Hello stranger!

In school this week we kicked off Writers’ Fortnight. Incredible speakers, including many extraordinary parents, are being invited in to speak to our students to share how particular books have inspired them, or because they are involved in literature in some way. As a result, our students have been awed by poets, journalists, diplomats, artists, scientists…they have loved it.

Others, like me, were asked to fill in the gaps in the speaker schedule.  And although just a filler, I was secretly delighted this morning to have a chance to be in a classroom interacting with students again.  The fact is that as a school leader through COVID, I am not finding nearly enough time in front of students: they do not really know me and I do not honestly know them.  I wish it were not this way and it saddens me to say that we are, for all intents and purposes, strangers.

The book I chose to share was Three Cups of Tea, authored by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin in 2007.  It remained a NYT bestseller for several years, telling the story of how the author got lost whilst climbing K2 in 1993, before stumbling into a small village called Korphe, where he was nursed back to health as a guest of the village.  Before he returned home to the US he made a promise to the village that he would return back one day to build a school for the children.  He eventually returned and built that school.  And then, with help, he came back, again and again, to build many other schools, specifically for girls in remote regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan where few education opportunities existed.  It’s an inspiring humanitarian tale that somehow makes the current plight of girls’ education in Afghanistan appear even more tragic.

I read the book for the first time whilst posted with the British Army in Afghanistan as a junior Captain in 2008. As an education officer and teacher, the book immediately resonated on a number of levels with me, not least because I was immediately curious (as well as a few other emotions) whenever we came across a dilapidated or abandoned school that had been torched by the Taliban, whether it might be one of Mortenson’s schools. But beyond that, the real learning from the book figuring out what these cups of tea were all about.

As the story goes, Mortenson was getting frustrated at the time it was taking to get that first school built in Korphe. Everyone wanted the school. But nothing seemed to be happening very fast or at all. Bringing materials into Korphe was proving impossible. One day the village leader, Haji Ali, took Mortenson aside to explain where he was going wrong:

“The first time you share a tea with a Balti, you are a stranger.  the second time you take tea, you are an honored guest.  The third time you share a tea, you become family…”

In Balti culture, having tea with someone symbolizes trust and respect, and the act of sharing tea is how the Balti people become familiar with strangers.  Haji Ali explained to Mortenson that he must invest the time to share three cups of tea, by which he meant that Mortenson needed to build relationships with the Balti people, who saw him as a stranger (not a savior) if he wanted to get things done.

Mortenson heeded the advice, started drinking tea, and things started to get done.  Not quick.  But done.

So simple and so obvious.  In my interactions and work for the rest of that operational tour, I tried to integrate a 3 cups of tea approach when working alongside local and international partners, and also with many other who would rather I was not there.  Drink tea, stop and listen, be patient, and then drink more tea.  These are life lessons that have stayed with me.

After sharing Mortenson’s story I asked the students:

“What cup of tea are you sharing with your teachers?”  

“Do they make you feel like strangers, honored guests, or family?”

“How might you use this metaphor in the context of your own relationships?”

Schools are communities that bring people together. But do they bring people together as strangers, as guests, or as a family? COVID has made it excruciatingly difficult for communities to come together to share tea or anything else for that matter. It has made strangers of us all.

So I had the first cup of tea with some students this morning, and now I am looking forward to the next. And all being well, one cup of tea at a time, I’ll eventually get to where I need to be.

Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace One School at a Time, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, Penguin Books, NY (2007).

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