Some might say it’s an injustice that Vivian Connell’s disease will eventually take her grip, gait and voice, but she says it has become her opportunity to help give students a voice to speak out against injustice themselves.
Connell is an English as a Second Language teacher at Phoenix Academy High School, an alternative school in Chapel Hill that serves about 30 students with unique challenges. She was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease and ALS, on March 12.
This year, Connell co-taught a unit on the Holocaust as part of Phoenix Academy’s English curriculum. Ninety-one percent of Phoenix Academy’s students are racial minorities. Connell said most have experienced racism and inequity, which makes learning about the Holocaust relevant to their lives.
“It kind of reflects on what’s happening now — stereotypes now are the same,” said Mikayla Baldwin, who was in Connell’s Holocaust unit last fall. “Now, since we’ve learned about the Holocaust, we can help with the racism. We know what to do.”
Prior to her diagnosis, Connell heard the school was planning to take the students on a day trip to the Virginia Holocaust Museum in Richmond, Va.
But Connell longed for her students to go to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. She was a Belfer Teaching Fellow at the museum and trained in Holocaust studies there.
After Connell first disclosed her diagnosis to her close family and friends, she decided to go public and announce the news on Facebook. The outpouring of support was incredible.
So for Connell, her diagnosis became an opportunity. She had already been looking into ways to get grant money for the trip to the D.C. museum, but couldn’t see a way to secure funding by May.
“I thought, well, that seems a discreet project that people could contribute to and feel they were doing something really positive,” Connell said.
Connell set up a crowdfunding website and raised the necessary $15,000 for the D.C. trip. The trip is scheduled for May 29 and 30, and while Connell hopes to be able to walk through the museum alongside her students, she accepts that she might have to settle for a wheelchair.
“I think it’s a win-win,” Principal John Williams said. “People are just giving from their heart and making a contribution for something that they see is so relevant and precious, not just because of Vivian’s illness, but also because of the student’s needs, as well as what the Holocaust story represents.”
Connell said the museum’s temporary exhibit this spring about the dangers of silence will be an especially valuable experience for students because it will teach them the importance of engaging their voices.
“When they see something going on that’s not right or not just, they need to know how to speak up, not just for themselves, but for others.” Connell said. “Certainly the Holocaust shows us the perils of hiding our heads in the sand and ignoring injustice and inequity.”