Published in LuxEsto Fall 2013
Kalamazoo College alumni magazine
He found a book. Someone had left it in the seat pocket of the plane. With time to pass, he opened the cover of Elie Wiesel's Night and started to read. It was the autobiography of a Jewish teen who had survived the Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald during the Holocaust.
Harbaugh was an English major, and he loved a good story. This one nearly overwhelmed him. With the years to come, he would learn the power and value of sharing stories. Sitting on the plane with book in hand that day, he would experience that power firsthand.
"When you hear a story," Harbaugh says, "you take in some of the DNA of the person telling the story, and it becomes a part of your own DNA."
Since that day on the plane, Harbaugh has committed his life to bearing witness to the most profound stories, then using them to teach others, most often his students at Gobles (Mich.) High School, where he has been a teacher and administrator since 1995.
"When the plane landed, I had finished reading Wiesel's Night," he says. "I left it on the seat for the next person to read; this isn't the kind of story you keep to yourself. I learned more about the value of a story during my K education, and I have been pursuing the answers to big questions in stories ever since. my faculty advisor, Gail Griffin, would have said this was my 'calling.'"
Two years later, Harbaugh was Master Teacher of the USC Shoah Foundation (http://sfi.usc.edu/education/), the Institute for Visual History and Education. Training included digging through an archive of 52,000 Holocaust survivor testimonies. He emerged with a curriculum he had created on IWitness, a digital Holocaust curriculum available to teachers everywhere.
And then—the journey to Auschwitz and to Jerusalem.
"That's what comes next," Harbaugh says. "After you hear the stories, you are compelled to action. What do we do next, after we bear witness?"
Prior to this immersion into Holocaust materials and testimony, Harbaugh had left his position as English teacher to become principal of Gobles Middle and High School. One day a colleague, on an occasion of again seeing Harbaugh rush around managing with never enough time to interact with students, asked him: "You know you're miserable, don't you?"
Harbaugh smiles ruefully at the memory. "As principal, I was working with data no one read," he says. "It was all stress and paperwork. My colleague’s comment confirmed what I already knew: I wanted to teach again."
And the trip to Poland and Israel (http://www.thememoriallibrary.org/videos/poland-israel-trip/) would mold him as a teacher and an educational leader. He attributes this, too, to his education at Kalamazoo College.
"I learned at K that education goes beyond what one learns in the classroom," he says. "K taught me to ask the hard questions. The questions of the Holocaust can't be answered—or understood—yet we must continue down this path of trying to understand."
He and 24 companion teachers from across the United States traveled to Poland and Jerusalem to explore the difficult questions embodied in the death camps. Harbaugh dealt with his arising emotions with poetry.
Here everything is sinister.
Everything touches death
And dark memory:
Carries the silent shadow
Of a scream. That brick wall
I saw it in a grainy picture once
Used to be black
In Tel Aviv, on the second leg of the group's journey, Harbaugh met Ron Huldai, the city’s mayor. "We had a 45-minute audience with him, and he invited us to ask him any question. When we asked him about Israel and Palestine, he said that all people want peace. Governments may be motivated by greed and a lust for power, but people everywhere just want peace."
The learning becomes about his students, Harbaugh says, not his own objectives. He becomes perhaps more of a tour guide than a teacher, allowing the students to learn by shaping their own stories. He invites questions, lots of questions.
"The community in Gobles is 96 percent white and 98 percent Christian," he says. Harbaugh brings his students into an experience far from their own, prompting them to peel away the layers of their beliefs and value systems, to work on their own identities, and to consider that Germany was a civilized, highly cultured nation in Hitler's time. Could the Holocaust happen anywhere? Here?
"Each one of us has to hold up a good, clear mirror. That's my job as a teacher: to help my students hold up a mirror. What do you want to see in your mirror?"
And then, Harbaugh invites them to tell their stories.
Social justice, Harbaugh says, belongs in every class, in every curriculum. That, too, he says, he learned at Kalamazoo College. No matter the topic, everything in life comes down to social justice--privilege or lack of it, breaking the cycle or letting it churn on in endless, repeated human tragedy.
"When the students graduate and they are ready to leave high school and go out into the world, I want them to think: how will I change the world?"
Harbaugh has hope. Walking through darkness, he believes, one can find light. "Because of people I've met in this work, I am three handshakes from Hitler. Far enough for critical distance, and the rigor of scholarship. Close enough for living memory. Yes, I believe we can change."
Harbaugh looks back for a moment on his own journey, and then he says: "I can't imagine the last 25 years of my life happening without K. None of this was by chance. I was recruited to K to play football. I played in high school, but I was ambivalent about it. On my second visit to K, still unsure, I wandered out from Hoben Hall onto the Quad, feeling lost. A couple K students approached me and talked to me. It was a meaningful conversation; they told me about K and answered my questions. It took. I decided Kalamazoo College was for me."
And the rest, as they say, is history. History worth understanding, exploring, and turning into a story that can be shared, and this time, just maybe, with a changed ending.
"Corey Harbaugh is the rare educator who teaches from the heart as well as the head. He brings a vision of a better world to his work. He is an articulate spokesperson for how Holocaust studies have the potential to awaken a sense of social justice in students, and he is tireless in his efforts to create curriculum, especially using digital and new media formats, that brings the lessons of the Holocaust into the 21st century. Having worked with hundreds of teachers across the country, I don't know anyone I admire more or feel more privileged to know than Corey Harbaugh."
Sondra Perl, Professor of English, Lehman College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and Director, Holocaust Educators Network
"Mr. Harbaugh's class at Gobles High opened my eyes. He brought Irving Ross, a Holocaust survivor, to speak to us. You can read about the Holocaust, but to hear the story from a survivor, I'll never forget it. It's important for kids to be engaged with the impact of the Holocaust on the world. It made me really think about social justice, and that kind of thinking is reinforced here at K.
"It was Mr. Harbaugh that told me about Kalamazoo College. He encouraged me to visit and learn more about K. I'm glad I made the decision to come here to continue my education."
Richard (Gray) Vreeland '15, Kalamazoo College student and graduate of Gobles High School
Story in Kalamazoo Gazette MLive about Corey Harbaugh, May 13, 2014: