Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Excellent Educational Center

...or, on my budding second career in public speaking...

On my very first day at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, I met Reza. He stopped into Safi's office specifically to say hello, requested my email, and immediately sent me a welcome detailing his own contact information in case I needed anything. He proceeded to introduce me to many others over the days that followed - always as the intern from Harward. I love Reza, so when he told me his cousin runs an English school, and that he'd like for Lea and me to visit sometime, I happily agreed.

We went Friday afternoon. As we sat in the director's office, he explained that there would be a speech competition that afternoon, and that Lea and I would be introduced as guests of honor and invited to speak for 5 minutes apiece, with time for questions to follow. Then we walked across the street to another classroom building. The room had nearly 200 people, but seats were reserved in the front row for our little troupe.

The competition began with the elementary students, 8 and 10-year-olds who spoke on the question: "is it difficult to govern an uneducated country?" One said yes; without money, there is no education, and without education, we learn only from our fathers and grandfathers and never change. The winner called leadership without education "a bird without wings."

The intermediate class tackled the prompt "our culture must survive." All contrasted Islamic culture with competing forces - one of the three didn't even mention a distinct Afghan culture within the religious tradition. Another called Afghan culture "the best culture" and called for national unity in respecting diverse traditions in order to protect them from outside influences.

Finally, the most advanced students grappled with "do humans deserve to be called supreme creatures?" One girl humbly declared that we were so only because God had given us this title. The boy who followed commmented that "man is a great yet careless creature," while the winning girl discussed the social sciences and our tendency to study our own flaws rather than celebrate the essential goodness of humanity. She declined to pass a verdict: "as we are the jury, we are uncertain of our choice."

Lea and I were introduced, and she then spoke about how many opportunities her own education had given her, while Reza translated for the many parents in the room. I then stepped forward and asked how many of the students had traveled to other countries, and a few hands went up. I asked how many had been to Europe, the Middle East, or the Americas, and a very few hands stayed up. I told them that I hadn't traveled very far when I was young, but that I had read a great deal about other places and studied languages - and that eventually these studies allowed me to see the countries I had learned about through books. I finished with a silly line about how pleasing it was to see their dedication and progress, and we opened the floor.

One speech contestant asked if the students' English was actually any good, and what we liked about Afghanistan so far. A younger girl wanted to know what we thought of the weather - and the government (we evaded the latter question). Lea asked one mother about her thoughts on education and she spelled out her hopes for her children in some detail.

We beamed at the over-generous applause and sat back down as the director announced class awards and handed out end-of-term certificates. Only then did I realize that we'd been the graduation speakers, essentially. I felt ashamed - some foreign dignitaries. I hadn't even practiced remarks properly! In any case, the welcome was warm, and I've now been invited home for dinner by Reza's father, who has also promised to find me a nice Afghan boy to marry... a productive Friday indeed.

1 comment:

SV said...

instead of talking about the internal muse, you might have talked about the limits of reason, and about passion and intuition in afghan life.