QUINCY -- Had she been a German Jewish teenager during World War II, Rezza Cartmill admits she would have been terrified.
"I wouldn't know what to do," the Quincy Junior High School eighth-grader said.
Even going into hiding, like Anne Frank and her family, wouldn't have provided enough protection.
I would have given up and turned myself in," Rezza's classmate Kennady Koenig said.
Studying the drama "The Diary of Anne Frank" in Kim Heilwagen's English language arts class spurred conversations about discrimination, racism and hope in World War II that resonate today.
"This unit is so much more than just the Holocaust, so much more than just ‘The Diary of Anne Frank,' " Heilwagen said. "It's applicable to life, especially for these teenagers."
Classes just finished the first act of the play, a pivotal point, eighth-grader Jeremiah Talton said, where the eight people in hiding heard somebody downstairs and feared for their lives.
"There's a lot of conflict going on. We have a lot of different personalities in the drama, and we can relate that to real life," Heilwagen said. "They can understand and empathize with some of the characters because being with family is great, but being closed in, secret, a lot of people handle stress differently in reaction to tension."
QJHS eighth-grade English classes typically study the story of Anne Frank and separately study the Holocaust in history. Teachers merged the units for the first time this year creating "more of a focus and purpose" for students, history teacher Michel Lewton said, and their understanding of issues from the past and present.
"People are still discriminated upon in a way today as they were those years ago," eighth-grader Reid Savage said. "We characterize people in these groups. We judge them by that, but we don't know them personally enough to actually know. We just need not to do that, not stereotype every single person."
Even just one word can make a difference.
"It's what words can really do to people," Kennady said. "It might not seem like it's that bad. It might be a joke, but to the other person it probably does mean a lot to them. People have to realize what they are saying."
Before students could look at what Anne Frank was saying, they first had to better understand what was happening at the time.
"The best way to do that was to introduce them to the Holocaust," Heilwagen said.
Classes watched the documentary, "Paper Clips," about a Tennessee school's effort to learn more about the Holocaust by collecting paper clips to represent those who died. They "toured" the home where the Franks hid and read and wrote about Holocaust survivors and victims.
They learned about Terezin Concentration Camp, where 15,000 children under the age of 15 were sent between 1942 and 1944 -- and that fewer than 150 survived. In remembrance, the same number of hand-colored butterflies decorate two trees painted in QJHS stairwells.
"It gives us a better understanding of what happened," eighth-grader Adrian Blattner said.
And, perhaps most important, they talked honestly about often gut-wrenching issues from World War II and even today, raising questions about could the Holocaust happen again and how they could make a difference in the community and in the school, about racism, how they view themselves and others and bullying.
"It helped us really understand how blinded we are. We don't see things that other people do," Kennady said.
"We talked about not being a bystander," Heilwagen said. "It's hard to stand up. We talked about why kids don't stand up. There's just a lot of fear that comes with that, but we're trying to come together as a group looking out for each other instead of watching stuff unfold."
The work prepared students to study the Anne Frank drama and the movie -- and they'll continue to explore the same themes in an independent reading assignment.
"By setting the background really, really well and giving them a strong foundation of this history, I think they'll get a better takeaway in reading their novels," Heilwagen said.
"I'm not teaching the Holocaust. I'm teaching skills from it. Along the way they're getting so many lessons and applications for how to live every day," she said. "They're getting ready to go into a whole new world next year. I have the privilege of sending them off with the attitude of looking out for others, and we talk every day about this isn't just for now, for a unit. This is every day in your life."