Saturday, February 14, 2009

Shamsia - Leonard Pitts and Public Education

I went to a conference the other day right here in the Columbia, SC area. It was a great opportunity to think up with like-minded teachers. George Ella Lyon and Isoke Nia were the keynote speakers. They were wonderful in quite different ways. Isoke is confident, gregarious, funny. George Ella is quiet, deep, sincere. Both of them have real education in mind for kids. Both are story-tellers and the stories they told were the kind that truly make you think. Not just about teaching little kids, but about living in this crazy world.

Isoke was finishing her afternoon keynote in a hurry. Her plane was taking off soon and she had to abruptly finish her talk and rush out to catch it. Before she left, she had to read an important piece she found on the editorial page recently. She left the auditorium reading this piece. She was literally walking to the door and her ride to the airport with a wireless microphone still hilariously attached to her beautiful colorful African dress reading this piece by Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald. It is a brave and honest piece, one we must all be aware of, not just teachers. I have copied it here and have since attached a link to my blog with Leonard’s regular columns.

A story for women and girls.

Shamsia was walking with her sister when a man on a motorcycle pulled abreast of them. ''Are you going to school?'' he asked.

She was. And this was, by definition, an incendiary act in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where the Taliban is making a comeback and posters on walls warn, ``Don't Let Your Daughters Go to School.''

What happened next was monstrous. As recounted Jan. 14 by The New York Times, the man lifted the girl's burqa, exposing her face. Then he sprayed it with acid. In all, 15 girls and their teachers at the Mirwais School For Girls were targeted by six men on three motorcycles in the November attacks.

Seventeen-year-old Shamsia Husseini got it the worst, according to The Times. She was left with jagged scars on her face, and her vision was damaged.
The next day, the school stood empty.

And there the tale might rest, the girls and their teachers maimed, the school closed and dark, a sad story with a moral that speaks to the power of brutish thuggery to crush the things we dream. Instead, it has become a story with a moral that speaks to something else.

Shamsia, you see, is back in school. So are the vast majority of the other girls. This, after the headmaster held a meeting with parents and begged them to let their daughters return. When that was only modestly successful, he got local officials to promise the school greater police protection, a bus to transport the girls and a footbridge across the busy road. None of it has materialized, but the girls came back anyway.

Shamsia told reporter Dexter Filkins, ``My parents told me to keep coming to school even if I am killed. The people who did this to me don't want women to be educated. They want us to be stupid things.''

A story for girls and women.

Not that anyone in this country throws acid on girls trying to go to school. To the contrary, the secretary of state is a woman as are the governors of Alaska, Kansas and several other states, as is the anchor of the CBS Evening News, as is the chairman of Harpo Productions, Inc.

So your response to what happened in Afghanistan is likely to be amazement but also, distance. Here, the oppression of women is seldom as immediate -- or deadly -- as in less developed places, where girls are sold to pimps by their families, sentenced to be stoned for adultery, splashed with acid for daring to learn. Here, we speak of ''sexism,'' by which we mean the candidate who faced a double standard when she ran for office or the news anchor whose first-week reviews seemed to center on her legs or the athletes who were called names by the radio big mouth.

Which is not to diminish those things, but only to say they leave nobody maimed, they leave nobody dead.

But if there is a distance between what happened there and what happens here, it is just variations on a theme: the need to delimit the lives of women and girls, to say you may become this, but not that, go here, but not there, come this far, but no farther.

So this story for women and girls -- and for men and boys who want the fullness of life for them -- is offered as simple inspiration, a reminder to be defiant and courageous when others want them to be stupid things. The moral of the story could have been very different, after all. Shamsia could have hidden her scarred face at her home, could have folded down her personality and aspirations until she became the small, scared thing those vicious men tried to make her.

But the world those men knew is falling down around them. So instead, Shamsia went back to class. And each day, the school bustles with the activity of more girls than it was designed to hold.

It would be easy to think of this story as something so very far away from our own world, something that could never happen here. But it was in 1960 in New Orleans that a brave little six-year-old girl named Ruby Bridges walked a gauntlet every day for many days. White racists hurled insults and curses at her, threatened to poison her and filled her dreams with nightmares. She had to be accompanied to her school by armed federal marshals. She could not go to the bathroom in her school without being accompanied by a marshal who stood outside the bathroom door. White families boycotted the school and would not let their children go to a school that allowed Blacks. For that school year, Ruby was in a classroom of one student and one teacher. Because of her bravery, and the quiet acts of defiance and courage of many others, the system eventually changed. Not so long ago. Not so far away.

There are areas in the US where children receive an education far inferior to what they need and deserve. In some areas right here in South Carolina, children are expected to learn in crumbling, unsafe buildings with no heating or cooling and inferior antiquated books and no school supplies. In this “corridor of shame” teachers, parents and, most of all, children are struggling to get a decent education. The vast majority of these students are minority and very poor. These teachers make less money than other districts. Twice as many teachers are teaching subjects in which they have no special training. The high school drop out rate in these districts is as high as 2/3 of all students. This is right here. Right now.

We can look smugly at other countries and blame their problems on the abject poverty of the region, or oppressive regimes. We can read Shamsia’s story and think that it couldn’t happen here. But of course it has. Of course it does. It is not in the form of acid but it is happening. It is slower, quieter, more insidious.

Nothing is more important to our society than education. There is no freedom without education. Of course there will always be money for a bigger, faster, stronger army with technologically advanced weaponry and smarter bombs. Our country spends almost as much on defense as the rest of the world combined. By contrast, education only represents 2.3 percent of the federal government. 2.3%. Think about it.

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