Paper Clips

“Sometimes symbols are the only way to strengthen our resolve.”

In rural Tennessee, Whitwell Middle School embarked on an amazing experiment. Paper Clips documents their goal to grasp the concept of 6 million Holocaust victims. To do so, the class determines to collect 6 million paper clips to symbolize each human life lost, and to comprehend the enormity of the tragedy.

Just how this undertaking unfolds logistically is at times humorous and at others wrenching to witness. The beauty of the message is in its childlike purity. It could be summed up as:

  1. treat others as you want to be
  2. love is the only way to do that
  3. remember those who were not treated as such

And like all rudimentary truths, there is something of deception in their forthrightness, profundity in their purity. If these three truths are so simple in theory, why has the human race so profoundly failed to live them in practice? How does a man like Hitler persuade a nation to folly?

There are no such answers in Paper Clips. The film only seeks simply to communicate the truth of spreading the good news of human dignity and tolerance. If that message succeeds in Tennessee, it might succeed in 49 other states, and there may one day be a world that knows not prejudice. Southerners won’t be called “dumb rednecks” and Northerners “damn yankees”. We’ll be called Americans.

The symbolism doesn’t just stop with the paper clip. The final resting place for the paper clips that the school decides on is itself an incredibly powerful allegory for redemption.

“You are no longer a vehicle of pain. From this day forward you are a vessel of new life.”

I’m adding Whitwell, Tennessee to my list of places to pilgrimage.

Join the Conversation


  1. I emailed you this but thought I’d include it here for your readers:

    Another excellent independent film/documentary about elementary school children is “Spellbound”. Its out on DVD and follows several young children in their quest to win the national spelling bee. Sounds very dull but this is a touching and funny movie. You really find yourselves pulling for all the kids and are sad as they get eliminated. I highly recommend this, you will not be disappointed.

  2. Thanks for the info about your great uncle. I have a great uncle on my Mom’s side (I believe I was named after him) who was a gunner. He was killed in action during some bombing run. Amazing times, those were.

  3. Yes, Spellbound is a great film, Carl! Extremely funny and suspenseful! I love documentaries that introduce me to people with wildly different personalities. It’s so fun to see how different we all can be!

  4. Sounds like a neat film. What impresses me the most about the idea is that there is a middle school in America that bothers to take the time to try to get kids to fathom the Holocaust.

    I’ve always felt that there is a danger in the passing of time of Americans forgetting what happened in WWII. I think ‘Saving Private Ryan’ went a long way towards reviving our consciousness of what happened during those times.

    I’ll have to check this out…is this at the theatre now or out on DVD?

  5. I am looking forward to seeing the film, Rob.

    I have a picture in my office of my great-uncle J.D.West who was a co-pilot who was killed in action in WWII. On a recent visit to my parent’s house, I looked through some letters J.D. had sent his sister (my grandmother) from Italy and was also able to read the account of his plane crash in the words of the chaplain assigned to the 454th Bombardment Group. It makes my heart hurt to think that there are few people alive who remember him; my dad being one of the few.

  6. Mary, are you still around? My granddad was killed in the same accident as your great uncle in WWII. I would like to talk with you.

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