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Connecting "The Heart of Nuba" to 6th Grade Literature
by Cassy Clarke, 6th Grade Teacher

Our 6th graders were transfixed by the sight of a rusted scrap of fuselage as it was struck with a wooden mallet by a headmaster, calling his pupils to learn. The soothing echo emitted from the jerry-rigged “school bell” was a welcome replacement to the terrifying sound of bombs exploding that had been blaring out of the MS theater speakers just moments earlier. Our guest presenter, Ken Carlson (parent to Ruby Rose ’23, Xander ’16, and Mackenzie ’14), pointed out to our students that the makeshift bell made from the remnants of a crashed fighter jet was an apt symbol of the resilience and courage of the Nuban people in Sudan who continually chose hope over despair despite enduring years of ongoing bombing by the internationally-condemned government of Omar Al-Bashir. 

Carlson’s presentation to the students highlighted the lifesaving work of Dr. Tom Catena, a friend of Carlson’s from his college football years, who has been attending to the myriad medical needs of the Sudanese people at the Mother of Mercy Hospital in the Nuban Mountains for over a decade. Carlson explained in riveting detail how the production of his documentary on Dr. Tom Catena, "The Heart of Nuba," entailed two harrowing trips to the conflict-ridden region and what it was like to personally experience life in a war zone. The Heart of Nuba portrays the challenges that Dr. Tom (as he is affectionately called) and the medical staff at Mother of Mercy Hospital choose to face in serving the thousands of people in the battle-scarred and besieged Nuban mountains. It also showcases the joy and resilience of the Nuban people whose story was hidden from world view due to Bashir’s ban on journalists in the region and his repressive totalitarian policies. 

We had invited Carlson to come speak to the 6th graders to supplement the students' understanding of The Red Pencil, a collection of free verse poems by Andrea Davis Pinkney that tells the story of a twelve-year-old Sudanese refugee. The Red Pencil focuses on the healing that self-expression and education awakens in the protagonist’s heart after her village is bombed and she loses a family member to a Bashir-backed militia attack. 

Our 6th graders were mesmerized when hearing that Carlson had experienced similar bombings to the ones described in The Red Pencil and that he had intentionally left the comfort of his Santa Monica home to travel to Sudan in order to put a lens on a story he felt had to be told. The students were encouraged to find out that after the "Heart of Nuba" was released in 2018, the attention it garnered and the negative focus it put on Bashir’s regime created such a media quandary for the dictator that a ceasefire was soon agreed upon which has thankfully endured for the past five years. 

Toward the end of the presentation, we watched a music video created by Ken’s wife, Katrina, of her song, “Bloom,” that featured the symbolic school bell and the smiling faces of many generations of Nuban people. This lyrical song resonated for many of our 6th graders, and they listened attentively to Katrina’s commentary on her video as well as an explanation of her newest project, the podcast series, "Crazy Amazing Humans," which features uplifting interviews with people whose stories act as catalysts for positive change. 

The previous week, the 6th graders had struggled while reading the painful passages in The Red Pencil that depicted the ravages of war in stark poetic terms. They had made connections about what they were reading in class with the war in Ukraine and shared their heavy hearted feelings related to the humanitarian crises brought about by mass violence. After hearing the Carlsons' share their stories of hope, courage, and kindness, our 6th graders realized that everyone, no matter their age, has a voice and that everyone’s voice has significant action potential. Leaving the MS Theater that afternoon, our 6th graders were beginning to understand that while the cacophony of war can seem to mute what is good about humanity, often all it takes is one brave voice to act as a clarion call so that others can hear and act with their hearts.

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