Inside the Backpack: Nobel Prizes

Like many of you, I love Nobel Prize week. Each day we hear about amazing discoveries and explanations of our universe that in some way change how I look at the world. This year I was particularly struck by the research that earned the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, which highlighted that the human body has built-in mechanisms to fix the glitches that randomly develop in DNA!

But the crescendo for the week is always Friday’s announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize. Every year I think about what makes the Peace prize so intriguing, and I will confess that the longer I spend in middle schools the more I think that a universal part of the human experience is conflict and resolution. The dynamic between the two seems a natural result of our human need to belong. At some points in life, and middle school can be one of them, this sentiment leads us to believe that in order to belong, someone else must not belong. The irony of this understanding of inclusion is that it can only exist in the presence of exclusion.

This year, it struck me that this is why the Nobel Peace Prize endures: to counter a natural inclination to believe that conflict is eternal, that a human’s life, or world history itself, is somehow destined to be a series of experiences of either being “in” or “out” of the “right” side.

In truth, many of our students already know this is not the reality of the world they will inherit. They know, or they are coming to know, that communities can determine what entry into the society looks like based on their communal values instead of fixed traits inherited at birth. They know that empathy, and the understanding of others that it brings, can de-escalate conflicts. They know this in part from being a member of the Academy community, where inclusion and acceptance of difference are a point of pride.

They also know this from reading the words of Nobel Peace Prize recipients like Mulala Yousafzai and Elie Wiesel. Many students have read I Am Mulala in the past and all 8th graders are currently reading Night this year. I read Night many years ago, but like other classics, it echoes through experiences and conversations for years to come. This year, as I was thinking about how eternal conflict is, I walked into an 8th Grade English class that was discussing why Wiesel wrote the book. It reminded me of an interview I read in which Wiesel talked about having to be both a spokesperson for Jews around the world and a voice of growth and concern from within the community:

Mainly, my position in the Jewish community is really the position of a witness from within and a defender from without. This goes, of course, along with my ideas about the duties and the privileges of a storyteller — of a writer. From the inside, from within the community, I am critical. If Jews are criticized or attacked from the outside, then I try to defend them. What I try to do (it’s very hard) is to reconcile the two attitudes: not to be too strong, too sharp, too critical when I am inside and not to be a liar on the outside.

[Harry James Cargas, In Conversation with Elie Wiesel, p.34.]

His stance is a model one for all those who, like our students, can struggle with being a member of a group that they sometimes conflict with and how we can challenge friends to be better and still protect that friendship. I am still thinking about how to practice this in my life, and it is the essential role of the Nobel Peace Prize to remind me that I have to do it.

I just had to look inside a middle school backpack to see it.