We all live with the objective of being happy; our lives are all different and yet the same. -Anne Frank
When I was fifteen, I traveled to Amsterdam with a school group. I had been anticipating our visit to the Anne Frank House museum since I learned about the trip, having read her diary as a child and becoming somewhat obsessed with her story ever since. The thought of standing where she had stood, calling to mind scenes from her entries and imagining them unfolding, right there in front of me, was almost too great to conceptualize before it happened.
The museum begins on the ground floor of 263 Prinsengracht, where the offices of the company owned by Anne's father functioned. Today they are filled with artifacts: typewriters, letters, photos of the Frank family and those who joined them in the Annex. Suddenly, you turn a corner and before you is the bookcase that obscured the door to their hiding place. It stopped me in my tracks, seeing this passage I had read about so many years ago, immortalized in movies and plays and history books. There it was, just in front of me. I could touch it. I did touch it. And then I walk through it, feeling as if I was walking on sacred ground, and also ground I had tread before, though I never had, because it had been in my imagination so long. I identified a lot with Anne. Both young avid readers and writers, dreamers who often left others around us frustrated as our imaginations and hopes for the future swelled, pushing out the present. The profound, urgent feelings of first love. Carrying on as a relatively normal teenage girl in the midst of great challenge and uncertainty. While my challenges were nothing like hers, the juxtaposition of her very humanness and teenager-ness against great pain reminded me that I could do the same.
I thought of Anne this last month when I traveled to Belfast, Northern Ireland to present at a conference and visit youth-serving programs as part of The Journey fellowship. Our tour of the peace walls, monuments displaying gruesome photos of the dead after a bombing, and watching school children—in real time, in March of 2019, 20 years after the Good Friday agreement was signed—keep to their sides of the walls, and attend segregated schools. Our protestant tour guide who told us he has metal over his windows and multiple locks on his front door and sleeps with a gun after 4 assassination attempts against him; and our Catholic guide on the other side of the wall, who was in prison for 12 years and pointed to the wall mural memorializing the ten prisoners who died in the 1981 hunger strike and saying, “These are my friends.” Visiting R-CITY, a program serving youth on both sides of the walls, trying to bridge the gap through camps and self-development workshops and a coffeehouse, even as the barbed wire stands. Listening to Alternatives, a restorative justice program in the most economically depressed neighborhood along the wall, who also began suicide prevention work because it is such a problem there. In all of this, I thought of Anne. I thought of her when I saw the images of dead young people on the sides of buildings, and when I walked past gaggles of kids as they walked home from school. I thought of her in the youth centers we visited, meeting adults who had been given the chance to heal and process and change when they were kids.
Our delegation from the United States was made up of youth workers, and each time I travel with the fellowship, I am reminded of the power of our youth. Their vitality and high emotions and lack of filter is powerful—and can be harnessed for good or bad. The adults around them—us, their parents, teachers, social workers, neighbors—guide the direction of those gifts.
It was not a stretch, you may imagine, for a group of American social service folks to stand next to a wall dividing a city and think of our own nation's call to build a wall between us and our Mexican neighbors. To hear stories of Northern Irish children caught in the middle of the affairs of adults and think of innocent children in cages in our own country. To hear the fears surrounding Brexit and what it may do to the two decades of relative peace between the Catholics and Protestants, and remember the visceral feelings surrounding the 2016 US elections. And in both we hear the generalized caricatures of the masses, us and them, good and bad, and we bias our children and change their fate based on it all. We build walls, physical and metaphorical, for them to grow up in the shadow of, and navigate around for the rest of their lives. As a youth worker, I grieve the work we are leaving for them. But as a youth worker who has seen the power of youth, I also hold on to the hope that they will also be the people to eventually tear those walls down.
And finally I twist my heart round again, so that the bad is on the outside and the good is on the inside, and keep on trying to find a way of becoming what I would so like to be, and could be, if there weren't any other people living in the world. -Anne Frank