It appeared to be a love fest for Steven Spielberg at Castlemont High School on Monday when the Oscar-winning director of “Schindler’s List” delivered a rousing message to students about the Holocaust and intolerance.
The reception was chillier for Gov. Pete Wilson, who came to help Spielberg launch the Schindler’s List Project and received polite applause, but whose presence was viewed by some as a reelection ploy and an intrusion.
Student body President Kandi Stewart stunned the audience when she told the governor: “I see your visit as a failing governor’s publicity stunt that enables you to portray yourself as a caring politician.” She said his appearance was an opportunity “to vent the anger, spite and animosity I feel toward your entire time in office.”
Many in the audience cheered and applauded Stewart’s sentiment. The governor laughed uncomfortably and said: “Well, I won’t count on your vote.”
This was the high school where emotions have run high in the three months since students on a Martin Luther King Jr. Day field trip were ejected from a showing of “Schindler’s List” after some of them laughed during atrocity scenes and ignored warnings to stop jeering.
In a 15-minute talk that elicited several standing ovations from the student body, Spielberg said the school got a bad rap in the national furor that ensued. The students had not understood what the movie was all about, Spielberg said, getting a laugh when he added: “I was thrown out of ‘Ben-Hur’ when I was a kid for talking.”
Spielberg’s visit was his first to a school since he won Academy Awards for “Schindler’s List” and used his acceptance speeches to urge schools worldwide to teach students about the Holocaust. The Schindler’s List Project offers free screenings to high school students.
The director emphasized the common thread between the Holocaust and slavery. “We have to resist comparing whose pain is worse,” Spielberg told the packed school auditorium. “Pain is pain and the more we know about each other, the less opportunity for hate.”
About 10 protesters from a nearby Black Muslim mosque demonstrated outside the school and urged students to boycott the event, carrying placards asking “how a Zionist Jew could teach them about racism and oppression.”
Inside the newly spruced-up 1,000-seat auditorium, some students and staff seemed star-struck by the director of “E. T.,” “The Color Purple” and “Jurassic Park.” Others criticized the governor for staging a “reelection publicity stunt” and the media for thrusting their school into the spotlight.
“We’re fed up with all the negative publicity,” senior Nicki Holmes said in an interview before introducing the governor. “It’s a story that won’t go away. The students feel used by Wilson--he wasn’t invited here. No Castlemont student I know is overjoyed to see him.”
Jason Nolen, 17, the student who gave the welcoming remarks, was scheduled to introduce Wilson. “I backed out because I can’t lie,” Nolen said. “Frankly, I don’t like the governor; he’s the enemy of education. He’s using us for his publicity stunt and hurting Spielberg’s image, by getting a free ride off his name.”
Jerry Wolfe, a member of the school’s staff, complained: “This visit was imposed on us. Neither the governor’s nor Spielberg’s office consulted our staff or students first.
“The kids are not reacting badly to the Holocaust or Spielberg--they’re just tired of the press trashing their school,” Wolfe said. “And now, with the governor, we’re seeing the Holocaust getting encased in a political agenda.”
Wilson on Feb. 7 gave Castlemont High an award for its “quick educational response” to the “Schindler’s List” incident. But at least one teacher said the award was premature, pointing out that while other Oakland high schools have conducted Holocaust education programs, Castlemont has not.
Social studies teacher Rose Thornwell called the visit Monday a “media circus” and said: “We haven’t dealt with our own African American holocaust; now we’re getting the Jewish Holocaust up to our eyeballs.”
Wilson told the students how in 1992 he initiated legislation mandating the teaching of slavery and the Holocaust in California’s schools. The Schindler’s List Project began in January when Spielberg, MCA Inc. President Sidney Sheinberg and the governor’s senior policy adviser, Rosalie Zalis, worked out a plan to let California high school students see the film free and be given classroom materials.
According to Wilson, the project is aimed at helping students “understand the potential evil of prejudice and hatred--and serve as a springboard to teach the lessons of all racial, religious and ethnic tolerance, and promote the notion that one person can make a difference.”
A recent poll shows that only about half of America’s high school students know about the Holocaust. “Most of my kids have no idea where Germany is,” said Anisa Rasheed, a social studies teacher. “How can I teach them about the Holocaust if they don’t know what a Jew is or where Europe is?”
When Spielberg and the governor were awarded Castlemont sweat shirts by one of the students, they both put them on and smiled for the dozens of cameras.
Spielberg then promised the students that he would “come back again without the cameras.”