The subject and author of the best-selling Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace, One School At A Time and Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan shared and inspired on Thursday night at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall.
By Jane Hess Collins
Some people want to meet George Clooney. Others want to meet sports superstars Serena Williams or Derek Jeter, or business moguls Warren Buffett or Bill Gates. For me, my dream was to meet Greg Mortenson. And last Tuesday night, my dream came true.
In 2006, several friends told me to read Three Cups of Tea. The book was everywhere. It was even open, face up, on the passenger seat of the taxi that took me home from the airport. But it wasn’t until this summer that I actually read it. And what a story it was.
If you’ve not read the book (and if you haven’t, back away slowly from your computer and get thee to a bookstore now), in 1993 Mortenson, an Army veteran, registered nurse and mountain climber, was hiking back from a failed trip to reach the summit of K2, the second highest mountain in the world, in Pakistan’s Karakoram Himalaya. Preoccupied with his unsuccessful attempt to reach the summit, which was meant to honor the memory of his younger sister, he took a wrong turn down the mountain and lost his way. He was rescued by two Balti porters and taken to the village of Korphe in one most remote regions in the world. In gratitude, Mortenson promised the village elder that he would one day to return and build a school.
Today Mortenson, twice-nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and his nonprofit, Central Asia Institute, have partnered with rural tribes throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan to build 145 schools as well as public health and women-centric initiatives, and educated 64,000 students (including 52,000 girls) who would otherwise have no access to teachers, books or education.
After an introduction by Michael Kahn, artistic director for the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Mortenson took the stage. A self-described introvert, he appeared shy, despite his 6’4” height. He hesitated as he thanked the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Kahn and other sponsors.
And his apparent awkwardness at speaking to a sold-out crowd, on stage in front of a screen and power-point presentation, illuminated his sincerity. Mortenson is an everyday guy who took a wrong turn down a mountain and found his passion and life’s work in advocating for world peace. The speeches, the accolades, the honors all seem like chaff around him. He wants to educate girls. He cares. He’s the Level 5 “humble + will” leader described in Jim Collins’ best-seller Good to Great.
Mortenson’s story told itself as he led us through his journey. Education is, he said, the key to peace. “Fighting terrorism is based in fear,” he told the audience. “Promoting peace is based in hope.” He believes the education of girls is the real key to peace and quotes the African proverb “Educate a boy, and you educate an individual. Educate a girl, and you educate a community.”
Mortenson believes that with education, fewer boys will view the Taliban as the only option for a life of purpose, partly because educated mothers tend to discourage their sons from joining it. In fact, some of Mortenson’s staunchest allies and supporters are former Taliban members, who often travel to the most rural regions or talk with the most conservative local leaders to advocate building schools for girls.
Particularly encouraging was hearing about Mortenson’s relationship with the U.S. military. His initial dealings with the Pentagon brass after 9/11, which he described in Three Cups of Tea, had me laughing aloud and rolling my eyes in empathy (I worked in the Pentagon for six years). Now General David Petraus, Commander, International Security Assistance Force and Commander, U.S. Forces Afghanistan; and Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have each met with Mortenson after their wives told them to read Three Cups of Tea. The book is now required reading by Mullen’s key staff, and Mullen even helped to open the Pushgur Girls’ School in the Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley with Mortenson on July 15, 2009.
After Mortenson’s remarks came the book signing. Luckily it was a beautiful night, since the crowd extended down 6th Street. Standing in front of the theater, my husband and I watched Mortenson’s fans exit the building after an autograph, each clutching a signed book to her chest and grinning wildly, like a hunter who had bagged her first ten point buck.
Meanwhile, the Shakespeare Theater Company staff cautioned us to keep our conversations brief with Mortenson. Notorious for having no sense of time (he said so himself), Mortenson wanted to engage every single fan. We could see him through the glass doors, greeting each fan like an old friend and wanting to know more about them. He shook hands and looked each person in the eye.
When it was our turn for our book signing I thought of this big, sweet, incredible guy being held captive by the Taliban for eight days. I tried to think of something brilliant to say in three seconds or less. “Nice-to-meet-you-and-thank-you-for-inspiring- all-of-us,” I mumbled.
He shook our hands. He smiled genuinely. I wanted to sit with him in a Starbucks for an afternoon, or a year, and listen to the care and compassion behind the words. He signed our book. The usher shooed us along. We thanked him. We left through the glass doors, clutching our signed book and grinning wildly.
Jane Hess Collins is a retired Air Force colonel who writes to inspire people to contribute. She is also a public speaker, conducts workshops which match clients’ values with service opportunities, and has established game nights for at-risk families throughout the country. You can contact her for at www.getoutandgiveback.com.