Lakeland teacher wins award

Published 10:23 pm Saturday, May 2, 2009

For Paula Neri, teaching comes with responsibility.

The Lakeland English teacher said her classroom is not just for the exploration of books, but also for the exploration of true character.

“I don’t only teach about English, literature or grammar,” Neri said. “I want to teach them about how to be good, upstanding citizens in their community.”

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It is that passion to build good citizenship in her students that led Neri to get her students to participate in the 2008 Elie Wiesel Writing Competition. The overall theme of the competition was to explore what it means to be a bystander.

“We talked about speaking up for what is right,” Neri said. “I always tell my students every year that if you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything. We really talked about what it means to allow bad things to happen and not do what is right.”

To help teach the concept, Neri prepared a lesson on the Holocaust, highlighting what is possible when people do not take a stand.

“I want them to know exactly what it is they have — the actual freedom they have,” Neri said. “(I want) to bring the big picture to their eyes, instead of the little bubble they’re living in. It’s such a big world out there, you have to be aware of it.”

Neri said she was just doing her job as a teacher, but others disagreed. They said she went above and beyond what was asked of her.

On April 21, Neri was named the 2009 Esther Goldman Award winner for Excellence in the Teaching of Holocaust Education by the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater.

“I was just stunned,” Neri said. “It’s very humbling, and I felt very honored o be recognized in that aspect.”

Neri is now the fourth teacher from Lakeland High School to earn this award — English teachers Sue Ardelji and Debbie Macinnes won in 2007, and history teacher India Meissel won in 2004.

That is fitting, since Neri herself studied under all three women while she was a student at Lakeland just a few years ago. In fact, she said that a field trip she took to the Washington, D.C., Holocaust Museum with Meissell and Macinnes had opened her eyes to the Holocaust’s impact on today’s world.

“We all went up there when I was in school here,” Neri said. “Ever since then, I’ve been interested in the Holocaust and compelled by it.”

While Neri said the award and the commendation from the United Jewish Federation were honors, the biggest honor of the night was to share her evening with the Holocaust survivors and hear their stories, she said.

“It was one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had,” she said. “It’s one of things I’m going to tell my children and grandchildren about, and (the survivors’ stories) are the things I want my students to experience so they realize what they have here.”