Sepetys book connects Nashville, Lithuanian students

Friday, May 3, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 18
By Zack Barnes

Ruta Sepetys’ work has inspired many across the world to seek out stories from others. Her first book, “Between Shades of Gray,” which tells the story of Lithuanian deportation to Siberia by the Soviets, has inspired staff and students at Montgomery Bell Academy and St. Cecilia Academy to seek out stories from afar. For the fifth consecutive year, Montgomery Bell Academy’s Emmett Russell has coordinated an exchange program with students from Lithuania.

The yearly program brought a group of Lithuanian students to Nashville for a week in early February, during which they screened “Ashes in the Snow,” the film adaptation of Sepetys’ book on the deportations, and met the author, who lives in Nashville.

MBA takes students to Lithuania each summer.

Russell, an English teacher, coordinates the exchange program. After reading “Between Shades of Gray’’ as a class, Russell’s students wanted to read the book with Lithuanians. After a long meal with the author, a trip was taken to Lithuania with a small group of staff. When touring Lithuania, the group’s guide was asked if there were any private schools in Lithuania that MBA could partner with.

“He thought for a second and reached up on the dashboard of his Volkswagen minivan,” Russell recalls. “He picked up a business card that he put up there probably close to a year earlier and hadn’t touched. Let me make a call.”

After the call, the guide set them up with a new private school, which happened to have been started by his old high school history teacher a year earlier.

After a quick meeting with school personnel, they agreed to read the book at the same time MBA was reading it back in the U.S.

“From then on, we had a relationship with this school, and it’s been incredible,” Russell says. “We say often that somebody more powerful than we have been orchestrating this for all this to come down the way it has. It’s just been amazing.”

“Montgomery Bell Academy was one of the first to come on board,” Sepetys says. “They are a very well-respected institution with such a great legacy. They are the ones who said let’s do this. I wouldn’t have known to build a program like that. Emmett Russell is such a tremendous human being. And so passionate about it.”

The students and staff from both schools see the importance of the exchange program.

“I think it’s important for any student from anywhere to come to the United States and vice versa,” says Deanna Kendall, a history teacher at St. Cecilia Academy. “Our students know very little, if anything, about Lithuania. It’s such a small country, and I think it’s important for Americans to be aware of these former satellite Soviet Union countries now a part of the European Union and their historical experience.”

Kendall foresees a problem next year. The students at St. Cecilia have enjoyed the Lithuanian students so much that the school has more host families than Lithuanian students.

“I don’t know what we are going to do next year now that they have been here once,” she says. “There will be a lot of demand.”

One of the students involved is Meredith Remke, a St. Cecilia senior, who says she had an amazing time with the student she hosted.

“It interesting to learn the different cultures and different aspects so we can get over stereotypes and learn different trends, especially for teenagers,” she says. “We have really united over music this past week. We both like different types of music, but we know the same artists. We have been bonding over that.”

Marta Fominaite, a junior from Lithuania who stayed with Remke, says her host family was amazing. It was her first time in America, and it was strange at first to live with a different family. She says the exchange program is very important to share Lithuanian stories with Americans.

“A lot of Americans live in their own bubble,” she says. “I think that’s a huge problem in a lot of societies in this world. They only know their own history.”

Fominaite says she meets many people who know nothing about Lithuania, but she wants people to learn about Lithuania’s history through the story created by Sepetys, either through the movie or the book.

“Yes, we see that during the history lessons. We hear how it went, but also, we only hear facts. The movie is a more interesting story,” she says.

Sepetys says meeting the students has been an amazing experience.

“It’s indescribable when I see those Lithuanian students born into freedom,” she says. “That is very rare. Knowing that my father was born into freedom but lost everything and spent nine years in refugee camps. There’s the generation after my dad that was born into occupation and didn’t know freedom.

“To see the kids here who can get on a plane and have a passport. When Emmett Russell calls it a partnership for freedom, it really is.”