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December 9, 2009

Teaching Peace with Greg Mortenson

By Debbie Scally

Greg Mortenson's recent appearance in Dallas was an inspiration to peace activists.


Monday night, December 7, Dallas TX. It's cold, damp, and windy, drizzling a fine mist. Not the most auspicious evening to be out and about, if you know Texas drivers. Yet the parking lot of the church is full already, and it's not much past 6:00. People are hurrying in the door with a sense of purpose (or maybe just to get out of the weather). The lobby is full of impatient men and women and many teens. The smell of damp wool fills up all the spaces between the packed-in bodies.

What is the occasion here that has brought so many Dallasites out on a Monday, of all nights? The doors to the sanctuary finally open, and people scramble to squeeze into the pews. We are told we can only save one seat each. The woman beside me has staked out a space on each side of her and does not move to close the gap when she hears this command. It's OK. We have our seats. And the people keep on coming, filling the entire room and spilling out into the lobby.

We're lucky to be here; I just found out about this a day or so ago and was determined to make it, even though the previous night's insomnia has caught up with me. I sink into the fairly comfortable pew, waiting patiently (not something I'm ordinarily very good at). It looks as though soon people will be hanging from the rafters. The room is full to bursting. I'm about to fall asleep, despite the noise. Absently, I watch the slide show that has been playing in a loop for the past few minutes, chatting with my son and my other companions.

A man with a microphone finally steps onto the stage, and the crowd quiets quickly. He says the obligatory words and then proudly introduces the man we've been waiting to see. The applause is generous as Greg Mortenson takes the microphone, grinning widely. His grin is reflected on many of the faces in the audience. Then he begins to speak.

Greg Mortenson has been my hero ever since I read his book Three Cups of Tea. It seems impossible that anyone could not know who he is these days, as he is a tireless speaker and promoter of his cause, traveling all over the world to tell his story, but, in case you've been under a rock for the last year or so, my advice is to go to your nearest book store and find his book. General Petraeus makes it required reading for all of his soldiers these days. So should you.

Some of the story is already familiar to his audience; these are serious fans. We all listen to him tell his serendipitous tale of how he found his way down K2 after a failed climb, wandered into a tiny village, was cared for by that village, and promised to build them a school when he saw the children outside doing schoolwork in the dirt without a teacher. Since then, Greg's mission has been to educate the children of Afghanistan and Pakistan, especially the girls. He sees education as the only way to stop war and terrorism, particularly the education of girls. Under Taliban rule, girls could not go to school; women could not even leave their homes in some cases, but as he became more involved in the lives of the people in those harsh countries, he discovered a real desire among the elders and the villagers that their children have the opportunity to learn to read and write, both boys and girls. Greg took it upon himself to bring education to these people. He founded the Central Asia Foundation to fund and build schools for villages that want to bring education to their country's young people.

Mortenson is just a regular guy – big guy who stalks around the stage as he talks and stops often to ask questions of the audience. He's a man on a mission, and his enthusiasm is contagious. He started out knowing nothing about what he was attempting to do. Now he is an articulate speaker with over 100 schools under his belt. His sincere humility captivates everyone in the room; he has to stop speaking several times because of applause, and when he finishes the prepared part of his talk, the entire place is on its feet. We clap until our hands hurt and then clap some more. The audience has been given the opportunity to write out questions for him to answer, and he patiently and thoughtfully answers each one. Afterwards, he will be signing his brand new book Stones into Schools, a continuation of his story that picks up right after the events of the first book. Throughout what must be an ordeal to a tired guy, he is cheerful and friendly.

Too exhausted from a very long day, I decide to opt out of standing in line, and my son and I exit into the rain and cold, warmed by this man's generosity of spirit and his commitment to peace through education. As an English teacher and a peace activist, I am inspired. My current writing classes revolve around the themes of war and peace, and I am now planning to add his books to the curriculum. I feel like I just had a religious experience.

Later, while brushing my teeth, I reflect on the evening. I wish I had found out about his appearance soon enough to tell my students, but now it is on me to tell the tale in class. How to distill and transmit that good feeling so they can pick up on it too? Which anecdotes to I try to repeat? Reading his book changed me, and now, hearing him and watching him connect with his audience, I am again inspired. I think of another book that inspired me as a teacher, The Peaceable Classroom by Mary Rose O'Reilley, and how similar her teaching philosophy is to Mortenson's commitment to winning war through education, and how they have shaped my own philosophy. I believe that if everything we do is geared toward teaching peace, perhaps we will eventually, incrementally, make a difference.

Something else: One of Mortenson's aphorisms sticks in my mind. It is ironic, because the treatment of women in Pakistan and Afghanistan is abhorrent, yet this is something they believe. I'm probably getting it wrong, but the gist is true, I know. They say, “When you teach a boy, you teach an individual. When you teach a girl, you teach the whole village.”

Authors Bio:
I'm a college English teacher working on my dissertation. I am an anime junkie and a Shakespeare scholar, a voracious reader and a political rebel.