Ky. Voices: Turning Afghan tragedy into teachable moment

Pakistani students held pictures of Malala Yousafzai at a tribute to her Oct. 15 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Malala was shot on Oct. 9 in Pakistan and later taken to a hospital in England for treatment.
Pakistani students held pictures of Malala Yousafzai at a tribute to her Oct. 15 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Malala was shot on Oct. 9 in Pakistan and later taken to a hospital in England for treatment. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Watching and reading about Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani girl shot in the head and neck by the Taliban for advocating for girls' education, as heartbreaking, infuriating and humbling.

Most of my working life is devoted to understanding the causes and consequences of gender stereotypes. When does the girl whose math teacher consistently skips over her raised hand stop trying to participate? Why do boys incessantly tease their peers who act too "girly"? Why do girls think they have to choose between being pretty or smart?

My young daughter watched news coverage of Malala's story. She was, of course, confused, unable to imagine a world different than her own very comfortable one. Her greatest daily challenges involve replacing the batteries in the Wii remote, remembering to take her violin to school or making sure her headband matches her shirt.

I struggle to help her understand the lives of the poor or homeless here in Lexington. It is especially challenging helping her imagine a world where girls are shot in the head or poisoned (as happened to 160 Afghan girls earlier this year) merely for going to school.

As difficult as it is, Malala's story is worth talking about with our kids. All kids, not just daughters, need to know that getting an education is a privilege, even if that privilege is sometimes time-consuming or boring.

While Malala was being wheeled into a hospital on a gurney, my daughter was sitting in her third-grade class in her highly selective school for gifted children. Most of her classmates are girls, usually in Hello Kitty socks and sparkly sneakers. In every way, they and Malala live in two very different places.

I've been known to gripe about my daughter's homework load and I have plenty of complaints about public schools — too much teaching to the test, a too-short school year and poorly supported teachers only begin my list. But even as I write them, I realize these are relatively trivial complaints. They are the problems of the privileged.

Tomorrow when I take my daughter to school, I won't worry that some militant group might assassinate her because she is learning math. I won't advise her to avoid the water fountain for fear it is poisoned. I also won't be compassionate when she complains about her homework.

I want, instead, to have an unpleasant but meaningful conversation with her, to inform her that some girls are willing to die so they can have homework, to remind her that some people think she is unworthy of an education, and, most importantly, to urge her to become as educated as possible so she can figure out why on earth in 2012 some people are still so threatened by intelligent women.

Kids in elementary school can handle that conversation, especially if the point is to focus on how we can work for change, how to convince others that educated girls aren't the cause, but the solution, to an unstable society.

Outside of our American cocoon, there are a lot of people who need to learn the power of highly educated women. Gene Sperling, director of the Center for Universal Education at the Council on Foreign Relations, states, "In terms of improving health, women's empowerment, and family well-being, girls' education is the highest-returning social investment in the world."

I don't know how to implement that kind of global change but I do know that a little bit of anger is good for us. It gives us the fire in the belly we need to make strides. And girls, especially middle-class American girls who mostly worry whether the cafeteria is serving pizza or not, or whether the latest Selena Gomez movie is out yet, need to be a little angrier about the global picture.

Anger helps fight complacency. We need more people who appreciate what we have yet are motivated to help those still fighting for it.

As you send your daughters safely to school, don't take the investment for granted. And teach your kids not to take it for granted either.