My daughter, Shaila, has been reading a lot lately. She is reading earlier than I was as a kid, just halfway through Kindergarten. I don’t remember doing much reading until the first grade. Watching her explore words and sounds and hearing her stumble over sentences as she turns the pages of her books brings back vivid memories of finally breaking that impenetrable code. You start out unsure, your steps a little timid as you first start stringing vowels and consonants together. Pretty soon, you are running. Before you know it, flying.
Like magic. But better.
As she reads to me right now, I know she is in those early phases. She stops frequently and looks at me and says, “Mommy, am I doing good?” To which I reply with a proud nod and a small kiss on the forehead, sometimes too overcome with emotion to even say the words.
But I do that a lot too. “Wow! You’re doing so well!” I say, watching her trying to hide her proud smile so it becomes a little smirk instead. It reaches her eyes and I can see it. She takes a second to find her spot again before she moves forward. A little more confident this time.
These are exciting times for her. I can kind of tell that of my two kids, she is going to be the one who is going to find that incredible joy in learning. I think Nico will too, but I think he will define success with a different sort of metric – how many kids he made laugh that day or how well he can burp or fart on command.
The big things.
I am an incredibly lucky person. These are not things I take for granted in life. Throughout my life, I have been encouraged to learn, to push, to succeed, to learn from my falls, to beat the boys and to kick ass and take some names on the way there. My Indian parents may have been traditional in a lot of ways, but they never lead me to believe that there were boundaries around my mind. Around where it could take me.
What a gift?
I look at my daughter sometimes and wonder if and when she will understand the opportunities she has in this life. When she storms off from the kitchen yelling, “This is no fair. YOU are no fair!” because she didn’t get another piece of Starburst, I wonder if she knows how different life could be.
I know she doesn’t. And to a certain extent, I don’t think she will ever get it. I don’t know how many of us really get it. I have seen how different my own life could be in my own world travels. I know how startlingly different my own opportunities could have been. If I had been born into another family, another religion, another country or another government. Despite these things, I often find myself not contemplating how lucky I am, but focusing instead on all the areas my life is lacking.
The other night at dinner, I was talking to John about a young woman who I find myself thinking about a lot lately. Malala Yousafzai. I found myself losing sight of where I was and forgetting that Shaila could spell for a minute.
“I mean, can you believe it? Taking on the T-A-L-I-B-A-N like that? She was only 11! She must have been so S-C-A-R-E-D. 11! Knowing that the T-A-L-I-B-A-N wanted her D-E-A-D,” I marveled at John.
“Mommy, who is dead?” Shaila asked.
John looked at me and shook his head. I guess now that she can spell, this isn’t table talk anymore.
But I wanted to answer Shaila. Because as I watch Shaila learn every day, I think more and more about what a young woman like Malala means in this world.
I think about her heart, I think about her recovery, I think about her bravery.
And I pray for her. And her family.
Malala looks a LOT like my niece, Haley, in this picture. My niece is 16. She loves the band One Direction. She is surrounded by friends and is a badass Volleyball player. She is a sensitive soul, and she is a good kid. A strong kid. I know she will do well in this life.
Her life is very different from Malala’s. As was mine. As will be my daughter’s.
When Malala was 11 years old, she started writing a blog where she exposed her views on living under Taliban rule and actively spoke about promoting education for girls in countries under Taliban rule. She was encouraged by her father to do this for BBC Urdu after another girl backed out. The girl’s family was rightfully scared of what the Taliban might do if they learned her identity.
Malala agreed to take on the task, the burden, the duty. Eleven years old. In Pakistan. This was in 2009.
Between 2009 and 2011, Malala stopped hiding her identity. She became a much more prominent activist and she, along with her father, spoke loudly against terrorism, knowing full well the potential for consequences. Death threats abounded. The Taliban made no secret that the girl was considered a threat to their view of Islam.
On her way home from school one day in 2012, Malala was shot in the head by the Taliban. The gunman boarded her bus and asked for her by name. When he shot her, he left her for dead. The bullet went through her head, neck and ended at her shoulder. Had he known she was not dead, he surely would have shot her several more times.
This man. This man with a gun. Shooting an unarmed fourteen year old girl. Sometimes I wonder what has happened to this man. I wonder if he is able to sleep at night. But then I realize that after his mistake, the Taliban probably did not let him regret his misstep for long.
People the world over know Malala’s story. Most of you know Malala’s story. But for those of you who don’t, know this. In another show of this amazing girl’s strength, she managed to live. To survive.
I don’t know all the details of her surgery, but her doctors were able to save her. I don’t know how, but I DO know that she was meant to live. That she has more chapters to write. This girl, who had the audacity to uphold her right to an education in the face of the Taliban and survive. She is not done yet.
And it’s in moments like this that I feel an overwhelming sense of clarity. I don’t always know how he works or why, but I do believe in God.
I believe in God when I see him clearly through the god like actions of his children.
I look up and Shaila is looking at me. We are still at dinner. My thoughts have wandered.
“Who is dead, Mommy? D-E-A-D. That spells dead,” she looks at me, no longer eating. I look over at John. He shakes his head. She is only five.
“Nobody, honey. I didn’t spell d-e-a-d. It was something else,” I say, changing the topic, while she looks on confused, both sad that she didn’t spell a word right while knowing that I am not being honest with her. And I am such a liar, such a fraud for saying this to her.
Shaila is five. Only six years younger than Malala was when she started this incredible journey.
Shaila is five years old, but she deserves the truth. My answer to my daughter is riddled with untruth. Malala may NOT be dead. Thank goodness she is not dead. But it’s not “nobody” that is dead. Many like her have been killed. Many like her will continue to die and live in fear if our children are not taught to embrace what they have. To recognize what children around this world are fighting for.
Tonight, Shaila will want to read me a story. Maybe it will be Cinderella. Maybe it will be The Little Mermaid.
But before she reads me that story tonight, I think that there is another one that maybe she should hear first. It starts out like this:
“Once upon a time, there was a girl. A girl with a book.”
If you want to help further the cause of education for ALL of the children of this world, consider voting for Malala for Time’s Person of the Year award, which will be announced on Friday, December 14th. You can vote here.
Also, if you believe in this cause and the advancement of standing with these girls, these young women, consider liking this Facebook page and Blog – #Girlwithabook. The founders of this site have done an amazing job of bringing awareness to this cause and creating a community of people passionate about ending the battle.
The battle against our world’s children.
“Literacy is not a luxury, it is a right and a responsibility. If our world is to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century we must harness the energy and creativity of all our citizens.” – U.S. President Bill Clinton, International Literacy Day 09/08/1994