I had not been speaking very long when I was invited to speak at a Teacher’s Institute in Springfield, Arkansas. For me this would be the first talk outside of the Chicago area. During the day there were breakouts where the teachers chose from five separate subjects. I had to wait till late afternoon when all the teachers would enter a large theatre and I would tell them my story. In the meantime, I wandered around the facility popping in to listen to the sessions that were in progress. It seemed forever till 5pm came. I had some anxiety when I looked around and saw 150 teachers seated. I had never spoken in such a large place to so many adults. I loved speaking to kids, but this was threatening to me. I stood in front of these teachers, some of whom drove long distances to be here, and I silently prayed to my Higher Power that He give me the courage and strength to deliver a good talk. I declined to speak from the stage. I thought that speaking from the stage was too formal, so I jumped off the stage and stood on the floor and looked right into the faces of my audience. I begun to speak slowly and hesitantly but looking at the faces in front of me I saw that the eyes of the teachers were focused on me and seeing this my voice became strong and firm. I spoke for an hour and when I finished the teachers stood up and applauded me. Looking around at the standing teachers, I felt a sense of deep gratitude to my Higher Power. I felt that what I had just done did not come from me. I understood that the standing ovation was not for me personally but for the millions that had died.
Afterwards, a teacher seemed frantic to talk to me. “Mr. Finkel” she said, “You have to come to Cabot and speak to my sixth graders.” I appreciated the invitation but I had no idea where Cabot was. My only knowledge of Arkansan was a movie I had seen ——–and that was not very complimentary. “What would it take to bring you to Cabot?” Mary Bryant asked. Seeing how eager Mary was I thought I would have a little fun with her, so I replied, “One first class airline ticket, a four star hotel, and a thousand dollar speaking fee.” Mary saw right through me, she sensed that I was a softy. “Well” Mary said, “How about staying on a dairy farm and eating my home cooked food?” “How can I refuse such an offer” I replied. So we made some tentative arrangement that were firmed up by email. When I got back to Chicago I was hoping that Mary would forget the whole thing, but I was wrong. Every week I received an email, and then she had the kids write to me telling me how excited they were to meet me. I felt pleased that I had committed myself to going.
As soon as I got off the plane in Little Rock I saw the smiling face of Mary and her daughter Ashley. Mary believed in powerful hugs and that is what I got. Her daughter also gave me a hug. It felt good to be in their company. The ride from the Airport was only a half hour. I got out of the car and walked with Mary into a crowd of 120 children while Ashley was taking videos. All the kids were very excited and immediately surrounded me. A little boy came forward and he made remarks of welcome and then he handed me a tee shirt that had the signature of all the students. The kids had raised eight hundred dollars by washing cars, walking for ten cents a mile and doing a baking sale. All the young people than preceded to individually hug me, one by one. They sang Hebrew songs and danced an Israeli dance; they had learned all this just to make me feel welcome. I saw a sign on the south side of the building proclaiming in large letters “The Future Home of The Sidney Finkel Survivor Garden.” What was happening here was far beyond anything that I could have imagined.. Mary could read my mind and she came over to me and said” Yes, Sidney it is true this is your garden forever. The kids and people from the community had worked for weeks getting it ready. She said “We have big plans for this garden”. They were going to put in a bench, and a stone with my name on it, and more plants. The town people donated all of the things in my garden. I was truly overwhelmed. I stood there experiencing feelings that I never had before. This was all joy and happiness, and for a moment it washed away all my humiliation at being persecuted for being a Jew. Here were Christian people that were welcoming me with open arms.
I entered the school and walked on red paper that lined the corridor, in honor of me. There were signs on the walls saying, “Welcome Sidney” The principal of the school and her office staff came out to greet me. The principal pointed to the paper links that were hanging everywhere. The principal explained that the boys and girls had worked for months linking 150,000 chains, which stood symbolically for the six million Jews that had perished in the Holocaust.
Mary had built these kids up so much that they considered me already a hero. I just hoped that I could meet the kids heightened expectation of me. These eighth graders were followed my words closely, sitting still for over an hour. I had reached them. My story was completely out of the realm of their experiences, but they could follow the adventures of Sevek. They could relate to being discriminated and picked upon themselves. Many of these kids, Mary told me, came from broken families. At the age of twelve some were doing drugs and were in trouble with the law. The kids crowded around me hugging me and writing their names on the back of my school tee shirt that I wore. I had to sign my name in their books and have my picture taken with them. At lunchtime Mary picked the most troubled kids to sit with me. They were happy to have been chosen.
That evening I gave another talk to the teachers and their families, also a lot of the important citizens of Cabot with the press were there. When the day ended I was tired but in a very good way. I felt fulfilled that I had given of myself. I have never before or since been made so welcome as in Cabot’s, AK.