Note: This post was mostly written before the Boston Marathon bombings and the ensuing manhunt, which, as I as write this, is still underway. Condolences to all the victims and to the residents of Boston and its surroundings. May “positive disruption” expand so that alienated young men can find non-violent ways to express themselves and politicians can find the courage to support gun control.
Female empowerment has dominated our household for the past few weeks. On April 3, Daughter #1, who has been volunteering at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, attended a TEDxChange talk there on “Positive Disruption” — a term used to describe making catalytic changes to society, agriculture, technology and communities.
Afterwards the teen volunteers got to meet with the presenters. D#1 was particularly taken with Halimatou Hima, a sweet and soft spoken young human rights activist from Niger.
She was also impressed by Melinda Gates. (I couldn’t help but wonder aloud whether Melinda Gates is spared eye-rolling from her kids, who are around the same age as mine. The consensus among the teens present in my minivan was that no parent is immune to eye-rolling).
TEDxChange is a program dedicated to spreading ideas in the areas of global health and development. It was created in 2010 out of a partnership between the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and TEDx, a program designed to give communities, organizations, and individuals the opportunity to stimulate dialogue through TED-like experiences at the local level. This talk was TedxChange’s annual global signature event.
D #1 also met Salim Shekh and Sikha Patra, who are featured in the film “The Revolutionary Optimists,” which describes children who are saving lives in the slums of Calcutta. That evening, she attended a screening of that film.
The next night, Jeff took Daughters #1 and #2 and me to a screening of Girl Rising, the story of nine girls from nine different countries, who fought for the right to be educated.
It’s a moving and powerful film and my girls could relate to the girls it depicted. Except at 6:30 the next morning. “Remember how determined Wadley was to go to school?” I asked, as I tried to pry my sleepy, grumpy daughters out of bed, invoking the impish Haitian girl who, post-earthquake, staged a sit-in at her reconstituted school, so she would be allowed to study there, even though her mother could not afford to pay the fees.
When your kids are exposed to such stories and when they tell you they were inspired by them, you can feel good, as a parent and as a global citizen. Isn’t this the kind of leaning in we really want? For our daughters to be part of a global movement for the betterment of all?
After the excitement of the TED talk and movies died down, we spent the rest of the week and most of that weekend preparing for Daughter #1’s trip to Japan, as part of a school exchange program. There were two mall forays (which, thankfully, turned out better than the first one) and an exhaustive hunt for a travel-safe shoulder bag with zippers that “doesn’t make me look like a forty-year-old woman.” (ouch)The trip involved traveling with a dozen other eighth-graders and two teachers, visiting Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka and then staying with a Japanese family and attending school in the town of Izushi.
Them: What are we having for dinner?
Them, warily: What country?
Bathroom renovation #2 is underway. Whenever Ds #1 and #2 sit on the toilet, they will look down on a floor embedded with the Talavera tiles we brought back from Mexico.
But this would be the first time one of my daughters would venture into the world without us.
In the background, we were aware that Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s new young leader, perhaps seeking his own noteworthy method of “leaning in,” was threatening to test-fire a missile and that Japan’s Ministry of Defense was assembling anti-missile defenses.
I contacted Foreign Service friends with connections to Japan and Korea in an effort to establish a personal in-country connection. I encouraged the teacher to register her group with the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). I scanned travel advisories and alerts and was relieved that Japan was not one of the countries on the list.
My mother told me that when I was an exchange student in France, she used to read my letters, filled with tales of mishaps and near-catastrophes, over a bottle of wine. “How can you do that,” people would ask her. Because of the time lag with international communication in the pre-Internet age, she knew that by the time she received my letters, I had weathered the storms (though likely had embarked on new adventures).
Daughter #1 left for Japan and Daughter #2 and I went to Los Angeles with friends.
We took full advantage of technology
and were able to Snapchat and Instagram pictures of the set and one of the stars of Pretty Little Liars
and look at pictures of D#1 and her friends buying toy swords, riding the subway and gorging themselves on Tokyo sweets.
D#2 and I were in Disneyland when we learned the extent of the Boston Marathon bombings. It was surreal to be at “the happiest place on earth.”
We embarked on boats and rode through the timeless and, that day, timely classic ride, It’s a Small World, and I almost didn’t mind having the song stuck in my head.
D#1 will be back this weekend. I know she will be forever changed by this experience.
I can’t wait to see her.
Just after I started writing this post, Anne Smedinghoff, a young Foreign Service Officer, was killed in Afghanistan.
Having been a young idealistic Foreign Service Officer in a country that had been devastated by war, I could imagine what she was feeling as she drove down that dusty road. She must have been anticipating the delight of the children who would receive the books she was donating and how impressed they would be that she could speak a few words of Dari. She would drink the tea that was offered to her, pose for pictures and return to her compound, confident that, history notwithstanding, on that day she had made a difference.
I wrote a book about my experiences, but my Foreign Service stories are only the first section of my memoir. Anne Smedinghoff’s life story stops prematurely.
To her parents, who supported her desire to engage in positive disruption, I extend my heartfelt condolences.