For an entire academic year a picture of Malala Yousafzai and accompanying quote hung on the classroom wall.  I hadn’t put it there and wasn’t sure where it came from.  The picture was placed high in the corner, so whoever placed it up there must have either been eligible for the NBA or stood on a table to get to that space.  Each afternoon when I walked into the classroom, my eyes instinctively turned to that left corner, wondering if Malala was still looking over us.  She remained there every day, reminding me that my work as an educator, and the work my students would one day do, was about so much more than just our own personal aspirations.

I speak not for myself, but so those without a voice can be heard.  Those who have fought for their rights.  Their right to live in peace.  Their right to be treated with dignity.  Their right to equality of opportunity.  Their right to be educated. – Malala Yousafzai

This young woman’s words and image inspired my work each week for a year, but I have to admit that it was not until a few weeks ago that I came to understand who Malala was beyond the girl who was shot by the Taliban.

Her autobiography had sat on my bedroom floor for years (literally years) before I was dusted off the cover this spring to finally read it.  I could tell you all the excuse I told myself: I was so busy with reading for my dissertation that I could not add another book to my stack.  And that excuse is true.  But its also incomplete.  I managed to find time to read Entertainment Weekly every weekend, and some random fiction books over the past year.  But this book kept being left on the pile while others were placed on top.

The real excuse is more tied into not wanting to read a story that I knew was based in pain and still in progress.  Those fictional stories, even if there was loss, was just make believe.  The movies, television shows, and music reviews were nothing more than meaningless fluff.  Even the podcasts I was listening to were focused on running, which is my hobby / therapy / escape from worldly stressors.

But after nine months of inspiration, my other readings had to be put aside to finally understand why this woman was so important.  It couldn’t be just because she was a survivor of a bullet.  Tragically there are innocent children shot around our world every day, with some survivors and some victims.  What made this one worthy of a Nobel Prize?

It took me half the book to start to answer this question.  The book read like young adult fiction, which made sense since the author was in her teens at the time it was written and centered around her youth, including competition in classes, fighting with younger brothers, and political drama that made little sense.  100 pages in and I still wondered who this girl was beyond her assault.

When the Taliban took control over her beloved Swat Valley, the story changed and answers started coming together.  Using religious ideology, grizzled men started demanding adherence to their understand of what God demanded.  The national army supposedly fought to depend the Pakistani people, but from Malala’s perspective, their efforts were faulty or perhaps just lies.  Schools were bombed.  Young men abducted into the fighting.  And hateful speech filtered through the airwaves to threaten anyone who would stand against this militant group that used the Quran as shielding for their actions.

Within this context its easy to imagine keeping your head down, qhispering under your breath, and trying to escape to anywhere else in the world.  But instead Malala’s father became a louder voice than he was previously in favor of education, particularly for young girls in the nation.  And Malala followed her father’s example.  They gave interviews, wrote articles, and became known faces for the resistance to the hatred of the Taliban, and the deception of the army.  All this from a young girl.  I have to reflect that as a 30-something woman on the eve of her birthday, I wonder if I would be as brave in her place.

There is more to Malala’s story, and I would recommend anyone learn more by reading her autobiography (“I am Malala”) or articles about her.

I am grateful that by the time I closed the epilogue, I knew Malala as much more than the girl shot by the Taliban.  That event may have raised her profile to an international level, but this young woman was going to be a world-changing leader no matter what.  She was and is going to dedicate her life to the same cause as her father: equity in education.

When I go into my classroom this fall, I will be sure to hang a picture of this woman on the wall and to tell her story our first session.  The blessing of access to education is how it can equip the individual to change the world.

One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen, can change the world. – Malala Yousafzai

So here are my questions for you, dear reader: Who are you teaching?  Who is teaching you?  What are you reading?  What are you writing?  How are you changing the world?

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