National ‘Top Teacher Search’ finalist Athena Davis eyes Israel fellowship
by DELANEY WALKER Banner Staff Writer
May 27, 2014 | 2403 views | 0 0 comments | 27 27 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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Athena Davis
Cleveland High School English teacher Athena Davis watched as another contestant was announced as the winner of the Top Teacher Search on the nationally televised “LIVE with Kelly and Michael.”

A minute later her phone began to ring.

The number caught her off guard. She looked up at her friend and mouthed, “It’s Israel.” Her friend threw her a confused look as she answered the phone.

It was the director of the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem.

“He said they had watched my segment on YouTube and confirmed that I won a trip to Israel, then asked me about the dates and who was coming with me,” Davis recalled. “... He then said they had an offer to make and told me they wanted me to participate in their three-week intensive seminar for educators at Yad Vashem this summer, free of charge.”

The announcement came on the heels of the Top Teacher announcement and filled her with elation. She then went to the opposite end of the emotional spectrum when she realized the dates offered landed during her scheduled trip to Cambodia. A quick exchange with the director found the same offer good for next summer.

In an email to Director of City Schools Martin Ringstaff, Davis closed with a statement to sum up her feelings.

“Wow,” she wrote. “This is an opportunity to fill my brain with knowledge from the leading Holocaust experts in the WORLD [sic].”

Davis’ life has been filled with emails, connections and opportunities since her appearance as one of LIVE’s top five teachers. She expected and hoped to hear from fellow educators interested in her Holocaust literature class. Plenty of surprises have found their way into her inbox.

“Dear Athena,” wrote Doris Goldsmith Melnick, a first generation child of Holocaust survivors.

“I just happened to see you on Monday [“LIVE”] with Kelly and Michael. It was meant to happen,” she wrote. “I was extremely touched and so impressed with your Holocaust literature class.”

Melnick explained she tries to live each day in memory of those who had their lives robbed from them during German dictator Adolf Hitler’s regime.

Davis read the email with growing appreciation as Melnick explained her family’s history.

“To know now that in Cleveland, Tennessee, there are young men and women who are studying the Holocaust is a testament to my parents’ lives and an honor to the memory of the Six Million [sic] that perished,” Melnick wrote. “This fact is due to you; I find this absolutely amazing and so admire your enthusiasm and devotion to your teaching career.”

She informed Davis of her plans to retrieve a yellow cloth star from a safe deposit box at her bank. Government officials ordered Melnick’s grandmother to sew the star on her clothes. It identified her as a Jew. Melnick wanted Davis to have one of the stars to showcase in her classroom.

“I am sending a photo of the star along with the German note my grandmother left for us with an English translation, ‘So that you never forget it and to be reminded of it every day of your life,’” Melnick wrote Davis. “… We have previously donated one or two to local Holocaust Museums, which is always welcome.”

Both the call from Israel and Melnick’s email shocked Davis.

She explained the training and discussion with Melnick will have a positive impact on her lessons.

“I think what’s hard sometimes when you teach about anything in history is it is very abstract,” Davis said. “You can show pictures. You can even watch a testimony, but I think any time you can make it personal where it is about this particular family and their story with this particular star— that is always huge.”

Davis informed a producer from “LIVE” how the TV contest grew to be so much more in her life.

“It has given a larger platform to a cause that I have given my heart to and has brought about so many opportunities that I and future students will benefit tremendously from,” Davis wrote. “So thank you, thank you, thank you again…I can’t help but feel like that surprise on April 25 was not the end, but only the beginning of so many doors that have and will open.”

She also gave her thanks to the Cleveland and Bradley County community who took the time to learn her story, support her mission and take the time to vote for her in the Top Teacher Search.