Last Sunday, I gave an address here in Chapel, as the introduction to the CAIS Student Leadership Conference, on the dangers of obsession with leadership. It was designed to launch the theme of the conference, ‘Thinking Outside of the Box,' and to provoke students and staff alike.
As part of my address, I drew upon some experiences in education which have helped shape me including one about a blind Spanish student, Belén, who contributed to my increased awareness of the resourcefulness of every student. She was, quite simply, an inspiration to those around her.
Thursday saw the annual worldwide recognition of Mine Awareness Day.
I was fortunate, as Head of my last school, also to work with students who were survivors of war – injured by land mines and other weapons or displaced by conflict. They came to our Norwegian Red Cross campus for both education and rehabilitation – from Cambodia, Columbia, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Iraq, Nepal, Nicaragua, Laos and other countries.
I shall tell three stories this morning of these remarkable students in the spirit of this reflection:
Edwin lived in a rural village in Nicaragua and one day sneaked into the room of a lodger in his family home and found a tin of black boot polish under the bed. He opened it. In fact, what he opened was a land mine, as the lodger was a guerrilla, and Edwin lost both his forearms and one eye in the explosion.
He came to Norway with no English and became a talented painter, sportsman and downhill and cross country skier. If Nicaragua had a winter para-Olympic team, he would be on it. He also has a mischievous sense of humour. Towards the end of his time, the Norwegian Red Cross gave him two prosthetic arms. I remember vividly walking out of my office building one afternoon and seeing his arms abandoned and unforgettably still attached to the handlebars. He joked that he preferred not to use his arms as the students in his boarding house now expected him to do the washing up - especially as one hand could rotate 360 degrees for drying plates!
He is now back in Nicaragua working as an English teacher, ambassador for the Red Cross and Vice President of the National Society for the Visually Impaired.
The second student was Melvin. He and his friends were swimming in a river in El Salvador when, unprovoked, they were attacked by a gang. His friends were all shot and killed and he was left paralyzed from the chest down. He was probably the most talented artist in the school, painting murals across and up our walls. Kathini and I have some prints he made of a man crouched with the wings of an angel - a fitting motif. He won a full scholarship to Ringling College of Art in the US - and is now in his first year there.
On the 1st May, 2015, the whole student body summited the mountain behind the school. His roommates trained for months and pulled him in an off-road wheelchair and, in certain steep sections, on their backs to the peak. I remember the other students swarming down the mountainside to encourage the team up the final snowy ridge.
It was the ultimate crystallization of inclusion and I asked to use an image of it for the front cover of the school’s Strategic Vision 2020.
Finally, I would like to introduce you to Mohammed from Iraq. He arrived in Grade 11 at school with a phone, google translate, and the ability only to say: ‘Hello. My name is Mohammed.’ He had lost a leg to a rocket which exploded on the front steps of his home in Baghdad.
My weekly community service was called Parafootball (soccer in Canadian speak). We played each Wednesday evening with local Norwegians with Down Syndrome - and a group of our students (with and without physical disabilities) were part of the squad. Every tournament started with the division of players into teams. We usually played indoors – 4 players against 4 players – with the winning team staying on to play the next team. In Mohammed’s first week at the school, we had an odd number of players and I ended up on a team of three – with Mohammed and a local Norwegian with Down Syndrome. We had no common language. I began to think this was going to be a long and dispiriting night of defeats and my hopes continued to plummet when Mohammed started inexplicably taking off his prosthetic leg and getting out his crutches. The next hour was a complete revelation. Mohammed was everywhere – fast and agile, tackling with his crutches and with a wingspan of an albatross. In front of goal, he bamboozled the keepers as he could shoot with either crutch or his leg. I think we won every game that night.
The following week, he was the first player to be picked.
Mohammed is back in Iraq taking some national exams and has recently written to me about the possibility of an internship here at Shawnigan.
I am delighted to report that girls joined this Survivors of Conflict program recently from Cambodia and Iraq – their challenge was that they were doubly disadvantaged in their post-conflict societies as disabled and female.
I learnt – as did the rest of the school community – that to underestimate these students is to underestimate them at your own peril. They are highly talented, functionally independent, resilient, respected and resourceful individuals.
On reflection, they added a 4th ‘C’ to campus life: Conversation, Compassion, Community … and Courage.
Living and working alongside them gives students and staff alike increased awareness and understanding.
Our hope was that in whatever community, both personally and professionally, our students found themselves in they would hold a lifelong respect for inclusion and the resourcefulness of all individuals.
I hope that, in the years ahead, we too as a school will be open to offering a Shawnigan education to students of a similar profile. They have much to teach us as a community with their stories becoming our shared stories.
Kurt Hahn, the German educator – the thinker behind Outward Bound and The Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme which some of you participate in – observed perceptively:
‘There is more in you than you think’ or, in French, ‘Plus est en Vous.’
An important message for us all this morning – especially when self-doubt creeps in for each of us.
‘There is more in us than we think.’
It is also important to remember there is more in others than we think.