The Power in Numbers


Those are my numbers. Not my sleep numbers, favorite lottery numbers, or for my very unique combination lock for the gym. Those are respectively the numbers of…

mosquito nets
people treated for tropical diseases

that I could effectively provide, pay for, and save…with just donating 10% of my income each year—to another part of the world. Continue reading

Three Cups Half Empty or Full?

I confess I loved Three Cups of Tea when I read it.  I was moved, buoyed with optimism and hope, really thinking that it is still possible to effect great change with one idea, one promise, one decision.

Around the same time, I also read Kabul Beauty School, followed up with The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns.  All of these books for me painted a vivid mental picture of the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, devoid of media stereotypes and uninformed perceptions.

The “power of the book” really hit me during this particular reading phase, reminding me how books help keep us honest as readers, making us think beyond headlines and newsfeeds; how books provide the original virtual learning experiences that build understanding, empathy, and motivation by something other than our own frame of reference, especially if we do not have the gift of travel to see it with our own eyes—despite the best documentary video or online image gallery.

Greg Mortenson @ TLA 2011

Greg Mortenson @ TLA 2011

Last week at the TLA annual conference, Greg Mortenson was the conference’s closing speaker.  I had actually heard from a former colleague who had seem him before that he wasn’t necessarily a polished presenter, but looked forward to what he would share about his Three Cups of Tea experiences, likely merging his vision and work with the conference’s theme of “crossing boundaries.”

Mortenson was surprisingly articulate, and covered a lot of ground in his talk.  After offering a highlighted version of his journey and work in Three Cups, Mortenson spoke to a change in attitude among the younger “me generation” to “Generation We,” a “collective community,” focused on giving of oneself instead of remaining self-involved.  He also discussed the difference between how we as a society perceive learning from our elder generation as not vital, in stark contrast to the roles elders play in the middle east—when asked about how much time American children spend with/talk to their grandparents, he said survey results on average were lower than 5%, whereas in Pakistan, the percentage was 99%.

I left the session once again engaged with a desire to “become the change” I wish to see, motivated to incorporate more service learning strands into wherever they make sense, along with those “soft skills” of collaboration and social responsibility.


Before heading out the door this morning, I caught a snippet of a CNN interview about the emerging controversy surrounding the authenticity of Mortenson’s book; one phrase that stuck in my ear was that despite the book containing “dubious tales,” the interviewee Peter Bergen did say that no one can argue that building schools for girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan is “great.”

Needless to say, the ironic coincidence of hearing Mortenson speak just days before this story breaking that his book could contain not just little lies but a pretty big one that acts as its dynamic crux has left me feeling very ambivalent.

These allegations also touch on how vigilant (or not vigilant) fact checking is on memoirs.  What’s funny about memoir is that it has to be true to maintain its integrity and real value, but it uses narrative as the method to convey the details of memory—and a narrative is basically a story that shares a retelling of events, either true or untrue, or both.

It just may be that Greg Mortenson’s memoir is a narrative composed from personal experience that has become mythologized, a very “compressed version” of the truth with a strong dash of epic storytelling overshadowing all the finer details.

It was a pretty incredible story to begin with—after failing an attempt to climb a mountain, a man stumbles upon his destiny? I have to believe that we want to believe and need to believe in stories such as these, since stories are so fundamental to our own narrative as human beings on this planet.  Stories and narrative make meaning and give meaning, especially when our own observations and experiences don’t match up with what we think or feel, or hope.

If I had read this with my student book club, or even read excerpts with a class, I would have to ask the question: So what’s the more important thing here—that his book has had a very positive impact despite potential fabrications, or do these false facts cancel out the inherent power the book had—or still has?

What a goldmine of essential questions you could discuss that could tie into academic integrity, plagiarism, and even a wider exploration of fiction versus nonfiction:

What determines the truth?

What is the connection between fact and fiction?

What is the connection between story and truth?

At what point does embellishment obscure the truth?

…One of the last things Mortenson said in his talk was “When it is dark you can see the stars.”

Aha Henry!

While using Google maps to locate a potential lunch spot @ the TLA Conference yesterday in Austin, I was seredipitously surprised to see the O. Henry Museum located directly across from the Austin Convention center, quietly tucked away on its own semi-greenscaped block.

Not wanting to ignore this coincidence, I made a point today to take a midday conference pause, and have an exploratory lunch break across the street.  When I arrived out front to snap a few photos, the door opened, and the docent placed an “open” sign on its front–this time a direct sign inviting me in.  Being a small house, and being the first and only visitor at that moment, I had a personal one-on-one tour with the docent.

I knew from my previous life in Austin that there was an O. Henry museum somewhere, but didn’t know it was located downtown.  From what I learned on the tour, O. Henry lived in Austin from 1882 to 1898.  

It was in Austin where he began The Rolling Stone magazine, and where he was also accused of and sentenced with charges of embezzlement while working as a teller at the First National Bank of Austin! Oh, the scandal!

I wasn’t allowed to take any photos of the interior, but luckily there are some decent photos on the museum’s website. Not all of the pieces are original to the O. Henry house, but on display in the parlor is wife Athol’s piano, one of O. Henry’s writing desks is nestled in the dining room, and the bedroom hosts two wicker chairs that may have inspired the story “The Gift of the Magi.”

I asked the docent if the museum has considered creating a virtual tour online, since kids outside of Austin (as well as in Austin, too) wouldn’t necessarily get the opportunity to take a field trip to the museum.  She said she didn’t know of any plans for something like that, but indicated that the museum’s curators might be open to the idea in some capacity. Regardless, it was so fortuitous to see an example of a city honoring part of its cultural past in a physical form, rather than simply through an event–although I’ve heard that the annual Pun-Off is not something to be missed.

After taking this short but pleasant tour, I started to wonder why the same homage and support couldn’t happen in San Antonio? Would it be so difficult for the City of San Antonio to partner with the City of Austin on reviving the O. Henry House in some capacity–or at the least, borrow their curator for an afternoon to brainstorm possibilities?  Granted, O. Henry’s San Antonio stint was short lived compared to his life in Austin, but in terms of an historical timeline, the house and its significance are still worth preserving and cultivating in some way.  Maybe the house could be part of a larger tour of San Antonio’s historical landmarks, literary or not.  There are many possibilities, especially if kids and learning become part of the mix…it’s a matter of transforming them into probabilities.

In the literary style of O.Henry himself, this is where I would share a pun that would wittily and concisely convey the sentiment of this post, but I gist can’t seem to come up with one, so I leave you a humble pun-in-progress:

Along with his Austinite moniker, O. Henry also deserves the title of “Es-Say” as a notable San Antonian [SA] of the past.

Ransom of O. Henry

Driving to work this morning, I heard the TPR story on the O. Henry House downtown, not too far from Market Square.  While listening, I started thinking about how some of the cultural history and architecture of this city gets lost, especially if it’s not revived by some party or celebration.  How many San Antonians even know about this little house?  While walking back to my car after enchiladas at Mi Tierra probably a year or so ago, I remember spotting the small building, stopping to look in its curtained windows, and was surprised that this landmark was just stuck at the corner of a nondescript parking lot.

Fast forward to this morning, sitting in the school parking lot until the story finished, I thought about how this podcast could be used not just as a background builder for students before reading O. Henry stories, but speculated how the issues surrounding the house’s current status might inspire kids to develop some kind of service learning project, tying together preservation of cultural history with community involvement.

Instead of making a poster collage or even a Glogster about an O. Henry story, what about students raising money and petitioning the city to establish an O. Henry park? What about students becoming detectives about the artifacts that should or shouldn’t be in this space, or becoming docents of the little museum, figuratively or literally? What about creating online virtual tours/interactive exploration of a variety of city landmarks, especially for students whose field trip excursions are limited or completely eliminated, or simply live in another part of the city? What about the city sponsoring such an interactive site, using the brainpower and creativity of its young constituency to help design it?  Or what about giving kids a microphone and video camera, and have them document landmarks they feel need to be preserved in their community?

Antique meets Tech, a mash-up of old and new…just think of the essential questions you could pose:

In the way we live today, why should we preserve anything? What makes something worth saving? How do we deal with preserving the past in a throw-away society? Some say the past informs the future…what does the status of the O. Henry house say about the future?