Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Strategies for children: (Part I) saving them

[This is the first of a two-part series. Tomorrow Part II, "killing them," will appear.]

Last night I was working at my computer when I got a call from a friend telling me to turn on my TV and watch the Oprah Winfrey special called "Building a Dream."

I don't watch much TV to begin with, and Oprah isn't usually on my list. But I trust this friend so I turned it on, even though I'd missed the first twenty minutes. And within a few moments I was surprised to find tears streaming down my cheeks.

The premise? The plans began five years ago, when Oprah went to South Africa to build a boarding school (grades 7-12) for girls who'd shown special scholarship and leadership abilities. These were not children of the elite; she combed the countryside to find girls in out-of-the-way places, children of poverty who'd known terrible privation and yet hadn't been beaten down by it--yet.

Oprah's idea was to make sure that never happened, and in doing so she believes the project could have a transformative effect on the next generation of the whole country--Oprah thinks big. There's no doubt there's something to what she's saying; children are the future of any society and as they go, so goes the nation.

Oprah's got money, scads of it, so she spared no expense in constructing a school with 28 buildings, and began a process that would ultimately select the 152 young girls who would be the members of its first class.

And it was those girls who were the stars of this show, the ones who caused my tears. You can take a look at Oprah's (rather simplistic) website for some information and photos, but I urge you to watch the repeat of the show (I can't believe I'm doing this!), which airs the evening of March 3 on ABC at either 8 or 9 PM (check your local listings).

What was it about these children that was so moving--and yes, so inspiring? Even though they were individuals--some fat, some thin, some quiet, some talkative, some pretty, some plain--they all shared a common charactistic that is actually quite uncommon, at least in my experience, a trait not usually seen in girls in their early teens. They showed remarkable poise and self-possession without a hint of obnoxious arrogance, a sweetness combined with a steely strength. All were well-spoken and almost superhumanly polite, obviously intelligent, with a maturity not only beyond their years, but beyond the years of most people on earth even if they lived to be 100. And yet somehow they retained the lightheartedness of children.

These girls have known hardship, all right. There are Lincolnesque scenes of doing homework by candlelight, no running water, primitive outhouses. And material privations are not the only ones they've experienced; far worse is the amount of violence and death--particularly of parents--in their young lives. But even as they describe these things there is a reluctance to consider themselves victims--or, as one girl, Lesego, says, in her lilting, musical voice (speaking of herself in the third person, but charmingly rather than obnoxiously), "Lesego is a fighter and she'll never give up."

When you hear her say this, you believe it's not just idle boasting. In fact, it's not boasting at all, just a simple statement of fact. She's been through enough already to know whereof she speaks.

There's a famous statement by Ernest Hemingway: The world breaks everyone, and afterwards, many are strong at the broken places." These children are among that "many."

What has given them their phenomenal strength? That certain something is mysterious, but from studies of so-called "resilient" children (also see this), we've learned that it usually includes the loving support of at least one adult. Often, in these cases, it's a grandmother, something Oprah (and I) can identify with. Resilient children also probably have some innate personality traits that predispose them to doing well despite the odds: they usually possess a naturally optimistic and outgoing personality, for starters.

These girls appear to fall into that category. Despite their losses, they all seem to have at least one loving adult in their lives (perhaps even a village of them). You can see it in their faces when they bid good-bye and leave for the school; there are heartfelt tears there. But they know they are going on to a place that will give them opportunities they may have dreamed of, but were impossible--till now.

There's a celebrity presence at the ceremony for the opening of the school. Besides Oprah, of course, there's Nelson Mandela, as well as the usual Hollywood biggies (Spike Lee, Sidney Portier). But the true celebrities are the shining faces of these girls, standing proud and as tall as they possibly can (maybe even taller) in their new uniforms.

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