker

What about the Trail of Tears, or slavery, or colonialism? They wanted to learn about that. Anisa Rasheed felt the same way as her students. She's the English and History teacher, and she organized a day-long black history teach-in, or African Holocaust Day. There were musicians and African dancers, lectures on ancient Egypt and Jim Crow. One guest teacher explained that racism has 54 components to it. Another, wearing a regal brown and gold dashiki, a kufi, with a leather-bound neck pouch, walked up and down the front of a classroom, commanding students' attention, pointing to placards listing the names of people who had been lynched in the South.

Teacher

Lynched-- ropes tied around their necks and hung from trees for 100 years-- hung from trees, all these names, black people. This is the Maafa.

B. A. Parker

Maafa is another word for the African Holocaust. There were dozens of presentations about a variety of topics. But in the movie Blacks and Jews, one of the students talked about one particular aspect of the history of slavery that stuck with her.

Former Student

Well, I was in one of those classes, and what they were talking about was basically how slave ships were owned by Jews. And he showed us documents from where he had gotten out of Washington DC that stated that. And to me, that laid an impression upon me.

B. A. Parker

I think it's safe to assume this particular fact stood out to this girl because Jews were suddenly a trending topic at her school.

Laura Abrams was the school social worker at Castlemont at the time. A lot of kids really liked her. She was 25 years old then. And for the first time, her Jewishness was a topic of interest.

Laura Abrams

This was all students wanted to talk about and asked me a lot of questions about. All of the sudden, it was like, oh, are you Jewish? And well, were you raised racist? And, did your family own slaves?

B. A. Parker

Some kids told Laura they heard Jews were the most racist group. It was hurtful. So though there wasn't any anti-Semitism among the students before the field trip, it seemed like a kind of anti-Semitism was growing at Castlemont High School.

Tracy Wilson

I don't-- I don't want to say that.

B. A. Parker

Again, Tracy.

Tracy Wilson

What I will say is, I remember just kids just being frustrated, and saying things, and not really having a clear understanding of what they're saying.

B. A. Parker

She's talking about anti-Semitic slurs.

Tracy Wilson

You know? Just saying it out of anger because they've heard somebody say it or read it somewhere. But it wasn't like-- you have to understand that a lot of the kids didn't really differentiate Jewish people from all white people, so they weren't necessarily saying, oh, all Jews are blah. No, they were just saying white people. You know, white people this, or blah. And there wasn't any real correction. And I felt like it was allowed. And instead of it being used as a time of enlightenment, it just breeded more ignorance.

B. A. Parker

A few months went by, and then some surprising news arrived at Castlemont. Stephen Spielberg was coming for a visit. He and the governor of California at the time, Pete Wilson, had been working on a way to incorporate Schindler's List in a larger curriculum for high schoolers about the Holocaust and slavery. There'd be free screenings of the film and a study guide. These plans were already in the works before the field trip happened, but where better to make the announcement than Castlemont High School?

So at first glance, this simply looked like another opportunity for Castlemont High School to put this whole thing to rest, or at least to put a positive spin on it. But as with every other turn in this Castlemont Schindler's saga, all it did was enrage pretty much everyone. Days beforehand, a bunch of workers came to campus to carry out this whole beautification campaign. Almost everybody we talked to made a point of mentioning it.

Woman

Prettying up the place, and cutting the hedges, and painting stuff.

Man

Buildings got painted. Landscaping got done.

Tracy Wilson

And then, of course, the trimming of the hedges and the painting, which I found to be very funny.

B. A. Parker

Again, Tracy.

Tracy Wilson

It just felt like this big cover-up.

B. A. Parker

What do you mean by that?

Tracy Wilson

I mean, to be quite honest, you have the governor there, Mr. Pete Wilson, who was also "Mr Budget-Cut Governor." It would have been great for him to see what his cuts were doing to this urban community, but that's just my thought.

B. A. Parker

It wasn't just her thought. The county in which Oakland sits voted overwhelmingly against Pete Wilson in the 1990 election. It was like 70/30 split. Castlemont kids were black, Pacific Islander, and Latino. Governor Wilson championed one of the harshest anti-immigration laws in California's history, Proposition 187. Many Castlemont kids were low income. Wilson said that welfare, quote, "seduces teenage girls into a life of poverty and encourages irresponsibility." He was also up for re-election.

Cicely Day was a senior at Castlemont back in '94. On the day of the assembly, she roamed the halls, hoping for a Spielberg sighting.

Cicely Day

And I would run into-- like, all of these government people that worked for education was there. And I would just be like, hi, how are you? And they're like, oh, we're great. I'm like, wow, it's so amazing that you're here today. Are you coming back? Oh, we're just here for the day. Oh, you're not going to come back? Because you sure figured out how to come today. You're not going to come back? Because we need new books, and our lockers are broke, and the bleachers have holes. Can you come back and make sure that gets done? And they would just look at me like, oh no, she didn't. I'm like, oh, yes, I did.

B. A. Parker

Oh, my.

Cicely Day

Yes, I did. And if I ran into anybody else who I knew had some influence, I was going to say the same thing.

B. A. Parker

The event itself was a total circus from the beginning. Not only were there all these government officials hanging around, and security, and the national press, but hundreds of protesters marched up and down the street outside the school, many of them from the Nation of Islam.

Protesters

Give the truth to the youth. Give the truth to the youth. Give the truth to the youth. Let's talk about the Black Holocaust. Let's talk about the Black Holocaust.

B. A. Parker

One of the protesters was a little more specific.

Protester

A Zionist Jew-- Steven Spielberg is a Zionist Jew.

B. A. Parker

They waved signs around that spanned from the pointed "How can a Zionist Jew teach us about racism and oppression?" to the extremely pointed "Zionist Jews are the new Nazis." Remember, this all began with a field trip to teach kids tolerance.

Aaron Grumet was a geometry teacher at Castlemont and had been one of the teachers on the original field trip.

Aaron Grumet

By the time I'd gotten over to the auditorium, it was overflowing. And a lot of the students couldn't even get in because the auditorium was full. And what I remember was that all the politicians and dignitaries were there and got their seats in the front. And a lot of the students and faculty never got in. And I remember thinking, wow, this is just nuts, you know?

Announcer

Mr. Steven Spielberg and the Governor of the State of California. Let's go-- stand up, ladies and gentlemen. The governor of the state of California is in the building.

B. A. Parker

It was a program befitting of a head of state and a Hollywood icon. There were performances from the students, including a monologue that started off, "Dear Mr. President, I am a woman with three children and no food to eat." Governor Wilson gave a pretty formal recitation about his Holocaust education initiative. And then, fully aware of his place on the food chain, he handed the mic over to the man of the hour.

Pete Wilson

Ladies and gentlemen, the students of Castlemont High School, it gives me great pleasure to introduce to you a man who is helping and who has accomplished great things for film, for education, and for tolerance-- Mr. Steven Spielberg.

[APPLAUSE]

Steven Spielberg

Instead of sitting up here on the stage like a performer, I'd like to be right down there in the center, among all of you.

[APPLAUSE]

I'd also like to acknowledge the fact that I believe that Castlemont High School has received a very bad rap for what happened that day on Martin Luther King Day.

[APPLAUSE]

And I also think it's very important that that incident that happened-- and by the way, I was thrown out of Ben-Hur when I was a kid for talking, so you know, I kind of know what that was like, I think. I think we have to put this under the heading of the privileges of youth. And I absolutely, when I heard about this incident--

Tracy Wilson

He was just so cool.

B. A. Parker

Again, this is Tracy.

Tracy Wilson

He said that he understood what happened, and that he didn't blame us, and that we were just kids, and that we weren't anti-Semitic, and that the situation just in and of itself was just really, really bad.

B. A. Parker

How did it feel to hear that from an adult?

Tracy Wilson

I mean, it felt great. And the fact that it was him, it was even better, you know? And for him to acknowledge what happened but not place that type of blame on us was great. It gave us-- it gave me relief. I was like, wow. I will see all his movies.

B. A. Parker

It was the first time she felt like someone-- an adult-- was publicly coming to their defense-- wasn't labeling them, didn't accuse them, or condescend towards them, or try to save them. The students of Castlemont had been thrust into a dizzying adult world of bigotry and bylines. And Spielberg did something no one else in the auditorium thought to do, something that students, counter-intuitively, had been yearning for the whole time-- you talk to them like they were kids.

And then it was over. Finally, the kids and the teachers could get back to their studies, final exams, preparing for graduation. Or so they thought.

One afternoon two weeks later, Steven Spielberg came back. This time, it was unannounced-- no media. The kids from the field trip and the chaperones gathered in the school library. Tanzania was there.

Tanzania Enskip

And I remember somebody-- I think one of the teachers was recording it. And he asked him to put the camera away. Yeah. And the teacher respectfully put it away.

B. A. Parker

When Spielberg tells you to do something, you do it.

Tanzania Enskip

You do it. Right.

B. A. Parker

Aaron Grumet, the math teacher, says it was all very hush-hush. Spielberg said he wanted it to be just them-- no hard feelings, no agenda.

Aaron Grumet

And he opened things up to the floor. And I remember he started talking, asking them questions. And one of them asked why the Jewish people didn't just pretend that they were German so as not to be killed.

Sean Cole

That's a good question.

Aaron Grumet

It's a very good question. And if you're a person of different color, it's very difficult for you to pretend you're another culture. You can't pretend you're German. You can't pretend you're white. So it was a very, very poignant question on these 14-year-old kids.

B. A. Parker

One of the kids asked Spielberg, have you ever made a movie about the Black Holocaust, about slavery? He said no. The kid inquired, well, why not? And Spielberg said, well, maybe I will. Three years later, he released Amistad, about a slave ship. In an email, Steven Spielberg confirmed that one of the reasons he decided to make that film was that student's question.

The program to teach Schindler's List to high school students spread across the country. Two years after the Castlemont kids got kicked out of the movie theater, over two million public high school students had seen Schindler's List, and many more since then, including me. I saw Schindler's List twice in school by my 15th birthday. We also read Night by Elie Wiesel and The Diary of Anne Frank and were taken to the Holocaust Museum in DC. They never showed us Amistad in public school in Baltimore.

The Castlemont kids were the test case for all of this. They eventually did learn something about this one event in Jewish history. They learned other things, too. They learned how white people read them and their behavior and how quickly they get labeled. It's something lots of kids of color learn in lots of ways, but these kids learned it all of a sudden in a really public way.

They also learned how to steel yourself against all of that. One of the Castlemont kids, who got a death threat in the mail, later hung it on her dorm room wall for motivation. They learned they could push back. You can see that happening in one of my favorite moments from that assembly with the governor and Spielberg. Just a handful of kids were allowed to ask questions, and the questions were vetted and approved by the adults. And then the senior class president, Kandi Stewart, went off script. Here's what she said to the governor of California.

Kandie Stewart

This is to Governor Wilson. I see your visit to Oakland, a city plagued with poverty, from different views. I see it as a failing governor's publicity stunt that enables him to portray--

[APPLAUSE]

wait a minute-- that enables him to portray himself as a caring politician, embracing the poor, and smothering them with empty promises, coincidentally close to election time. But I also see-- wait a minute-- but I also see the entire political fiasco as an opportunity to vent the anger, and the spite, and the animosity I feel toward your entire time in office. I mean, I want to know was your main purpose in portraying yourself through the streets of my city where you have cut welfare, education, and many young futures, like mine--

[APPLAUSE]

B. A. Parker

Kandi got in trouble for this-- was reprimanded by the principal, vilified in letters to the editor, just like the kids had been before. But this time, it was for something she really cared about. Governor Wilson and his policies seemed like a direct threat to things that really mattered to her.

Pete Wilson

Well, I won't count on your vote. Let me just say that--

B. A. Parker

Publicly, throughout the entire Schindler's debacle, it seemed like these stackable burdens were resting squarely on the shoulders of the students. The teachers seemed to come to an agreement that it was the kids' incident, and therefore, the kids were the ones that needed to step out in front of it. And Kandi Stewart seemed to be saying, I'll step in front of it. I'll step right in front of it.

Ira Glass

B.A. Parker in New York City. Coming up, a memorial you didn't want to visit dedicated to an event you wish never happened-- what you can learn from that. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two: Exit Through The Gift Shop

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program is about what happens when you come across some historical facts presented by people who want you to learn those facts, either from a marker on the side of the road, or maybe a film, or in the case of this next act, a museum. Sometimes, what you get from that experience is very different from what is intended, which brings us to Act Two of our program. Act Two, Exit Through the Gift Shop.

Steve Kandell was an editor at Buzzfeed back in 2014 when the 9/11 Memorial Museum opened in New York City. His sister, Shari, had died in the Twin Towers. And he wrote this for Buzzfeed back when the museum opened.

Quick warning if you're listening with little kids. This piece goes into some detail about 9/11. Also, here in the podcast, there are a couple curse words we have an un-beeped. If you prefer a beeped version of our show, you can find that on our website. Here's Steve Kandell.

Steve Kandell

In the chaotic last months of 2001, my father wrote letters to newspapers asking simply that the press stop calling his daughter a hero. The heroes ran into the buildings. She was just a person who happened to have gotten to work a little early on a Tuesday morning. And that was horrible and heartbreaking and difficult enough without the extra weight. On September 21, the day that would have been my sister's 28th birthday, my father gave a eulogy to this effect at her memorial.

In the days and years after, this was less of a mantra than our only way forward, to find a way to separate what happened from what happened to us. We declined participation in most of the ceremonies and pageantry in favor of figuring out for ourselves our family's new geometry, just like any family that has suffered a loss. Other families feel the opposite. The world's attention validated the size of their grief. We understood this and respected it. And we just chose another, quieter way-- at least until my father got sick and couldn't stop blurting it out over and over to strangers in parking lots.

Which is why the corner of Greenwich and Liberty on this bright Sunday afternoon, surrounded by a riot of mid-spring tourists with winkled maps and exposed knees, taking photos of cranes, is the very last place I should be. I am allowed to enter the 9/11 museum a few days before the grand opening for the general public, but why would I want that? Why would I accept an invitation to a $700 million refutation of everything we tried to practice, a gleaming monument to what happened, not what happened to us?

But something snapped while reading about the gift shop. I didn't want to duck and hide, I wanted to run straight into the absurdity and horror and feel every bit of the righteous indignation and come out the other side raw. I call my mother to tell her I'm doing this, but that she shouldn't come. And she doesn't disagree. I find the ticket booth, exhale deeply, and say the magic words.

After the TSA-style security check, complete with body scan, there's a dark corridor with word clouds and photographs projected onto tower-like pillars, while disembodied voices tell snippets of stories about the morning-- an overture warning us about the symphony ahead. We were eased into it in a sense, lowered into the maw down a ramp along the original foundation of the towers-- girders and rubble and broken staircases among the ruins, an impossibly mangled hook-and-ladder truck, showroom parked.

The crowded memorial hall is lined with photos of everyone who died and touchscreen consoles that call up their obituaries. I find my sister as she has been for 12 and 1/2 years and will be forever-- enshrined alphabetically before Howard Lee Kane. The names are read aloud on a loop in the adjacent darkened atrium lined with benches. My sister's profile has incorrect information in it that we'd never signed off on or even seen. And the annoyance is tempered by the realization that non-participation in the pageantry has its drawbacks. It also occurs to me that I am the only person here alone.

The main attraction is through a revolving door, a minute-by-minute recreation of the morning and its aftermath, from video of Matt Lauer's first distracted, furrowed brow at the end of an interview with some author on The Today Show, and on and on. This part is the haunted house. I wander to a tucked away corner to find a giant photo of people leaping from the burning building, and I yell, "Fuck!" like someone jumped out and grabbed me. No one bats an eye.

There's a multimedia presentation depicting how, precisely, the towers collapsed. A wing for Pennsylvania and the Pentagon, tape loops of survivors telling how they got out, smoke and fire and ash and twisted metal and the husk of an ambulance. Tattered flags, handwritten pleas for help, missing persons flyers, screams. Dusty, ownerless Topsiders encased in glass. A soot-coated bike rack, as it was found. Countless personal artifacts artfully destroyed. The president addressing the nation and vowing steely, determined revenge. Hallways dedicated to tracing the hijackers' timeline, al-Qaeda's rise, and a video wall with people like Hillary Clinton laying out the justification for the unending war on terror, tying grief cannily to political ideology in a way that might seem crass if I were able to process it all with a clear head.

There is no way out until the end. And it's all so numbing that maybe this is the whole point. The exhibition starts with one shining, unfathomably terrible morning and winds up as all of our lives, as banal and constant as laundry, bottomless. I can feel the sweat that went into making this not seem tacky, of wanting to show respect, but also wanting to show every last bit of carnage and visceral whomp to justify the $24 price of admission.

The fact that everyone else here today has VIP status grimly similar to mine is the lone saving grace. The prospect of experiencing this stroll down Waking Nightmare Lane with tuned-out schoolkids or spectacle-seekers would be too much. There are FDNY T-shirts and search-and-rescue sweatshirts. And no one quite makes eye contact with anyone else, and that's just fine.

I think now of every war memorial I ever yawned through on a class trip, how someone else's past horror was my vacant diversion. And maybe I learned something, but I didn't feel anything. Everyone should have a museum dedicated to the worst day of their life and be forced to attend it with a bunch of tourists from Denmark-- annotated divorce papers blown up and mounted, interactive exhibits detailing how your mom's last round of chemo didn't take, souvenir T-shirts emblazoned with your best friend's last words before the car crash. And you should have to see for yourself how little your pain matters to a family of five who just need to get some food before the kids melt down. Or maybe worse, watch that pain be co-opted by people who want, for whatever reason, to feel that connection so acutely.

There are three recording booths for people to tell their own stories of the day or remembrances of loved ones who were lost. A man exits one of the confessionals, sees me, shakes his head and says, "Amazing idea." I enter, sit down, and stare at the screen and say Shari's name and how I was 3,000 miles away that morning and didn't even know she was working there until I got the call at 6:00 AM, and that I wish I had seen her more in those last years and remembered more about her and had something better prepared to say, and that I wished my kids would have known her, and that she'd think it's pretty fucking weird that I'm here talking about her to an invisible camera in the bowels of a museum dedicated to the fact that she was killed by an airplane while sitting at her desk. And at some point, the timer is up.

There is one small room on the main floor of the museum that is not, in fact, operated by the museum itself and is not available even to many of the families. Tucked away off to the side, behind an unmarked door, it is overseen by the medical examiner's office. This is called the reflection room. To get past the door, one must register for an appointment. I have not done this, but I present a case number, which means the official from the medical examiner's office can indeed let me through. He tells me my family is welcome whenever the museum is open and leads me to a cramped, dark space but does not follow.

A box of tissues sits on a wooden bench, and a family huddle silently looking through a window. They leave almost instantly, and I can now see what is on the other side of the window-- aisles of dark-stained wood cabinets of rosewood or teak, maybe, floor to ceiling, lit by small, overhead spotlights. I let out a loud, sharp laugh. Inside these cabinets are the remains that, after nearly 13 years of the most rigorous testing known to man, have not been matched to the DNA of any of the victims. It's just drawers and drawers full of stuff.

This chamber is meant to be a sanctuary, but all there is to see here are armoires packed with carefully-label bags of flesh too ruined and desiccated even for science. My sister is among the many for whom there have been no remains recovered whatsoever-- vaporized. So there's no grave to visit. There never will be-- just this theatrically lit Ikea warehouse behind a pane of glass.

The presence of the tomb has been a point of contention among families who want more from a final resting place than the basement of this museum of unnatural history. I don't know how to feel about the matter because to do so would require any of this making even a bit of sense. It's dumb, sure, but what could possibly be less dumb? Where is the right place to store pounds of unidentifiable human tissue so that future generations can pay their respects?

By the time I finally reach the gift shop, the indignation I've been counting on just isn't there. I stare at the $39 hoodies, and the rescue vests for dogs, and the earrings, and the scarves, and the United We Stand wool blankets waiting for that rush, and can't muster so much as a sigh. The events of the day have already been exploited and sold in ways previously incomprehensible. Why get mad at a commemorative T-shirt now?

This tchotchke store, this building, this experience is nothing more than a logical endpoint for our most reliably commodifiable national tragedy. If you want to bring a coffee table book full of photos of cadaver dogs sniffing through smoking rubble back home to wherever you're from, hey, that's great. This is America. They hate our freedom to buy what we want.

And people will find moments of grace or enlightenment or even peace coming here. I don't need to be one of them. I'll probably bring my kids one day, once I realize I won't have the words to explain. It can be of use. It's fine. I don't know.

Ira Glass

Steve Kandell is a writer and editor in New York.

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Nadia Reiman and Chana Joffe-Walt. Our program was put together by Ben Calhoun, Zoe Chace, Sean Cole, Whitney Dangerfield, Michelle Harris, Seth Lind, Alvin Melathe, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Julie Whitaker, and Diane Wu. Our senior producer is Brian Reed. Our managing editor is Susan Burton. Mixing help today from Stowe Nelson Katherine Rae Mondo and Sharif Youssef.

Special thanks today to Keeli Shaw, Sundar Ramun, Kathryn Braund, Scotty Kirkland, Dr. Deidra Suwanee Dees, Guy Hubbs, Jason Edward Black, Christopher D. Haveman, Will Dahlberg, Tilia Wilton-Johnson , Otto Grimwood , Brandi Mack, Rose Thornwell, Jerry Wolfe, Mark Rader, Roy Arce, Jay Shilliday, Sam Greenspan, and Lauren Elliott at Amblin Partners.

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's cofounder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, I made him a martini. He always wants extra ice in the shaker. Always extra ice. I know he likes it when he says--

Tracy Wilson

Aww, man, that was cold.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.