Each school year, Sacred Heart Schools, Atherton (SHS) provides a robust lineup of guest speakers who serve to expand the minds and perspectives of our middle school students, helping nurture a diverse and inclusive environment among the student body. Guests on campus have included acclaimed authors, scientists, activists, actors, theater and music professionals, and more. Read on about two recent visitors who left a lasting impression on the importance of storytelling and sharing personal histories.
Award-winning author talks process
Standing before an assembly of students in grades 7-12, the guest speaker asked a leading question. “What would you consider the most impactful incident in your life so far?”
Giving a few quiet minutes for each to write down their thoughts, he then asked for volunteers to share. The answers ranged from the poignant to the personal to the profound, and each student seemed genuinely amazed at all their peers had undergone.
The guest speaker was New York Times bestselling author Matt de la Peña, writer of award-winning children’s books and young adult novels. Guiding the morning’s interactive discussion—and using the powerful example of essayist Brian Doyle’s 9/11 work, “Falling”—de la Peña spoke about his approach to personal narrative and memoir writing, and what inspires his discipline.
de la Peña shared his own journey from “mediocre student, reluctant reader” and first in his family to attend college thanks to a full basketball scholarship, to successful, published author in multiple genres. Throughout, he talked openly about his childhood struggles with self-identity as a mixed-race person from a working-class family, and how that “vantage point” has fueled the bulk of his written work.
His goal as a writer, he said, is to “give grace and dignity to people from the other side of the tracks.”
He also impressed that literacy and a love of reading—which he laments only developed in his college years—not only wound up changing his life, but his father’s as well. He recalled the longstanding difficult relationship the two had, which changed significantly after the sharing of a book.
“As I was on my way out of the house one time, he stopped me and asked to borrow the novel I had with me, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. Next time I saw him I asked if he’d read it. He had, but wouldn’t tell me anything more than he ‘liked it.’”
His father asked for another, and another, and eventually, he read every single book that de la Peña gave to him. Sometime after that, he secretly enrolled in community college, then later in the University of California at Santa Cruz for a degree in literature. Today, he’s an elementary schoolteacher and still an avid reader.
“Reading changed his life, de la Pena shared with obvious pride. “Just like it changed mine.”
Middle Schoolers learn from Holocaust survivor
Meeting and hearing from a living survivor of the Jewish Holocaust is a unique privilege—a realization now shared by the entire seventh and eighth grade classes at SHS, following a special talk given by Judith Rabbie.
Among the diminishing body of Holocaust survivors, Rabbie is a frequent speaker in schools on the history, and more importantly, the experience, of the Holocaust. Born to Jewish parents in Budapest, Hungary in 1941, Rabbie was only three years old when she became a “hidden child,” relinquished by her loving parents to a non-Jewish family that courageously offered to take her in and help protect the child from Nazi capture. As a result of their decision, her adopted family would confront a number of harrowing queries but eventually were left alone.
Rabbie’s mother, too, would survive the war, managing to live through a number of tenuous events and later reunite with the daughter she’d had to give up. Rabbie’s father was not so lucky, however. Captured and forced into a death march, he passed away on the road to Auschwitz.
The soft-spoken Rabbie held the students spellbound for the hour she spoke about her early memories, about life with her adopted family under the shadow of war, and what she later learned about her parents’ fates at the hands of the Nazis. Closing her remarks, she recounted a question asked of her by a seventh grader a few years ago. “Do you want revenge?” In all of her years speaking about the Holocaust, she had never once been asked this question.
She replied, “This is my revenge; living and telling my story.” It was a poignant message not lost on the SHS middle school audience.
“Our generation is the last to hear first-hand accounts of the Holocaust. It is our job to carry on these stories, so history doesn’t repeat itself,” said Julia Birdwell (SHP '23) after hearing Rabbie’s talk. Herself of Jewish faith, Birdwell recalled that she, too, has felt religious discrimination, at times “feeling unsafe wearing Hebrew letting on a shirt, or a Star of David necklace—even in the United States.”
“Tolerance and acceptance are something we need to teach all youth,” she said. “Not only to be accepting of Jews, but of all groups. It shouldn’t matter your religion, race, or gender.”
“But I think that really what Ms. Rabbie has taught us today is that if someone has wronged you, don’t wish for their suffering. Tell your story to ensure society’s darkest tendencies do not repeat. Forgive, but never forget.”