For this edition of FanMail, I write with a disgusted mind and an inspired heart. When I woke up this morning and tuned into the Today show I heard of a 15 year-old activist (which kind of already blew me away since the most I was ever an “activist” for at 15 was a “no uniform” policy at school) who had been shot in a cowardly act for revealing the truth and spreading awareness about the atrocities carried out by militant forces in her homeland.
I couldn’t help but be humbled by her story. While most American teens’ major concerns include how many Facebook likes they have or how many Twitter followers they get each day, Malala Yousafzai is defending women’s rights, many whom the Taliban have banned from attending school. I don’t mean to downplay the efforts of the youth I work with, but just the other day I was thinking about all of the times I’ve been questioned about the incentives we offer for students who simply “show up” to our program. Where I was happy as a student just to have a pizza party and a teacher with a sense of humor, today’s students are expecting $150 gift cards and teachers to jump through circus hoops (literally) to emphasize the importance of world history. Meanwhile, young girls like Malala are out making it.
At the age of 11, Malala began to gain media attention after writing a blog for BBC detailing life under the Taliban regime. She wrote in detail about the Taliban takeover of Swat Valley, a place where she resided with her mother, father and two younger brothers and two chickens. Her father, a poet, school owner and educational activist was asked by a BBC Pakistani reporter if any of the girls that attended his school would like to write about their experiences under the regime. Initially a girl named Aisha accepted the opportunity, but backed out when her parents forbid her to contribute her story. Malala, four years younger at the time, stepped up to the challenge and revealed an unimaginable story of the banning of women attending school, TV, music, shopping and the bodies of beheaded policeman hanging from town squares. In her first entry she writes:
“On my way from school to home I heard a man saying ‘I will kill you’. I hastened my pace and after a while I looked back if the man was still coming behind me. But to my utter relief he was talking on his mobile and must have been threatening someone else over the phone.”
Everyday working in the Philadelphia school district I see attendance numbers dropping daily as students decide to turn their already three-day weekends into four, early dismissals whenever the temperature rises about 85 degrees and students who call me to tell me they can’t make it to class because it’s raining (and the sad part is I am happy because at least they called). Meanwhile oceans away, young women are dodging bombs and bullets at the chance to have an education while the Taliban not only denies them the right to go to school but destroys the actual building in the process.
Later blogs not only reveal Malala’s journalistic eye for detail but a poetic prose as well as she writes of toffees raining from the sky as tokens of the Pakistani military’s sympathy and a maid’s flee from the city’s danger as she writes:
“People do not leave their homeland on their own free will – only poverty or a lover usually makes you leave so rapidly.”
Her continued activism included interviews with media outlets like Canada’s Toronto Star where she frequently advocated for women’s education rights, a position of chairperson of the District Child Assembly Swat, a nomination from Desmond Tutu for the International Children’s Peace Prize and in 2011 she received Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize.
On October 9, 2012 while riding the bus home from school after taking an exam, Malala was shot by a masked Taliban gunman who upon boarding the bus announced, “Which one of you is Malala? Speak up, otherwise I will shoot you all,” before she was identified and shot once in the head and once in the neck. And even in his cowardly actions, I can’t help but realize that he as well as the Taliban regime understood what many adults all over the world unfortunately miss: When their energy and enthusiasm are filtered in the right direction, our young people can make tremendous changes that impact the world.
Although doctors successfully removed a bullet that was lodged near her spinal cord, Malala still remains in intensive care although small movements in her hands and feet and a verbal response to a teacher immediately after the assassination attempt indicates that there is no paralysis and she has a 70% chance of survival according to her doctors. Pakistani officials are offering a reward for information leading to the arrest of the attackers.
Not to make light of anyone’s pain or struggle, but seriously, while we are outraged and up-in-arms about a girl getting upper-cutted on a Cleveland bus, Malala was in the fight for her life on one thousands of miles away. As a youth-serving professional in the past two years there have been many moments when I’ve questioned my profession educating, advocating for and spreading awareness about the challenges of a population that most days appears to be ungrateful, entitled and honestly committed to failure. But when I hear the stories of young people like Malala I can’t help be re-inspired by the cheesy saying that the children indeed are “our future” and I almost feel like I am not doing enough. As hopeless as that may sound it’s actually a good feeling to have because young people like Malala motivate me and remind me why I chose my profession in the first place.
Malala once stated, “My purpose is to serve humanity.” At some point in every person’s life they have to question the legacy they’re leaving behind and in what way no matter how big or small they are contributing to the world. What will people say about your life when you’re long gone besides the basic “so-and-so was such a kind, generous person”? What kind of impact will you have made on someone’s life besides a re-tweet and an Instagram comment? At the mere age of 15, Malala has managed to master something that many adults often struggle to do: inspire without intimidating. A classmate states, “Every girl in Swat is Malala. We will educate ourselves. We will win. They can’t defeat us.”