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Happy Birthday, Malala

Yesterday was Malala Day, the sixteenth birthday of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl the Taliban tried to murder for demanding her own right, and the right of all girls, to an education. She spoke before the United Nations Youth Assembly, and her speech is damned humbling. Inspiring, too, but mostly humbling.

I heard a piece on NPR about the speech and then I went onto Youtube and listened to the whole thing. And after I dried my tears, I asked myself: where do kids get that kind of inner power? Where do they get the courage to believe in progress, to act for change, to insist upon hope? Even, God help us, after being shot in the head?

I write and I teach and I’m a parent. It’s so easy to reduce my job to 500 words a day and the struggle snag an agent. To making sure students master the preterite and know how to order an enchilada. To getting my son to bed on time and making sure he has a decent breakfast. But I listen to Malala and I realize that working with kids, writing for kids, parenting a kid, gives me an opportunity to foster a miracle. Not to create one. Fundamentally, Malala is who she is because of her own choices. Nobody made her that smart, or that brave, or that tough.

But people helped her along. “One child,” she says, “one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world.” If the Secretary of Education said that, it would be boilerplate. When Malala says it, it’s a call to arms.

Not the bang-bang kind of arms. The kind of arms that hug, and hold, and help children rise so that they can see the great big goodbad world out there, and believe they can change it.

Happy Birthday, Malala. And thank you.


What would Pa Ingalls say?

Virginia’s governor, Bob McDonnell, has snuck a bitter little worm into the heart of his budgetary apple. He wants to increase the car registration fee $100 on . . . hybrid vehicles.

I kid you not. Here’s the message from the governor: if you buy a car that conserves gas, GOTCHA!

Full disclosure: I bought a new hybrid, the cheapest on the market, a month ago. I’d been driving a 17 year-old Nissan Sentra, but as the ticker pushed toward 200K I finally had to admit that the time had come to say goodbye to Old Reliable. So enter Little Red, so shamelessly crimson she could light up Amsterdam. A Prius C, easy to park, kinda slow and, I would have thought, inoffensive to anybody. Seriously. If I run into you on a highway, it’s me who’s gonna crumble. Little Red’s only “threat” to society is that when she’s on the battery her engine is whisper-silent. You might not hear me coming. Sorry. But if McDonnell has his way, every year I’ll have to pony up an extra $100 for the privilege of owning my quiet, fuel-efficient Little Red.

You don’t have to believe in climate change to believe in conserving natural resources. It’s just common sense. Ask Pa Ingalls. You know, Little House on the Prairie Pa Ingalls? The man who turned a pig’s bladder into a toy for his kids. Because Pa Ingalls knew, whether it’s a pig or petroleum, you don’t waste what you’ve got.

Pa had occasional qualms about the mechanization of prairie life that would, in the twentieth century, lead to the Dust Bowl. When hard times and ignorance drove farmers to suicidal agricultural practices that devastated their resource base and turned them into paupers.

Well, it’s 2013 and times are hard again. Our Virginia state budget is tight as a Victorian corset, but now it’s oil we depend on, as well as soil. So what is Bob McDonnell’s suicidal solution?

A sin tax on cars that conserve gas.

I can’t speak for Pa Ingalls’ politics. But the message of the pig bladder is that resource conservation is common sense. If CONSERVatives and liberals can agree on one thing, it ought to be that.