Last fall I had one eye on the evening news and the other on the daily paper’s advice column when I was brought to full attention by the story that reporter Elizabeth Palmer had been allowed to visit a school attended by 15-year-old Malala Yousufzai, in the Swat Valley of northeast Pakistan. I could hardly believe that the Taliban had permitted it.
I didn’t have an especially strong reaction when the story broke in early October of Malala’s being shot in the head and neck by an extremist while she was on her way home from school. Thankfully, I’ve never directly experienced terrorism. My school days weren’t threatened by religious zealots who fear “Western thinking” and any sort of opposition to their agenda. Like most American children, I had little more important to worry about while riding the bus to school than finding a seat or simply catching it on time. My initial reaction to the shooting was mild shock but not too much surprise, considering the story’s location and political climate.
Yet when I saw Malala’s classroom on that newscast, her white-clad young schoolmates in their modest hijabs and the wooden chair where she should have been seated, I found my eyes unexpectedly stinging. And when I heard Elizabeth Palmer describe Malala’s chair as empty, something rose up in me and powerfully asserted, “Oh, no, it isn’t!”
Because while there was no young girl with large dark eyes and a name that trips on the tongue in that chair, I saw something, and that something was a spirit.
Not a ghost, of course: Malala not only survived but continues to recover. I watched with millions as first she managed to stand with assistance, and later thanked people around the world for their support. What I saw in that “empty” wooden chair was a spirit of indomitable determination, imparting strength to other young girls who vowed to carry on with their studies even as the body containing that spirit was lying in a U.K. hospital.
When I learned that Malala had begun writing, at age eleven, a blog for the BBC about life in her valley under Taliban rule (albeit under a pseudonym for safety), I found myself wondering if she had been “raised up for such a time as this.” When I read that she’d made frequent media appearances and had even received one of Pakistan’s highest civilian honors for her courage, I said to myself, “And a little child shall lead them.” My lips twitched when I discovered the meaning of her name – “all honey” or “sweet as honey.” Surely this honey was tinctured with a hint of spice, I thought. And I grinned like a Cheshire cat when I read that, in spite of scans revealing injury to her brain, hospital medical director Dr. Dave Rosser had remarked that she could still write.
Of course she could.
To me, Malala demonstrates the childlike faith commended in Scripture, a faith that her voice would resonate outside her circumstances, aided by a father who dared to continue running a school for girls in the face of an edict banning its operation, and the power of modern technology.
Elizabeth Palmer and CBS News were wrong. Malala’s chair is not empty, but filled with the hopes of girls hungry to use the minds and talents given them at birth. Yet it needs something more. It needs to be remembered.
Malala rapidly became what CNN called “a global symbol,” and it’s not hard to foresee that for years her name will be invoked, reviled, admired and written about by thousands. Her classmates are watching. So are politicians. So are the Taliban, with their threats of further retribution.
When asked by a reporter why she risked her life to raise her voice, Malala replied, “God will ask you on the day of judgment, ‘Where were you when your people were asking you…when your school fellows were asking you and when your school was asking you…Why am I being blown up?'”
Being so physically far removed from Malala and the many girls like her, I knew it would be easy for me to forget her story as it inevitably slipped from the top of the news, as I absorbed myself in my daily cares. I wrote this, in part, to help me not to forget. And partly because I can’t wait to see where a little child will lead them.
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How about you? Does someone inspire you with their courage in the face of adversity, whether on an international or more simple daily level? Write me and let me know.
And I hope to see you here next week!
- Malala Back In School After Taliban Shooting (news.sky.com)
- Malala Yousafzai wants all children to have education (updatednews.ca)