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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Copyright 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited. 

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For the week of April 3 - 9 , 2002

  Opinion Column

Barefoot, uneducated and trapped

Commentary by JoELLEN COLLINS

Imagine yourself a 12-year-old girl. You have never set foot inside this dusty building, a simple structure made of dried mud and consisting of two small rooms. It is barren by any standards, yet its forbidden treasures beckon more surely than the treasures of King Tut. On a table at the front of the rooms are a couple of books books you have never been allowed to open. There is a young woman standing at the door to welcome you and your sisters to this hallowed cubicle. You are swept with a new set of feelings: anticipation, some slight trepidation, even a tingle of joy, and, yes, something really alien, a burst of an emotion that only can be labeled a scent of freedom. You are in Afghanistan and this is a school. It is your first day, March 24, 2002.

I do not intend to wallow publicly in the sentiment that engulfed me when I heard that Afghani children girls included were beginning the first day of the first semester of school in most of their lives. I have to restrain my tendency to read beauty into everything, to be optimistic in the face of devastation. One must not forget the hideous price paid for the tiny triumphs resulting from war or other disasters. Better to try to eliminate the need for these small victories: better to have never had war first. David Remnik, in the Oct. 15 edition of The New Yorker, said it best: "It is indecent to look for the good in an act of mass murder."

However, as a teacher and lover of children and all things positive in this world, I can at least exult in the resurgence of a right for Afghani girls that we may just take for granted in this country. In the midst of brutality and death and the kind of deprivation that most Americans, even post Sept. 11, can never comprehend, a ray of light is peeping though the debris.

A cartoon published shortly after Sept. 11 and sent to me on the Internet showed a cowering Osama bin Laden. He was being told that women formerly under Taliban rule would now be educated, a concept which, in the context of the illustration, he knew would be his downfall. More surely than weapons, more surely than brutality, this reality promised the death of repression and his twisted ideals. Women? Educated? What a frightening concept!

When Cambodia's Pol Pot systematically executed teachers and those who wore glasses or spoke French (signs of education), he was acting out of a kind of mad insecurity. Like most dictators, he feared the reality that educated people pose a threat to the stability of a repressive regime. In the extreme, his paranoia led to genocide. It is true that before long, most people who have been exposed to learning want more. They want, for example, to speak freely, to express their objections to the practices of their leaders. In George Orwell's "Animal Farm," the pigs have taken over the farm issue edicts which they know will be considered gospel truth because the other animals are so uneducated. Thus, when they find sleeping in the farmhouse delightful, they change the commandment "Thou shall not sleep on a bed" to "Thou shall not sleep upon a bed without sheets," and no one complains.

Our country's founders foresaw the value of education and established public schools. It is a tribute to the strength of our democracy that we have survived massive protests and criticism, may, indeed have grown stronger with a more educated citizenry. It may well be that the more freedom we have, the more we have protected our democracy. Thank god we don't execute dissenters.

So, as an American and a teacher, I am proud of our often flawed but always available system of public education. There were times when I was a high school teacher that I bewailed my ever reaching the minds of my captive audiences. There were also times I felt burdened by my overwhelming responsibility to be energetic and fresh and patient in the face of huge classes, hundreds of compositions to correct, and students who were less than eager to be required to sit in my classroom. But I never, ever thought my charges didn't deserve the best I could give. This is the responsibility of educators in a free society.

I am reminded of the time I returned to the ashes of my home in the hillsides of Malibu many years ago, after it and more than 200 other homes were destroyed by a brush fire. As I approached the charred half acre, which had held all of my family records and history, I was nonetheless struck by something across the street. In its rush to consume the materials upon which it fed, the fire had skipped a small item, or perhaps a pocket of wind had created a bubble in which an object remained. There, on the edge of my neighbor's former front steps, was a pot of geraniums, still a mix of vivid terra cotta, green leaves and red petals against the backdrop of blackened earth.

May those young minds in Afghanistan bloom as well, small signs of hope in the midst of terror.


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.