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Following school incident, 'Erase Hate' continues to inspire students

Spruce Mountain Middle School students have been collecting erasers to put on display, symbolizing each person killed in the Holocaust.

JAY, Maine — It was a bustling Friday morning at Spruce Mountain Middle School when NEWS CENTER Maine visited.

But once most of the students left Mariah Sergio’s eighth-grade English class, she had time to reflect.

She pulled out Andrea Warren's book "Surviving Hitler" and thumbed through some of its pages.

Among her typical lessons, she spends time each year teaching the near-unimaginable – the Holocaust – to her students.

"It is a hard thing to talk about, but I think it’s okay to talk about this with kids because they’re mature enough to understand the level of destruction that happened during the Holocaust, and how if we don’t learn about it things like that can happen again," Sergio explained.

In 2017, inspired after watching the documentary "Paper Clips," in which a Tennessee middle school class tried to collect six million paper clips to symbolize each person killed during the Holocaust, Sergio's students came up with a project of their own: "Erase Hate" -- one eraser for each person’s life erased by the Nazis.

In 2022, eighth graders MacKenzie and Kenley picked up the torch.

"I just think about how sad it is that they could just do that to people just because they’re different," MacKenzie said.

"It’s just like saying, 'You have red shoes, so, you’re gonna die today,'" Kenley added. "It’s kind of stupid."

The pair stood next to an old trophy case outside the school's library, now converted into a display for 172,945 erasers -- a technicolor pile nearly tall enough to overrun the sliding glass door they need to open to add new additions.

And there are new additions.

The wall behind the eraser pile is pasted with letters from people around Maine, New England, and beyond who had heard about the project and sent erasers along with their notes.

But despite their work reaching people across the country, they faced a setback right in their own building.

On Oct. 13, just over a week before we visited, staff at the high school – which is attached to the middle school by a hallway – said they found racist hate speech written in a bathroom the week prior.

"Kids were afraid after that happened at the high school, and I don’t think that that’s okay," Sergio recalled.

Superintendent Scott Albert wrote in a press release that two people were sent to the police and that that type of behavior won’t be tolerated in the RSU 73 school district. 

Sergio said it’s being used to further teach her students.

"We want to teach empathy to other kids and to our kids, and have them teach it to other people that they’re around because it’s unacceptable," Sergio said. "It’s unacceptable to hate people because of their differences."

So, the work continues. Middle schoolers continued hustling and bustling, and, on the Friday NEWS CENTER Maine met with Sergio and her students, it was pizza day -- a cherished day at the school, she said. 

But, in the middle of the school, outside the library, the erasers’ colors invite a passing glance from students. Maybe they linger to read a “thank you” letter. So then, the message and the lesson carry on, and so does the mission.

"Maybe by the time I retire we can get closer to the goal of 6,000,000," Sergio laughed. Her face straightened again. "But, we’re not gonna give up."

Given enough help, they’ll fill the school.

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