Nine-year-old Mary Previte should have been terrified when Japanese troops armed with rifles and bayonets stormed her British boarding school in Northeast China at the height of World War II. But the daughter of English missionaries, separated from her parents by the war, was unafraid--because of the courageous support and protection of her loving teachers.

As the children were marched into the prison camp, their heroic teachers had them sing hymns, acting as if they were simply on a field trip. And even as Japanese soldiers marked them as property of the Emperor of Japan, Mary's teachers stood up and insisted they be allowed to hold classes each day in the concentration camp--using fruit crates as chairs and desks.

The loving teachers helped the students deal with rancid food, unbearable cold, and incarceration while maintaining their sense of dignity and grace. But most importantly, they never let them give up hope or lose their spirit. And they knew the most crucial thing the children needed to feel was a sense of normalcy and structure in the midst of an abnormal situation. So every day these teachers and protectors risked their lives to stand up to their captors and insist that the children continue to say their prayers and do their lessons. They argued for sports equipment and games for the children, all the time never letting the students know that they were in jeopardy.

Mary's teachers kept the children happy and hopeful while they prayed for the day when they would be freed. Their prayers were finally answered on August 17, 1945 when American soldiers dropped from the sky to liberate the camp.

Years later, Mary became a high school English teacher in a troubled inner-city school in Camden, New Jersey. She believed in her students and what they could achieve, and she used the principles of structure and discipline, which her teachers used to make her feel safe in the prison camp, to inspire her students to overcome their surroundings.

Mary made such a deep impression on her students that 20 years later, when one of them grew up to become an elected state official, he called on her for a special assignment. He asked the retired teacher to put the lessons of her days in the concentration camp to work as the director of a detention facility for minors awaiting trial on charges ranging from robbery and assault to drug trafficking and murder.

Mary took the job at the Camden County Youth Center, and her skills were put to the test the first week. While sitting down to enjoy a dinner party with friends one night, she received an emergency phone call from the center informing her that a riot had broken out. Inmates and guards were wounded and had squared off against each other in a dangerous stalemate.

Still in her evening gown, Mary rushed to the rescue. The children behind bars reminded her of those in the prison camp of her youth. She knew they longed for normalcy in a very abnormal situation.

"They wanted to know [things like] what I had been eating for dinner," explained Mary. "They wanted to feel like they were still a part of the real world."

As she spoke with the kids, she promised them that from then on there would be a better system in place to reward them for good behavior, rather than just punishing them for bad behavior.

Mary made daily schooling the number one priority and saw to it that the children were really learning. And then she instituted activities to occupy their minds and enrich their hearts, such as an official newspaper written and illustrated by the inmates themselves, arts activities such as drawing and photography, and a slew of electives.

As a result of Mary's efforts, the program garnered national recognition for its success. But the real success in Mary's eyes was the feeling of trust and security the students began to experience, which enabled them to heal and potentially rectify their lives. Today at the center, children are skipping entire grade levels while they are incarcerated, and letters from former inmates who have changed their lives have become a common occurrence.

"That's why I come here every day, and that's why I will never stop fighting to save these children," says Mary. "One person can make a difference in the life of a child."

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus