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Quantifying Inhumanity

LHS Students Consider Genocide

  • Lebanon High School juniors Sarah Lappin, center, and Wolf Tillotson explain how they used 8,000 pages of books to symbolize those killed in a day during the 100-day Rwandan genocide in 1994. It is part of their "Facing History and Ourselves" class at the school. Listening are, from right, Christine Downing, the school district's cirriculum director, Superintendent Gail Paludi and Principal Nan Parsons. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

    Lebanon High School juniors Sarah Lappin, center, and Wolf Tillotson explain how they used 8,000 pages of books to symbolize those killed in a day during the 100-day Rwandan genocide in 1994. It is part of their "Facing History and Ourselves" class at the school. Listening are, from right, Christine Downing, the school district's cirriculum director, Superintendent Gail Paludi and Principal Nan Parsons. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »

  • As senior Georgia Michalovic listens, Lebanon High School sophomore Kyle Grohbrugge, right, explains the project she and her classmates Grace Stott, center, and Maddi Walker (not pictured) did about the scale and speed of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 during a class presentation at the school library on Oct. 31, 2013. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

    As senior Georgia Michalovic listens, Lebanon High School sophomore Kyle Grohbrugge, right, explains the project she and her classmates Grace Stott, center, and Maddi Walker (not pictured) did about the scale and speed of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 during a class presentation at the school library on Oct. 31, 2013. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Lebanon High School juniors Sarah Lappin, center, and Wolf Tillotson explain how they used 8,000 pages of books to symbolize those killed in a day during the 100-day Rwandan genocide in 1994. It is part of their "Facing History and Ourselves" class at the school. Listening are, from right, Christine Downing, the school district's cirriculum director, Superintendent Gail Paludi and Principal Nan Parsons. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)
  • As senior Georgia Michalovic listens, Lebanon High School sophomore Kyle Grohbrugge, right, explains the project she and her classmates Grace Stott, center, and Maddi Walker (not pictured) did about the scale and speed of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 during a class presentation at the school library on Oct. 31, 2013. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

Lebanon — A stack of 15 books sat on the table in the Lebanon High School library Thursday morning, amounting to about 8,000 pages. Each one symbolizing a life lost during the course of a single day during the genocide in Rwanda nearly two decades ago.

Two students, juniors Sarah Lappin and Wolf Tillotson, devised the stack of books as a way to convey the scale of the carnage to other students. After the duo concluded a three-minute presentation, a group of classmates and teachers digested what they had heard in an uncomfortable silence before quietly congratulating the pair and moving on to the next presentation.

The tense silence, according to presenters, was proof they had effectively communicated a grim reality.

“People have lives, people have stories,” Tillotson said. “So we wanted to represent this in a manageable way. We wanted each person to have a page and a story.”

Tillotson and Lappin are enrolled in “Facing History and Ourselves,” an elective course that focuses on human behaviors and acts of genocide. Six student groups from the class presented their own take Thursday morning on the infamous Rwanda mass killing, which started in the spring of 1994 after a plane carrying the Central African nation’s president, a member of the Hutu majority, was shot down. In the days that followed, Hutu extremists targeted members of the ethnic Tutsi minority, and 800,000 people were killed in about 100 days.

The Lebanon High presentation focused on the “scale and speed” of the genocide.

Lappin said the importance of the class was learning about how genocides start, what choices lead up to them, and what the warning signs look like. Relating the lessons to what’s happening now in 2013, Lappin said she saw some parallels in the treatment of the Roma people by Europeans, which has made the news in recent weeks.

“It actually makes the world a little scarier,” Lappin said. “But I kind of find this comforting, because it makes me feel like if I know this stuff, maybe we can prevent it.”

In another corner of the library, the faces of 300 Lebanon High students — current and former — flashed across a screen on a loop in a slideshow presentation. Sophomore Elle Brine said it would take four days and 15 hours to watch the faces flash by 800,000 times. The group chose to use the faces of Lebanon students to personalize the tragedy.

“It could be us, it could be any of us,” Brine said. “It could be someone in our lives and it could possibly be us being killed senselessly, and everyone around us could be turning their backs and not doing anything about it.”

Brine said she has been struck by how far removed the rest of the world can be from genocide and how some of the more infamous cases could have been prevented with more vigorous international intervention.

“Genocides happen every day,” Brine said. “ ... People think it’s all taken care of when it’s really not. What really needs to happen is someone needs to step in and do something, people just never want it to be their problem.”

Michael Sisemore, who is in his second year teaching the course, said the curriculum attempts to bring to light an unanswerable question: “How do people like us wake up one day, quite literally, and start doing this to other people that otherwise they were neighbors with the other day?”

Though the material is sensitive and often graphic, Sisemore said the students have handled it well even as debates on the merits of conflict and intervention have heated up in class.

“We respect each other’s positions and we’ve learned how to express what it is about their position or opinion that we don’t agree with in a positive manner, as opposed to hacking people to death with machetes,” he said.

Eventually, he said, “the question that is going to be asked in this course toward the end is, ‘What can you do as a person, on your own level, to make something better or to help someone, or to step in and defend someone who can’t defend themselves?’

“If you look at the big picture, one person can’t stop an army,” said Sisemore. “But if you see someone getting bullied in the hallway, step in and say, ‘This needs to stop.’”

The challenge of translating a genocide on such a massive scale to a relatable metric has some students thinking about their environment in new ways.

A group of three sophomores did their presentation in two phases, using popsicle sticks on posterboard to illustrate the number of deaths but also using a map of the United States. The map contained a number for each state, representing how many days it would have taken to wipe out the entire population of that state at the rate of killing seen in the Rwandan Genocide (165 days for New Hampshire, and 75 for Vermont).

Maddi Walker said the idea was to forge a connection between Rwanda and the United States that everyone could relate to.

“Everyone has a connection to one of these places, and that really makes it personal and shows that it was people dying, not popsicle sticks,” she said.

Amy Tarallo, a New Jersey native and director of curriculum at the high school, honed in on the map and began a line of questioning about the Garden State.

“What about Jersey?” Tarallo asked. “Gotta do Jersey. Jersey, come on. Tell it to me straight.”

Tarallo was told it would take about three years to wipe out the population of her home state at the rate of killing in Rwanda. Tarallo sighed audibly, and began asking how the students came up with the idea.

Kyle Grohbrugge explained the reasoning of the group.

“People know New Hampshire and Maine and Vermont,” she said. “They don’t know Rwanda.”

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.