“So, is the Taliban still a thing?” and other tough questions from 10 year olds

This week we finished a book called Parvana’s Journey – a story about a 12-year-old girl who travels alone across Afghanistan in search of her mother. While we were reading, a student asked me if the Taliban was still around. The book was written in 2002, but we had just finished reading about Christopher Columbus and, for all my students knew, the Taliban was just as old a history.

“Yes,” I said, “the Taliban is still very much a thing.” As difficult as it is (especially when you are ten) to make sense of the horrible things humans do to one another and the hardships many face, the students finished the book (hopefully) understanding that it was real. Parvana, the protagonist, was not, but the struggles she faced as a young woman under Taliban control, as a lost child in a war-torn country, as an inhabitant of a camp for internally displaced people…those are real. And they are still happening.

Along with the book, we read a packet of articles with related content and many of the articles were about Malala Yousafzai and her fight for girls’ education.

“Wait – Malala was shot by the Taliban, but she lived in Pakistan. I thought the Taliban was in Afghanistan?” Ten year olds miss nothing.

I explained that there are actually two Talibans, one in Afghanistan and one in Pakistan. “What?!” They said. “How did the Taliban even start?”

This is the dilemma every educator faces. Children believe their teachers are the gatekeepers of all knowledge. They ask me questions about complex neuroscience. They expect me to be able to recall obscure historical facts. I have no problem admitting I don’t know something. The problem, really, is when I do know. Then, I have to ask…how much should I tell them? How much do they need to know? How much can they understand?

I explained that the Taliban started as Afghan refugees, as children who were displaced to Pakistan because their country was being occupied, who were indoctrinated into fanaticism. Raised to hate the superpowers who used their home country as a political puppet, they came back to a war-torn Afghanistan when they were men and took political control. The articles also discussed child marriage and honor killings and Boko Haram and ISIS and the kidnapping of school girls. Talking about history seems harmless enough, but these things are happening now. How much should I tell them? When do I redirect the conversation and when do I answer their questions with patience and candor?

Many of them told me about what happened in Paris. They had the same expression I remember wearing in 5th grade when on September 11th, 2001 I told my teacher that something had happened with planes in New York. She told me we weren’t going to talk about it. People got pulled out of school. My parents told me what happened after school while I was building a pyramid for social studies. I don’t remember what they said, but I remember not understanding the gravity of it. I couldn’t comprehend then that the world was going to change and the American political and social climate for the next 14 years would be dominated by fear. But then again, there has always been someone, some group, to fear.

These kids may not be able to fully comprehend what is happening in the world, but they will be the ones to grow up in an America we shape. An America that embraces refugees as neighbors, or one that chooses fear. I remembered a CNN piece I read over a year ago about the mass influx of children coming from Central America. Some called them ‘immigrants’ and some called them ‘refugees’. Semantics. They are people searching for freedom, hope, and safety and their fight is the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time. The language from that piece responding to the tens of thousands of children fleeing Central America is equally applicable to the conversation on Syrian refugees today:

Surely, we as Americans are capable of coming up with creative solutions that are compassionate as well as sensible, solutions that tell the world (and ourselves) that we still aspire to be good-hearted, noble but pragmatic people…moments inevitably come that define who we are as a people. As the saying goes, we may not be looking for trouble but trouble is looking for us. How we respond to these thousands upon thousands of desperate, destitute children is one of those moments.

Will we turn our backs, as we did so shamefully to those Jewish refugees years ago? Or will we live by our ideals? That is the choice we now face.

Or as the President of France so simply put it, “We have to reinforce our borders while remaining true to our values.”

I don’t know what we should teach children about what is happening in the world. There are certain things I don’t know exactly how to explain because I can’t comprehend them myself. When they told me about Paris, I calmly said that I had also heard the news. I told them that there were other attacks in Beirut where people also died. I said that these were awful things and that we should feel very lucky to be safe and in school because there are so many people around the world who are not. There was one passage in Parvana’s Journey that struck me as particularly poignant, encapsulating the way childhood is destroyed by violence.

They watched as a group of planes streamed across a corner of the sky. A moment later there was a sound like thunder rumbling in the distance. Then they saw dust rise up from the far hills. The girls had seen these planes before. They were nothing special.

“Grownups killing each other,” Parvana said, and she turned away to look for her mother in the other direction. “I kill,” Leila said.

Parvana looked at her. “I kill pigeons,” Leila said. “I don’t like to do it, but it’s not hard. It must be harder to kill a goat or a donkey. Is it hard to kill a child?” she asked suddenly.

“It should be,” Parvana said, “but some people seem to find it awfully easy.”

I don’t know what to teach children about the world, but what I do know, above all else, is that we should start with empathy and build our way up to compassion because there are so many people (including a whole generation of children) around the world who need it and a lot of grown ups who seem to have forgotten.

Should We Celebrate Columbus Day?

We posed this question to our students on Thursday and – as I reflect on their answers – I think about all they have (hopefully) absorbed in the past three weeks. As they were reading the history of Columbus and his ‘discovery’, they had to think – Is this the only side to this story? What about the ones who had their history written for them? Why do we celebrate the people we celebrate? What happens when we forget our past? Here are their – unedited – opinions:

People should care about this issue because the people that celebrate Columbus Day should know that Columbus did not only find the Caribbeans but he made the indigenous people slaves and killed some of them. Plus who would want to celebrate a person who found people and made some of them slaves all a sudden and kill them and even though they’re native to their land the person takes it. This is why I think people should not celebrate Columbus Day. We should celebrate people who do not do things for themself’s like for example Martin Luther King jr did not do the rights for himself he did it for other people too, and when Columbus went out to the sea for gold he was not doing something helpful for someone he just wanted gold and wanted to be rich. So even though Columbus found America he also killed lots of the indigenous people that were already living there and and kept some as slaves for a prize for the monarchs which were the King and Queen of Spain and kept some of the indigenous people on land to work for Columbus and the men. Columbus did no benefit at all.

Columbus didn’t even know where he was so we are celebrating him for his mistake. I think we should celebrate Indigenous People’s Day instead because they were already there.

The answers were not black and white. We learned about the Columbian Exchange and the way the world changed because of Columbus while also talking about the lasting negative effects of colonialism. We looked at both sides of the issue. We stepped back from the page and asked – who actually writes history? As I read A People’s History of the United States (which opens with Columbus), they read Encounter by Jane Yolen. The words are different and my book doesn’t have cool illustrations…

Encounter 2

Encounter

But the message is the same. Over 250,000 indigenous peoples lived in the Caribbean when Columbus arrived. Fifty years later, less than 500 remained. The word genocide was never mentioned in their texts, but it was in mine. Are they too young to know what it means? Every morning we break into small groups and read out loud to the students. My group finished the book before some of the others and I found myself staring at a bunch of ten year olds with nothing to talk about for a half an hour. Somehow, I’m not sure exactly how, we ended up talking about the death penalty. Before I could change the topic to something more ‘kid friendly’, one student argued that someone who takes a life should not be allowed to live. Another responded that – even if that might be true – no human (judge or otherwise) should be able to decide if another human lives or dies. Especially – another chimed in – if the person was wrongly accused. Evidence can be wrong, you know. What if – another posed – they stayed in jail for the rest of their lives? That avoids the moral problem of taking a life, but it is still a pretty bad punishment. They went on like this for nearly twenty minutes, glancing my way fewer and fewer times as they became more assured of their opinions and their ability to express them. Ten years old. Arguing the ethical implications of the death penalty. Here is an excerpt from their reading next week about Cortes conquering the Aztecs:

Why did they destroy a great empire? Why did they steal a nation’s riches? Were the Spanish evil and ruthless? Or were the times so different that it is difficult for us to imagine them? Life in the 16th century was cruel; and punishment was often swift and horrible. That was true all over the world – in America, in Europe, in Asia, in Africa. The piles of skulls in Tenochtitlan – left from the sacrifices – horrified the Europeans. They said that was the reason they had to destroy the Aztec empire. Was it a good reason – or just an excuse? In European cities criminals were hanged and left to rot in public view. That would have horrified the Aztecs…Do we have injustices and cruel practices in our country today? What are they? What can we do about them? Reading history is not always easy. It is hard to make judgments about the past. But it is worth trying. It helps us make judgments about the world we live in.

School is more than facts. It is where you begin to understand the world and learn how to form opinions about it. It is a space to fail and grow and ask questions. A space to have your mind blown and surprise yourself when you get angry about something that happened hundreds of years ago (and, boy, was there anger about Columbus). Maybe I should have directed the topic back to something more ‘age appropriate’. Or perhaps a discussion about the death penalty will be on the horizon sooner than I thought.

A Week

You know the saying, ‘if you want something done quickly, give it to a busy person’? When I have too much unstructured time on my hands, I crumple a little bit. That sounds far more dramatic than it actually is, but in India I had something to do, somewhere to be, at every moment of every day. I had almost six weeks of free time when I got back to the states and found myself with a few options: sleeping, reading, watching TV, and eating ice cream.

And I did all four things. I did them gloriously and without apology. But this kind of life (for anyone, not just the ones like me who need to wake up every morning and be a part of something bigger than they are) is not sustainable. So – for my last week in Florida – I shook everything up and did some pretty cool things.

I became a pirate.

Not really. But my dad and I did take a two day sailing course where I learned a lot of new words and how to steer a 1,300 pound boat. That was pretty cool. As were my tan lines.

Pirate life

Just being majestic at sea.

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I played with primates.

Justin came to visit and I wanted to plan something unique. Both of us love animals and when I found out that you could play with lemurs at the local zoo, Jungle Island, it sounded too cool not to check it out.

LEMURS

These were the pictures the zoo photographer took. We tried to get some of our own, selfie-style, and it turns out getting lemurs to pose for pictures of quite difficult. The only time one of them sat still for longer than five seconds was when little Chicken Nugget (far right) decided to pop a squat in my lap and eat my hair.

Lemurs 2

We saw some other critters to and, while being so close to wildlife is thrilling and I love learning about different kinds of animals, I was reminded why I dislike zoos. Goats, tiny monkeys, birds…perhaps they are small enough that their natural habitats can be replicated in captivity. But to see orangutans and lions behind bars…it reminds you that what is wild should stay wild.

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I celebrated history in the making.

On the drive to St. Augustine, I listened to John Kerry speak as the U.S. flag was raised in Havana and remembered when, just the week before, I was as close as any American could previously go to Cuba.

Cuba

This morning I feel very much at home here…and I feel at home here because this is truly a memorable occasion – a day for pushing aside old barriers and exploring new possibilities. And it is in that spirit that I say on behalf of my country, Los Estados Unidos acogen con beneplacito este nuevo comienzo de su relacion con el pueblo y el Gobierno de Cuba. Sabemos que el camino hacia unas relaciones plenamente normales es largo, pero es precisamente por ello que tenemos que empezar en este mismo instante. No hay nada que temer, ya que seran muchos los beneficios de los que gozaremos cuando permitamos a nuestros ciudadanos conocerse mejor, visitarse con mas frecuencia, realizar negocios de forma habitual, intercambiar ideas y aprender los unos de los otros. My friends, we are gathered here today because our leaders – President Obama and President Castro – made a courageous decision to stop being the prisoners of history and to focus on the opportunities of today and tomorrow. This doesn’t mean that we should or will forget the past; how could we, after all? – John Kerry

I love these lines, especially the part about not being prisoners of history. Yes, Cubans still are not free. Yes, a Castro is still in power. But the mentality that one must persist with a course of action that is clearly not working simply because it is what is done…its dangerous. And who does it serve? While listening Kerry speak I started to get slightly teary eyed. I have never been to Cuba, nor do I feel like I have any claim to it. But there is still something there. A longing to belong to your own history as well as an ache to end the injustices done to others. So speaking of driving to St. Augustine…

I watched a dear friend get married.

I danced like I hadn’t in a very long time (with the specific goal of dancing so erratically that my date couldn’t keep a straight face) and watched as one of my best and oldest friends committed herself forever to the luckiest guy. Two quotes came to mind that night and – no – neither were Corinthians.

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were….marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. – Justice Anthony Kennedy

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A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human thought and belief have to impart: the salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment in the contemplation of his beloved. -Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning

I moved.

To Boston, right from the wedding. I packed up my life in a few suitcases and moved. Again. I survived the first week of orientation and, after reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and getting to know my neighborhood of Jamaica Plain a little better, I am ready for the second week and the week after that when 150 kids show up and expect me to teach them something. Am I nervous? More excited. Am I tired already? Yeah. Am I lucky enough to be part of something bigger than myself again? Definitely. And I can’t wait.

 

“The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.”

While child immigration to the U.S. from Central America is nothing new, the large influx of over 52,000 children seeking asylum since October of last year has been startling to many. To me, what is more startling is the overwhelmingly hostile and uncooperative response to the crisis.

Most individuals crossing the border have traveled thousands of miles, across deserts and on top of trains, and upon arrival to the nation self-proclaimed to be the land of the tolerant, the land of peace, the land of freedom and justice and prosperity, these unaccompanied children (ranging from toddler to teen) and single mothers have been met with hatred and violence.

They have been met with protesters screaming at them in a language they may not understand. They are housed in understaffed detention centers where some are cared for and given donations of clothing, toys, and food, while others are denied basic human necessities and robbed of their innocence while they live in a state of displacement and fear.

The debate at hand–instead of focusing on how to handle the situation in a way that is both pragmatic and respects the fundamental human dignity of all people–has been about why this crisis is occurring. Never mind that it is happening and lives are at stake–the principle objective of our politicians is to place blame–particularly on President Obama. I’m no expert, but, after reviewing facts available to the public, I believe the drastic increase in child immigrants is directly related to dire economic conditions (due largely to U.S. trade agreements that crush rural agriculture) and rising levels of violence in Central America (sparked and fueled by U.S. sponsored wars in the 1980s). Levels of violence that should qualify these immigrants as refugees, fleeing the turmoil of political repression and gang warfare (which originated in the U.S. and spread to Central America through mass deportations).

A travel warning put out this week by the State Department said that “since 2010, Honduras has had the highest murder rate in the world,” citing the homicide rate of 75.6 per 100,000 people in 2013.

Sure, the belief that children will receive citizenship as a result of Obama’s 2012 Dream Act may have influenced many to come. However, the majority of children are seeking to reunite with family members who have already fled and even for those unaccompanied minors, immigration has doubled every year since 2011. Additionally, there has been a monumental increase in asylum seeking in multiple countries–not just the United States.

While the United States received around 85 percent of all applications for asylum, the UNHCR report also found a 435 percent increase in asylum requests from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in other countries — Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize.

Many are blaming Obama for wanting to keep these kids in the country and for the institutional failure of our border security facilities to accommodate them. But–as many Tea Partiers are clamoring for–Obama wants to facilitate their deportation. It was George W. Bush’s 2008 anti-trafficking law that mandates immigrant children from countries not bordering the U.S. receive safe haven and a full trial before it can be determined whether they stay or return home.

Whatever the reason for this humanitarian crisis, politicians (and the scores of people calling for these children to be “Returned to Sender”) have lost sight of the fact that human worth transcends nationality and borders. Yes, there are homeless children in the U.S. Yes, there are a multitude of problems that need to be dealt with at home and, yes, figuring out what to do with the projected 90,000 children isn’t going to be easy. But, to quote a thought-provoking piece on this issue by CNN’s David Gergen and Daniel Katz:

Surely, we as Americans are capable of coming up with creative solutions that are compassionate as well as sensible, solutions that tell the world (and ourselves) that we still aspire to be good-hearted, noble but pragmatic people.

They are children. They are suffering. They have been faced with the most unfathomable of dilemmas–leave and you may die, stay and you likely will. And whatever the reason for their coming, they are here. This wave is turning into the largest influx of asylum seekers crossing U.S. borders since the 1980 Mariel boat-lift out of Cuba. While my mom was not a part of this wave of Cuban refugees, she did make the journey from Havana to America. My mother–whose talent for writing I hope to one day match–wrote down her story.

Mom Collage

Left to right: Ten years old, a year before moving to the United States. First birthday party in Cuba. Six years old in Lima.

 

 The nightly news of late is saturated with stories of the immigration border crisis taking place in several states. Although illegals crossing borders on foot is hardly front page news anymore, the massive arrival of children, teens and single mothers has by now caught everyone’s attention. Indeed, the last time so many unaccompanied foreign minors reached our shores was during the 1961-62  Operation Pedro Pan. Prompted by a rumor that Fidel Castro planned to remove children from their homes in order to indoctrinate them, parents anxiously put their trust in the US government and sent them alone to be met by volunteers of the Catholic Archdiocese and government officials. Over 14, 000  Cuban children were welcomed in Miami and placed in foster homes or with other relatives until they could be reunited with their parents.  During that mass exodus, the United States was welcoming and popular sentiment against “illegal immigrants” was not as widespread.

My personal immigration story is not so dramatic and it most definitely had a happy ending. Our journey was devoid of physical danger. Our departure had no clandestine, late night meetings with corrupt coyotes that carried me across treacherous deserts. There were no gang killings at my doorstep, no abject poverty to escape from. It only involved some rather hushed and hurried plans and a short airplane ride across the ocean. Luckily at that time there was no embargo, the borders were open and we could still leave with a few dollars in our pockets. . Unlike these children today, I left behind an idyllic childhood when my family left Cuba as a response to Castro’s Communist ideology and incipient acts of violence. The decision was made in anticipation of the brutality and change of lifestyle that would come later.  When I left Cuba I left behind a nice home with a swing set in the back and memories of a glorious 5th birthday party, afternoons on the beach, my neighbor’s floor to ceiling aviary and my grandparents’ beloved Doberman Pinscher. My parents left so much more- a home with all its belongings, an established career, lifetime friends , and family. They were forced to make a drastic change in their lives that they did not ask for, with no money and two small children in tow. Perhaps the greatest thing they left behind was the optimism of youth, the feeling that life unfolding as it should meant that they would have continued prosperity and happiness. Although the land of opportunity beckoned them and embraced them, it was not a choice they would have made if they felt safe in their homeland. No matter how frightening the prospect of leaving was, staying was scarier. And that is perhaps at the root of many immigrants’ story, regardless of the circumstances of their departure.

So now, 54 years later, my heart hurts while watching this current immigration crisis. I don’t think there is anyone who has left their homeland under adverse conditions who looks at these children and doesn’t think “This was me”. I was so lucky that in 1960  we were considered “political refuges” and granted unequivocal asylum and acceptance. I’ve heard people say there is a difference between being a political refugee and an illegal immigrant, but really it’s all semantics. For those who leave their country of origin to escape violence and poverty or an oppressive regime, the experience of being uprooted feels the same. The fervent hope that life across the border is better is the same for all groups. And the idea that America is where one goes for a fresh start has been in place since the first set of immigrants left Europe seeking religious freedom. So maybe the names have changed and so have the countries we emigrate from but the United States has always been a nation of immigrants and needs to continue to remain this way. These children who are being turned away don’t deserve the wrath and contempt they are being met with. It is bad enough that the sadness of this exodus will always be with them to a certain degree, they don’t need this additional lack of compassion at this point in their journey. They most certainly don’t deserve the death sentence, the unhappy ending some of them will meet if returned to the violence ridden place of their birth.

Like I said, my immigration story had a happy ending. Our family completely assimilated into our new culture after 4 very difficult years. We initially moved to Puerto Rico because neither one of my parents spoke English. My father, a registered architect in Cuba, taught martial arts, did carpentry work, and anything else he could. And while they worked, they slowly learned to speak English. Because there was so little money, 5 couples shared one small home and pooled their money together to put food on the table and pay the rent and electric bills. “There was only one bedroom and we would take turns staying in it”, my dad would  laugh and wink everytime he told that story.  I’m sure it was not that funny at the time.Since my mom’s family was all in South America my brother and I went to live there with my grandmother so we could attend good schools and have other family members in our lives. For a period of two years I saw my parents infrequently, whenever one of them could travel to spend time with us they did. And after some time, once there was a steady job, a car and a small apartment, they sent for us .We eventually moved to  Hollywood, Florida and prospered in the USA. One of my earliest recollections of Hollywood was an overnight stay at a motel on the beach, courtesy of my aunt and uncle. My brother and I sat across a table from each other, curiously eyeing the small, rectangular packages of strawberry, orange and grape jelly. It was the first time I had ever tasted anything like that. By the end of breakfast we had stuffed our pockets with what we had not already consumed and I clearly remember thinking to myself “If this is what America is like, I love it here!” Upon entering our new little home on a pristine suburban street in Hollywood Hills all I needed was the sight of my own bedroom with a new transistor radio on the dresser to convince me that I had died and gone to heaven. We all became American citizens in 1965 and at some point my brother and I started speaking only in English and that troublesome chapter of our lives was closed.

Yet, I can’t watch any documentary on the history of the Cuban revolution without feeling sad that that happened to us. And when I see images of those little Cuban girls dressed in their cotton dresses and turned down socks, clutching their dolls as they walk off  airplanes and onto the tarmac in Florida, I tear up. The adults are hugging each other, crying as they reunite with relatives, but the little girls are just looking up at their parents with an expression of total bewilderment. Many year later maybe what they will recall will be their parents’ pain in those early years. They will hear the stories over and over until they can’t differentiate between their own sad memories and what their parents told them. And they will enjoy wonderful happy lives in their new homes. Even though they will feel as American as anyone else born and raised here, they will also feel uniquely Cuban.  One day they may be confronted with the same images of puzzled, expressionless children making another journey they don’t quite understand and they will feel a sadness and compassion the depths of which you can’t comprehend unless you have been on a similar journey.

My parents never set foot in Cuba again. I was hoping to one day be able to go back together. My mother said it would be too sad. My father said he would never support the Castro regime by traveling there. They are both gone now . Years ago my dad gave me the deed to our house in Havana and said “Someday you will be able to go and get our house back.”  The expression on his face carried a hint of sadness still, only when he and his friends would sit around and talk about Cuba. So maybe now I am the keeper of this sadness and when I see and read about what is happening on our borders today it doesn’t take much to recognize that their story is my story. Politically speaking, I don’t have a solution and like many others I am sick of the vitriol and finger-pointing by politicians on both sides. To me, this is a story of emotional displacement and families being torn apart. It is a matter of the heart. And I hope there can be a happy ending.

What can you do?