My heart broke slightly last week, sitting outside Prinsengracht 263 in Amsterdam. I had tried to get tickets to the Anne Frank house, having gone back for a second time to wait in line, only to find out that I was about 20 minutes too late. Unbeknownst to me, tickets for the house sell out weeks in advance. They do allow patrons to visit the day of; the wait just happens to be upwards of three hours.
A kind woman, perhaps a few years younger than I, spoke to me through thick-rimmed spectacles, her blue eyes tired and her voice monotonous, having said the same utterance to the yards of others hoping to get in before the last tour.
“Unfortunately, you may not be able to get in at this point, as the wait is over two hours from here. If you do get in, it’s likely that your visit will be ’round ten minutes,” she repeated to me.
My face sunk in disappointment, but she replied in step, “There are about 50 tickets online for 11:30 tomorrow morning, though, if you’ll be here tomorrow.”
My eyes lit up, and with a little bit of luck, I managed to secure a ticket for the following morning. It had always been a dream to visit the Secret Annexe, and now I was going to be able to do it.
I was third in line for my time; I stood patiently, reading my book, waiting until the ropes were pulled away and it was my turn. I showed my ticket, walked down a handful of gray steps, and followed the flow of traffic to a small gray room and eventually into the building itself, where the daily happenings of Otto Frank’s business occurred. There were mementos and artifacts arranged in glass cases, hanging silently above a wooden floor that was likely never intended to be visited by so many millions. I will always be humbled to have been one of them.
It wasn’t long before I was able to enter the Secret Annexe through the infamous bookcase. It was just as Anne described: I ducked my head and climbed up a large step, seeing a steep ladder-like staircase to my right and a narrow passageway to the left, lit only by yellow lamps. It led to the back rooms, unimaginably small for the number of people that lived there. It was maddening to think of their confinement through sickness, conflict, and constant worry.
What struck me most of all in those first few rooms was the wall of celebrities that Anne had collected and hung up. I’ve tended to think of Anne as an adult: her iconic nature and the depth of her words has matured her in my mind’s heart, but I was reminded of her youth and innocence, not only by the way she idolized these figures, but also by the arrangement of the pictures, so widely spaced on the wall in a fantastical, childlike manner. She was but a mere child, trapped in a world that was decided for her, doing what she could to be the best version of herself she could be, in spite and because of her circumstances.
The path through the Secret Annexe led me to the floor just below the attic where Anne frequently reflected on precious views the outside world–moments where she relaxed with the only love she ever knew, where she watched the moon exercise her freedom while she remained in her brick-and-mortar jail. The tour’s penultimate room, just before visitors are able to see original copies of Anne’s writing, played a 1967 interview of Otto Frank, where he reflects on just how little he truly knew his daughter, despite raising her and living within such close proximity for so long.
“I knew that Anne wrote a diary. She spoke about her diary. She left her diary with me at night in a briefcase next to my bed. I had promised her never to look in. I never did.
“When I returned, and after I had the news that my children would not come back, Miep gave me the diary, which had been saved by, I should say, a miracle. It took me a very long time to read it, and I must say I was very much surprised about the deep thoughts Anne had, her seriousness — especially her self-criticism.
“It was quite a different Anne [than] I had known as my daughter. She never really showed this kind of inner feeling. She talked about many things, we criticized many things, but what really her feelings were, I only could see from the diary.
“And my conclusion is, as I had been in very, very good terms with Anne, that most parents don’t know, really, their children.”
I became aware of all that was around me: my body locked in this space and separated only, in parallel, by time; Otto Frank’s palpable vulnerability; and my visceral connection to his words, for I understand the loneliness that can come from feeling misunderstood and the fear I sometimes have that my students won’t feel understood by me.
Anne was lonely in that house, feeling misunderstood and unable to reveal her inner complexity. She did not fear her loneliness, though. Instead, she courageously engaged with it, only to become more unabashedly Anne. As a result, her experience in the Annexe was richly educative, quite possibly more so than most children that come through our classrooms. It had less to do with the content she encountered, and more to do with the self-discovery and solace keeping a journal provided her.
Ironically, she dreamed of becoming a famous writer, of “wanting to go on living after [her] death,” and it’s clear, in her mind, that this would be her version of a successful and fulfilled existence. One can sense, as she or he reads Anne Frank’s diary, that she possessed a self-actualization and contentment multiplicative of her years, even if it was a private one. It was this emergence into herself–an appreciation of her own self-awareness and raw emotion–that has helped her transcend time, despite the decade and a half that she graced our earth in the flesh. It was, in a sense, that she loved herself enough to continue to emerge into her identity—fiercely human and unapologetically imperfect.
Her light has not dimmed over the course of the last 70 years, and I doubt it ever will. I hope to take this with me as I continue to emerge into myself as an educator and as a man, as she’s taught me that there is truly very little we need—short of self-awareness, -appreciation, and -love—to help steer the course of the world in the right direction, even if it’s just a little bit.
Perhaps this is how we should be defining success in our schools–similar to how Anne subconsciously actualized it within herself–not by the capitalist constructs of higher education, employability, or fiscal wealth, but instead by a wealth of the inner, one that reaches so deep that it cannot help but reach outward and change the world.