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September 1, 2013
Vol. 71
No. 1

Perspectives / Maya and Malala

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      I heard two amazing speeches recently.
      One was given by the renowned author and poet, Dr. Maya Angelou, (p. 10) who first told her story of triumph over violence, racial prejudice, and a voiceless childhood in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. As many know, the trauma of rape at 7 and the killing of her rapist shortly thereafter stopped her from speaking for six years. Perhaps that's why, now at 85, when she gives speeches, she often greets the audience with a song, joyful proof that she has found her voice. That's what she did last March when, elegantly dressed in silvery white, she wheeled her wheelchair onstage to speak to 10,000 educators at the ASCD Annual Conference.
      She then told us about the dream she had had as a teenager of becoming an interpreter at the fledgling United Nations. A 16-year-old African-American female, unwed and pregnant, she was not in a position to achieve that goal. But years later, after working her way to achievement in several careers and earning several academic degrees and mastering several languages, she was asked to write a poem on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. She told about her accomplishments not to brag but to voice her "attitude of gratitude" to all those who gave her the courage to become who she is today. Many of those people were teachers, from her Uncle Willie, who taught her her multiplication tables, to her mother and grandmother, who in their very different ways, believed in her. (See a story about her speech.)
      The other amazing speech I heard was broadcast far and wide online this past July. It was delivered at the United Nations General Assembly on the occasion of "Malala Day," a young woman's 16th birthday. Malala Yousafzai is the Pakistani teen who was shot in the forehead last October by a Taliban terrorist as she was traveling with her friends to the school for girls that her father had started. Malala was targeted because she wrote a blog that took up the cause of education for girls. She was—and is—regarded as a serious political threat. Diminutive and wearing a pink shawl, she began her speech by expressing her gratitude to all those who helped her recover from her critical injuries and who had prayed for her new life. She thanked her parents, who were watching her proudly from the audience, for teaching her forgiveness.
      She used Malala Day as an occasion to remember the thousands and thousands of people who have been killed or injured by terrorists and to call for education for the 57 million children around the world who cannot go to school. "We realized the importance of pens and books when we saw the guns. The extremists are afraid of books and pens," she said. "They thought that the bullets would silence us, but they failed. Out of the silence came thousands of voices. The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions. But nothing changed in my life except this: Weakness, fear, and hopelessness died; strength, fervor, and courage were born."
      Speaking for "those without voice," she ended her speech: "One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution. Education first."
      Maya and Malala, two women of different generations and cultures, with enormous dreams and talents—one celebrating achievements past and thanking teachers everywhere, and the other with many challenges ahead but looking forward to changing the world. Both embody the secrets of "Resilience and Learning" that this issue of Educational Leadership attempts to uncover. Resilience and every kind of learning—from sports to skills, academics to avocations—go hand in hand, researchers tell us, each building on the other (pp. 8, 14, 74). Resilience itself is a learned trait (pp. 14, 84). And one can learn it not just from one's parents but from whoever steps up to teach it (pp. 22, 28, 34). But—and here's the rub—resilience needs to be practiced and practiced again throughout life (p. 66). One never stops paying one's dues when it comes to resilience.
      What can be done to give students the strength, the effort, and the knowledge to persist in the face of difficulty and adversity? Not mere preparation for standardized tests, surely, but a whole education that offers challenge, support, engaged learning, health, and safety. Education that shores up each student's strengths and teaches discipline, caring, and courage: It takes resilience to even try for it.
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      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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