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SALT LAKE CITY -- Students at the McGillis school learned about a difficult subject at school Thursday: The Holocaust. Fortunately, they had a guest speaker, a former teacher, whose students struggled with the same difficulty and found a creative way both understand and commemorate.
"I knew a little. And now I learned more about it," said 8th grader Sam Galvez.
The speaker, Linda Hooper, a former principal from rural Whitwell, Tennessee, recalls trying to find a compelling way to teach students about the horrors of intolerance back in 1998, but the kids in her eight-grade class had trouble understanding exactly how big the numbers that were talking about were.
"So the kids said 'Can we collect something? So we can see what 6 million looks like,'" said Hooper.
Students in Hooper's class decided to collect paper clips. Norwegians wore paper clips as symbols of solidarity and resistance to the Nazi occupation during WW II, after the occupiers had banned other, more well-known symbols.
The students started with only one, but it lead to many, many more. Word spread about the collection project, first online, and then with a story then in the Washington Post in 2001 by Dita Smith.
"Our children had managed to collect 150 paper clips. Within six weeks after (Smith's) article appeared, we had 24 million paper clips and counting."
"I thought it was amazing, just how they got the whole thing together," said student Isabel Harris. "They had everybody give letters and give paper clips."
As the Paper Clip Project gained momentum, the students heard from people all over the world, including survivors. An authentic rail car was donated, shipped from Germany - for free - becoming the site of a memorial at the school, where 11 million of the paper clips are stored. The whole story captured in an award winning documentary called, of course, "Paper Clips."
"It is a project that the world needed and we were just the vehicle for that," Hooper said. "People want to know that somebody cares."
"Something that you see every day, that you use, could come to symbolize the life of a person, and that is really extraordinary to me," said 7th grader Robin Young. "And I think it's so important."
It may have been a simple object, but it left a lasting impact on students and adults throughout the world.