The ride on the bumpy bus was in a word, nauseating. As the vehicle climbed into higher elevations, I looked at the locals surrounding me, my parents and my two brothers Peter and Teddy. There were two people sitting behind us holding live chicken on their laps. The ride was so long I noticed urine I presumed to be from the chickens trickling down the aisle to the front. As I lifted up my feet holding my knees close, I noticed that an older man decided to blow his nose—directly onto the floor of the bus aisle. I almost vomited. However, when we finally arrived to the Swat region of Pakistan from where we were living in Islamabad, I looked at my surroundings and felt newly energized. Years later when I first saw the Swiss Alps, I would be reminded of this moment.
As soon as we took our first few steps, a guide emerged, motioned to my dad and immediately led us toward the nearby water. The clear stream ran next to the rocky footpath. I loved the cold sensation of the water as I leaned down and extended the single finger of my right hand to feel the temperature. We were surrounded by the most beautiful, yet underdeveloped and rugged terrain. Wearing my only pair of dark brown lace-up shoes, my tiny feet betrayed me as I often stumbled crossing the path of rocks. At only four, Teddy, with his fully-formed feet, could already better manage the uneven terrain as compared to his older sister.
Within an hour we would reach the village. There were as many animals as children and as we came closer to our destination, a few children began to follow us. I would turn every few minutes to see if they were still with us. “C’mon Meggie.” It was my father beckoning me as I had fallen slightly behind my brothers and parents. A professor with a concentration in Middle Eastern studies, my father had already spent years studying the region and did not seem fazed whatsoever by our young followers. After all, it wasn’t every day that an American family passed through Swat. Of course our presence would not go unnoticed.
In the village of Mingora, there were hordes of Pakistanis spread up and down the main road, selling various goods. The colorful textiles and shiny gold jewelry and accessories captivated me. Walking through the market as a family, a beautiful coat suddenly caught my eye. The coat was completely embroidered with the colors of the rainbow and yet so petit it seemed designed to fit Barbie, herself. At this point in my young life, I had never heard of Joseph and his “coat of many colors” (or the Broadway “Technicolor Dreamcoat” version), but if I had, this would be the miniature version of the robe. My mother immediately recognized its beauty too, and without saying a word, gave me a single piaster for payment.
I approached the seller and looked up at her almost black eyes, small, tanned and somewhat grimy face. The only thing we shared in common was our raven-colored dark hair. Only a year or two older than I, she was surrounded by several adults and one other child. When I pointed to the coat, she immediately noticed my sole finger. In that moment, we both stared at one another for a long time….with pity. Given my blatant and seemingly unfortunate difference, she looked at me as if my life was destined for suffering. Given her minimal surroundings, I looked at her as if her life was destined for suffering.
I have been invited to speak in the coming week at Ethan and Charlie’s school. The Assembly is called, “Character Counts,” and focuses on themes like respecting difference. Our town Mayor, the school Superintendant and Principal will also be speaking. In hindsight, I was probably a a shoe-in for the key-note. At first, I wasn’t going to even prepare a slide deck. After all, I figured, who needs a power point when I can clearly be the best visual? But then I reconsidered, reminding myself that I would likely lose my grade-school audience with a 20-minute speech where my hands were the only attraction.
And so I have decided to speak about various forms of difference, both obvious and invisible. I will draw on my “Beyond the Moon,” blog post from this past summer, and want to help inspire kids to consider where they might be letting other peoples’ judgments affect them and hold them back. Still, I felt somehow something was missing.
And then the other day I was saddened to hear that Malala Yousafzi, a 14-year old from Swat, had been nearly fatally shot in the head while traveling in a open air vehicle filled with other girls coming home from school. Two other girls were injured, also. Despite her youth, Malala is well-known within Pakistan and the international community from a blog diary she kept for BBC’s Urdu service. Through her writings, that began when she was only eleven years old, Malala earned the admiration of many for her courage in speaking out about life under the brutal rule of Taliban militants. She had become a determined advocate for education for girls, something the Taliban and many conservative forces strongly oppose in Pakistan. In 2011, Malala was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize and the same year won the National Peace Prize in Pakistan. After reading several of her diary entries this past week, it suddenly hit me what was missing for my discussion.
Malala represents difference not based on what she looks like, but her willingness to stand-up for what she believes in, no matter the judgment, no matter the danger. Malala’s amazing courage made me think about how sometimes the hardest thing to do as children grow-up and navigate their way, inside and outside school, is to go against the grain of what the other kids are doing, saying, or perhaps even wearing. Those who stand out rightly fear being categorized as different, and not in a good way. Difference becomes ugly, rather than beautiful. The pressure to conform is enormous.
Appreciating difference will be an important part of my message. Living your life to its maximum potential, despite external pressures, is key. But the willingness to stand-up for something or even someone you believe in, despite the potential backlash, is the epitome of courage and the true acceptance of difference. So many of us hide behind the opinions of the majority, our true feelings cloaked. Yet not everyone holds back, hiding who they are and what they like or believe in. It’s amazing to be in their presence. They are as beautiful as Joseph’s amazing dream coat must have looked thousands of years ago; as beautiful as Malala Yousafzi herself.