The Courage to Begin Again – Peshawar School Reopens

For 16-year-old Shahrukh Khan, who was shot in both legs while pretending to play dead in his school’s auditorium, going back was traumatic.

“I have lost 30 of my friends, how I will sit in the empty class, how I will look to their empty benches,” he told AFP before the school reopened.

“My heart has been broken. All the class fellows I had, have died, now my heart does not want to attend school,” he added.

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Pakistan - school boy

I happened on the article unexpectedly. It wasn’t a front page story, rather it was a reprint from Associated Foreign Press in Al Arabiya News and to date has only been viewed around 900 times. But it is an important story. The headline shouts to me of courage and vulnerability, of people who even in their grief are moving forward.

“Peshawar schools reopen after Taliban massacre”

The attack was almost a month ago – December 16 – and captured the world’s attention for a record 24 hours before another major event took its place.

Trauma has a domino effect. It not only affects those who were directly impacted, but moves on to third, fourth, fifth degrees. Millions of children, parents, teachers, and school administrators, as well as the general population were affected by the attack on one school. Schools around the country were closed as the government discussed strategies on how best to provide protection for children.

Though difficult for any school to open, the Army Public School where the attack occurred has faced the most trauma and pain. So the courage to begin again, the courage to put fear aside and to move forward is huge.

Why do I think this is particularly important in the case of the Peshawar attack? 

Because Pakistan is never in the news for their bravery. Never in the news for those millions who continue to get up day after day and display tremendous courage doing things that most of us dismiss because they are so mundane – going to school; going to work; going to the bazaar.

An old article in Psychology Today highlights some attributes of courage and four of these resonated with me:

  • Feeling fear yet choosing to act
  • Standing up for what’s right
  • Persevering in the face of adversity
  • Facing suffering with dignity or faith

All of these are present in the decision to open the school where the attacks occurred. Every parent, every child displays these qualities as they enter the doors of a place where they saw and experienced trauma and violence, where classmates died and life changed. They are choosing to not succumb to paralysis. They are defiant in the face of terror, daring it to stop them. They are courageously moving forward.

Malala Yousafzai has rightly won the world’s respect, admiration, and attention for surviving an attack by the Taliban in Swat Valley. With the opening of the Army Public School we see more and more with the same spirit and courage as Malala. Let us commend these students, these teachers, and these school administrators for their bravery. Let us salute them for their courage to begin again.

“I am not scared, no force can stop me from going to attend my school, I will go and will tell the attackers, ‘we are not afraid of you’,” 16-year-old Zahid Ayub, who sustained minor wounds, told AFP.

“It is the miracle of movement.  People who have experienced severe accidents with trauma to the spinal cord will often say that learning to walk again is one of the hardest things they have ever done….It’s learning how to walk in a new way, learning how to live differently, first in baby steps, gradually gaining strength and momentum. It takes time and it takes work.” from Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging 

Picture Credit: Tim Irwin taken in Pakistan 2010

On Cultural Competency & Cultural Humility

I spoke to a class of graduate nursing students yesterday in the city of Worcester. The topic was on cultural competency and health care — a topic I’ve spoken on for many years. They were an amazing group of students; smart, engaged, thoughtful, and diverse.

When I began to do this work around 13 years ago I knew it all. I spoke with confidence and flair, I had all the ‘best’ examples and brought people into the conversation in a new way. But this work is like living cross-culturally; the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know. The more you experience, the less you are sure of any absolutes. So now, I’m much less sure of outcomes, yet much more committed to the process.

If you define cultural competency at its most basic level, it is about learning to communicate and function effectively across cultural barriers, cultural differences. So no matter where you live in the world, it is something that is useful to learn. In our increasingly diverse societies, it is indeed a critical life skill. The difference however when it comes to cultural competency and health care is that the stakes are higher. Cultural competency, knowing how to function in the midst of cultural differences, can change an outcome, can be the difference between life and death, or life and permanent, irreversible damage and I am not being dramatic when I say that.

  • There is the 71-million dollar word resulting in an 18 year-old becoming a quadriplegic.
  • There is the story of Lia Lee; a Hmong child who ended up having severe brain damage, largely because the arrogance of western biomedicine and the ignorance of healthcare providers who did not take into account the family’s belief system.
  • There is the story of a Japanese mom who ‘didn’t sound worried’ over the phone so was not given an appointment for her small child. By the time she did get the appointment, it was too late and the child died.

There is an argument in the field of cultural competency on the word ‘competency’. I would argue that in every field there are certain competencies that need to be met. As a nurse, I was not allowed to do certain things until I had reached a certain level of competency. It didn’t mean I knew everything, it meant that I was at a point where I could function well and not be a danger to patients. The same is true for cultural competency – I believe that people can reach a level of competency and have tools to use when it comes to communicating effectively across cultural boundaries.

But critical to this field of study, to this skill set is the idea of cultural humility. This term was developed in 1998 by two physicians: Dr. Melanie Tervalon and Dr. Jann Murray-Garcia. They proposed that this was what the goal should be when it comes to looking at outcomes. They say this: “Cultural humility incorporates a lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and self-critique, to redressing the power imbalances in the patient-physician dynamic, and to developing mutually beneficial and non paternalistic clinical and advocacy partnership with communities on behalf of individuals and defined populations.”

How does that work out in practice?

It means being a student of the patient, person, or the community — not an expert.

It means not equating limited language ability with limited intellectual ability.

It means admitting what you don’t know, and seeking to learn what you need to.

It means seeking out those who can function as cultural brokers, as cultural informants and asking them questions, learning from them.

It means knowing the importance of culture for all who we encounter.

It means being capable of complexity. 

It means learning the fine art of negotiation, and the finer art of putting what we think is best in the background, focusing instead on what the person or community thinks is best .

Most of all, it means knowing who you are, what your cultural beliefs and values are, and how they may come into conflict with those you are wanting to serve. We wear our culture like skin. we’re so used to it we don’t even think that what we do, how we think, how we govern, how our schools are set up, our infrastructure, our medical system, is all based on cultural beliefs and values. Until we recognize both the complexity and the pervasiveness of our cultural beliefs we cannot move forward in communicating effectively across cultural boundaries. Then, and only then can we move forward on this path.

I left the students yesterday with this quote: 

Most things that don’t make sense from the outside usually do make sense if understood from the inside…

It’s a life long journey, but so worth pursuing. 

Blogger’s Note: One book I would recommend that looks at cultural competency in the context of western medicine is The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman. It is a profound look at culture, healthcare, and what can go wrong.

A View and a Door

I never realized how empty and quiet a coffee table could look.

I’ve written before about our love for books and how dull women have immaculate coffee tables. Our coffee table always has a minimum of 20 books (usually more like 40) on it. It’s square and sturdy, a well-lived and loved table. What I didn’t realize is how many books would be going out the door with my son, leaving a quiet coffee table.

My husband dropped our youngest off at college yesterday morning – I was to join them later in the day for parent orientation. When I asked my husband what Jonathan’s room was like he said enthusiastically “It’s great! It has a view and a door!”

For almost six years Jonathan has had a basement room with no view and no door, only a black curtain for privacy. This fifth child of ours is now living in 8 by 13 feet luxury!

By the time I arrived in the afternoon he was completely unpacked. Every book put on a shelf, every shirt hung up, and a bed made with crisp new sheets and comforter.

Who is this child and where have they taken my son? His room at home did not look this way.

I’ve been thinking about those two things: A view and a door. For they are a great picture of what college and life beyond mom and dad should be for a kid. A view of what can be and a door to get there.

Jonathan has chosen to attend an Orthodox school, Hellenic college, located on a beautiful campus in Brookline just outside of Boston. In distance he’s not far from home, in every other way he’s a million miles away. Hellenic sits apart on a hill, the gold dome of the chapel rising up to the sky. The view of Boston from the hill is stunning, one of the best views in the city.

The college does not just sit apart geographically. It’s entire ethos could not be more different from your average college, for this college experience is not about finding yourself. Rather, it’s about finding a way to serve Christ, the church, and society as the unique person God has created you to be, whether this be through business, science, medicine, art and more. The maroon and gold t-shirts worn by orientation staff bear the college logo and name on the front, and on the back “Through the cross, Joy”, a remarkable statement for college-age young adults, indeed a remarkable statement for any of us.

We sat through orientation and heard from a number of people from the dean to director of housing. The thread that tied all these together was finding your calling in Christ through vocation.

A view and a door. I have no doubt our son is already enjoying his view and his door, basking in sunlight coming through a large window and in the privacy that a door affords.

Far more important, he’s begun a journey that offers him a view and a door to so much more. Maybe it’s what we all long for in our souls – a view of something larger than us and a door to get there.

Readers – thanks for coming along on this journey with me by reading. There are many thoughts that aren’t making it to the page, but those that are have been met with tremendous support from you.

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In Honor of Boarding School Moms

For many moms, sending a child to boarding school is probably a bit like giving them up for adoption. You are entrusting another to care for that child who you birthed, who you love, who holds your heart. For let’s be honest, the minute we give birth there is a crack in our fine-oiled armor – A crack that is all soft, sweet-smelling baby. The crack widens when boarding school is a part of the picture.

And often there is criticism from others when boarding school becomes a part of the lives of children.  Sometimes the criticism is founded, other times it perhaps needs to be rethought and the words “God didn’t intend it this way” or “Your kids will never really heal” needs to be said cautiously, if at all.

For there are those of us who went to boarding school and knew even as young children that it was okay. We knew beyond doubt that our parents loved us. Knew that we were given to them as a gift on loan. Our parents understood that they were never the primary authors of our story – for that authorship belongs to God alone. But they wrote on our lives and allowed others to as well – our boarding parents.

Some of those boarding parents wrote well – words of wisdom, laughter, joy, and discipline. Others weren’t sure what to write – and that’s okay. They are and were human. Others wrote poorly – and that was difficult.

Today I honor my mom and two of those boarding moms – Deb & Eunice.

Eunice spoke into my life when I was a little girl. I was seven years old when I met her. Eunice was pretty and had the voice of an angel. She could be heard singing in the halls of our dormitory. I would pretend I was homesick just so I could have Auntie Eunice to myself. Auntie Eunice wrote music and joy into my elementary world. She mothered so many of us so well, yet always gave us up without a grudge when our real moms came to reclaim us.

But we were still always her kids.

Deb spoke into my life when I was a teenager. When boys and belief became more complicated and I was learning to work out my faith with fear and trembling. Deb’s small studio apartment had room for our cooking, our laughter, and even our tears – sometimes falling so fast it was hard to keep up. Deb loved us when we were unloveable and kept in touch with us when we faced the daunting task of returning to our passport countries. Deb was less housemother and more friend.

Deb and Eunice taught me to love well, without holding too tight. They taught me about sacrifice and perseverance. They taught me about laughter and the long journey. As I grew they became my friends – friends I could pray with, cry with, and laugh with until the wee morning hours.

And my mom allowed them to do that. She gave me to God and prayed for those who could walk beside me when she wasn’t there.

And He granted her request.

So to Deb, Eunice and Mom – Happy Mother’s Day and thank you! You loved well and taught so many of us to do the same.

Happy Mother’s Day. Thank you for loving well

Strength Will Rise

On Wednesday, my fifth child graduated from high school. The ceremony was living, breathing evidence of perseverance through adversity. Everyone on stage clothed in a black graduation gown with a cap and tassel has lived more of life than they should have in their short years. And we celebrated. Big time.

With this graduation I ended over 22 years and approximately 4025 days of school; of school functions and lunches; of good teachers and bad teachers and mediocre teachers; of interacting with parents I love and showing grace to parents I don’t love; of fundraisers and so much more. And it was Bittersweet. And it was time.

And my strength was gone. Gone like the chewed bones of the ribs that were eaten at the graduation party. Gone like the cups, plates and silverware tossed in the trash for tomorrow’s recycling. Gone like the people who had come, celebrated and left. I wanted to curl up in the fetal position and cry until there were no more tears to cry and my tears had watered every flower, bush and plant in the Boston Public Gardens. Instead I called a friend and sobbed, talking through all the emotions I was feeling.

Strength will rise as we wait upon the Lord, we will wait upon the Lord, we will wait upon the Lord

Sometimes all of life builds up like a house of cards and one little movement sends it crashing down, lying in a jumble of aces, spades, hearts and diamonds.

And that is what happened. My house of cards fell. I have gone on my own strength for so long that it took the tiniest of motions to cause the collapse and demise of my carefully constructed but pitifully weak house.

Our God, you reign forever. Our hope, our strong deliverer

After a heavy dose of tears and wise words of a friend swallowed with a big bottle of self-reflection I found myself in a place of humility and exhaustion. It was so good. It was so hard. 

You are the everlasting God, the everlasting God. You do not faint, you won’t grow weary 

I have tried to fix and rescue, protect and provide. Only. There are times when it is impossible. When the broken cannot be fixed and the drowning cannot be saved; when those who need protecting need more than our feeble efforts and provisions have run out. And that is where I was. I was weak. I was needy. My strength was gone.

You’re the defender of the weak, you comfort those in need

In the post-tears exhaustion that followed, I surrendered  with smudged mascara, tear coated contact lenses and weary willingness to lean on the One who gives life and the bread of life, the one who lifts us up on wings like eagles.

Strength will rise. 

A Long Journey; A Journey of Faith

When you become a mom you don’t have the luxury of seeing a future film about the twists and turns your life is going to take. You don’t know what joys, trials and tragedies may be awaiting you. You become a mom on faith.

Faith that you will weather the sun and rain that is a part of raising a child.

Faith that you will have strength for the long haul. 

Faith that you will have the grace it takes to love a child more than you love yourself.

In faith we get pregnant. In faith we give birth. In faith we cry tears of joy as we look at our newborn, awed by tiny hands and feet, puckered mouth, and newborn wrinkles. In faith we adopt. In faith we see our child for the first time at an orphanage or foster home, and from eyes to heart we know this is our child, given to us at this moment for this time. In faith we find out that something is not normal with our child, in faith we move forward learning all we can about children with Down Syndrome, or Muscular Dystrophy or Autism. It’s a journey, a journey of faith.

And there are moments when you see results of your faith. First steps, first word, first prayer, first day of school, completion of kindergarten, healing from a first heart ache or broken friendship, healing from a first wound, graduation…the list is endless.

It’s a long journey; A journey of faith.

Yesterday I saw a result: I received a text from my youngest saying “It’s all good!” – he had completed all the course work required and is graduating from high school. Next Wednesday he’ll pick up his cap and gown at four in the afternoon and go over final steps of the program. We will be there, celebrating with proud grandparents who will quietly cheer as their 17th grandchild graduates.

As youngest of five kids Jonathan came into the world with instant family and no need for play groups. He was adaptable and flexible, rarely displaying a temper and willing to go with whatever was happening. He is one of those kids that is comfortable to be around, even in adolescence. (Well. Mostly.) We can sit for hours discussing life topics, things that matter.

I’ve written before about Jonathan and academics. It’s been a long journey. He is smart, loves reading and is a critical thinker. But. He doesn’t fit with the main stream learning process that demands sitting at a desk, fitting in with the status quo, and writing one hundred ‘P’s’ across the paper in cursive to show you have it “right”. Wow. Good for us. We have a bunch of kids in this country who can write ‘P’s’.

And until this year, Jonathan did not have teachers that encouraged. He had teachers who were type A personalities whose teaching careers seemed defined by the results their students achieved. He has had teachers who follow the book to  the minute details and struggle to find room for the “Jonathans” in their classroom. He has had teachers who are more concerned about standardized tests than true learning. He was a statistic, caught in a bad system.

Until this fall. And this fall, by faith, we were able to move him into an extension program where he was surrounded by teachers who love teaching and love the students. He is now affirmed for who he is, not who they want him to be. He has excelled as he has inhaled Dostoevsky and Mark Twain, Kerouac and Nietzsche. It has not been easy and he has worked hard.

We celebrate the results of his work as he graduates a year early. This child who didn’t want to go to college (ever) is now excited about learning and looking into colleges and universities. He has applied to do a gap year in Oxford at an advanced studies program. He boasts a reference letter from one teacher that had me in tears with her affirmation of him as a student, of him as a person.

We become parents with no guarantees. Whether biologically birthing or adopting, parenthood is a journey of faith. Today I get to celebrate. Tomorrow I may have to cry. But that’s what this is: A long journey, a journey of faith. 

Communicating Across the Boundary of the Classroom – The F Cannot be Disguised!

Today I have the great privilege of posting over at Lessons from Teacher’s and Twits. I have followed Renée Schuls-Jacobson since early last fall and there are several things I love about Renée – one is her openness and sense of humor, the other is her ability to bring a community together on her blog. She generously shares her piece of the internet with others, so head on over to her blog to read and comment. I’ll be responding to comments there today!

The F could not be disguised. No matter how skilled my son was with the fine-point of a Sharpie, we could tell that it was not an A+ in English. If the pen smudge hadn’t given it away, then the comments would have: “Does not do his homework. Disorganized. Enthusiastic in class.”  Even though I had heard the comments before and knew they came from a drop-down list on a computer program, they still stung. Read more here….

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