Mother at Sixteen


Sitting with the slight, sixteen-year-old girl on tattered bamboo mats in her family’s modest home, we compared our babies: their age and weight, their entrance into the world, how well they sleep at night, yes we’re both breastfeeding, how easy and hard they are to take care of, how much support there is, how your worldview changes from carefree to constant worry.

We are at a similar stage in life and had a lot to share.

And yet I was struck by the difference. Her baby slept in a bamboo crib on a dirt floor with only shade and a breeze to protect them against the tropical heat; mine shares our king-sized bed in our fully air-conditioned house. Hers will find a place in the same Thai educational system she went through herself; mine has access to Gymboree and Montessori classes and will learn from a mother who completed a PhD from an American research university. I’m turning 35 next month. She is a mother at 16. We are almost 20 years apart and I have almost 20 years’ worth more of education and life experience, maturity and stability. At 16, she still has all her struggles in front of her. I know who I am, what I want, and what I’m capable of. She has yet to discover who she will be.

I approached my time with her trying to answer the question: why did she make these choices? She had to have known the risk she was taking with unprotected sex. What was her underlying motivation? She said no one ever taught her about protection (I remember her deciding not to stay for the sex health workshop I taught). She talked about the desire to experience new things—a typical teenager response. But I suspected the roots are deeper than that; that it may have even something to do with deeper psychological and emotional needs regarding her bond with her own mother, even if she doesn’t consciously read it that way yet. From what I know of her background, I suspected she never got enough consistent display of love from her own mother, and made these choices out of feelings of neglect, subconsciously trying to find a way to stay close to home rather than to leave.

But do I have the right to judge her choices? I may be disappointed. I may want to continue to present her with the chance to turn things around because her story (and now her child’s story) has still only just begun. I may want to learn from her example to see how we can prevent others from going the same way. I can expect her to take responsibility for her choices and urge her to continue to make better ones. I do not absolve her of that because it is true that others in same—or worse—circumstances make different choices. But I cannot be judgmental about it. I had parents who never gave me cause to doubt their love and commitment. With an absentee father and a mother who is a former prostitute now mostly gone away at work, she has no experience of a strong nuclear family and has no idea what that would look like. I came from a life of opportunity; she came from a life of poverty and risk. For me, being a mother at sixteen would have represented catastrophic failure and disappointment. For her, young, single motherhood is the norm. From two different worlds, we both forged two very different paths.

Perhaps the question of why isn’t really the root of the matter. Maybe the question we must grapple with honestly is: how much of our life is a forgone conclusion? How much can we change by choice?

Suddenly Mom


When I make a connection with an individual student at SOLD and know we have a shared hobby or that I can expose them to more wide and varied experiences related to their interests, I like to try to invite them to spend a weekend with us in Chiang Mai, where I can encourage their passion and give them a glimpse into the wider world out there. There is one such boy I’ve known since he was about 13, who has always had the biggest heart, loves to eat and loves to make people laugh, but who has also had a very hard family life. He seemed to be falling by the way side over the past year, so I extended an invite to him to come visit us for a weekend and we would go do fun things together.

I didn’t hear anything for a while. Then I got an email on Wednesday night, followed by a phone call Thursday morning saying that yes, he wants to come, he’ll be here on Friday, and by the way, his family says I can keep him; they don’t want him to come back.

I literally started crying for him when I got off the phone. Of course he could come stay with us – but for how long? I wondered. My mama heart wanted to wrap him up and take him in immediately, but my brain that has seen the trials and burdens placed on at-risk kids knew this was no simple question. To really help him, we have to be all in. Otherwise, we’re just another source of instability and confusion in his life. Was I about to adopt a (now) 16-year-old boy with attachment issues, a smoking habit, and spotty school attendance record on little more than a days’ notice? Who also was raised in a different culture and speaks a different language? It was unlikely it would come to something so permanent, but I had to be prepared for the possibility that there would be at least an extended stay.

There were ups and downs, and there came a point at which, after taking him grocery shopping to make sure we had on hand whatever snacks, drinks, and breakfast items he preferred, and he immediately went upstairs and closed himself in his room while I boosted Cy on my hip and put the groceries away, where I really, really felt like a mom. More than anything I’ve ever encountered before, having a toddler on my hip and a moody teenager upstairs while I sorted groceries, made me suddenly feel like I have definitely become a capital M Mom.

There was a lot of uncertainty over the weekend, but mostly I just wanted to give him a respite from whatever was happening at home. At the end of the weekend, he decided to go back home with an invitation to return if he ever chooses to. I don’t know what the future holds for him, but I told him I thought he was brave for even coming to us in the first place. It’s a huge step to try to make a change in your life, when you have no idea where you’re headed or what the future will bring. He retreated from it in the end, but he did try.

A Coffee Chat

IMG_0120My husband is a collector. He collects rocks and gems and fossilized bits. He collects Hot Wheels (but only the cool ones). He collects photos from artists he admires. He collects mementos and pieces of nostalgia. Me, I don’t really collect things. Even mementos…with a few rare exceptions, I might hold on to things for a while, but then when the mood strikes, I purge and out it goes. I travel light.

But I recently realized that there IS something I would collect when the time is right. Something I never fail to “ooh” and “aww” over, something that always makes me happy when I see it. Can you guess what it is?

Beautiful coffee cups. If I had some space where it would be practical to get a nice curio cabinet to keep them safe in, and I knew we wouldn’t be moving too often (and thus wouldn’t have to worry about packing and shipping them all), I would start collecting coffee cups. Not just any ones, mind you, even of pretty ones. It would be a carefully curated collection. And I’d probably keep my collection on the down low as I wouldn’t want to encourage people to buy mugs for me because I’d be a total snob about my collection and wouldn’t want a bunch of random ones taking up space.

I figured out this is what I’d collect when now, a year later, I realized I’m STILL kicking myself for not buying the stunning, gorgeous, hand-painted latte mug I found at an open air market in Krakow, Poland. It was a little bit expensive and I talked myself out of it then, thinking it was probably a ubiquitous tourist item. Nope. Haven’t seen another like it since. Kicking myself, I am.

IMG_0131Anyway, we had a lovely weekend getaway for Toby’s birthday. I made ginger pecan cinnamon rolls as a surprise for breakfast in bed. I used this recipe and just added chopped up bits of crystallized ginger, pecans soaked in a smidgen of maple syrup, and some grated orange zest before rolling them up.

Then we went to a resort called The Nest, aptly named as it is nestled just below Chiang Dao mountain. There’s plenty of rock climbing, hiking, cave trekking, temple viewing and other fun activities around the area. What did we do? We slept. And ate. And read. But mostly slept. We did visit one cave, but seeing as how I’m 7 months pregnant, I pretty much just popped my head in and then waited outside while Toby explored a little deeper. The sleeping part, though? That was tops.

IMG_0144And this weekend, we’re off again! We’re headed to Chiang Rai as I need to do some work for SOLD. I’m running some workshops on how to manage conflict within interpersonal relationships, which will hopefully expose the kids to examples of healthy relationships and introduce them to the values and strategies they can employ when problems crop up.

I got the idea for this when fellow staff members saw how conflict between the kids and their parents can distance them from loved ones and leave them more vulnerable to traffickers hoping to prey on them. Culturally here, women aren’t always valued equally as men, and, socially, there are few positive examples of equal, mutually respectful, and loving relationships between men and women. All of these factors contribute to the kids’ susceptibility to abuse, feelings of worthlessness, and lack of personal agency.

By teaching the kids how to create relationships built on trust, equality, and mutual respect, and to approach conflict as a means to strengthen relationships through honesty, openness, and collaboration, I’m hoping to continue teaching the kids that they are valuable individuals who deserve respect and love, and that they have the ability to choose how they respond to complex situations. They are not just passive victims, but active stewards of their own lives.

Photo by Rachel Goble. Available for purchase at:  All proceeds go to supporting SOLD's prevention work.

Photo by Rachel Goble. Available for purchase at:                   All proceeds go to supporting SOLD’s prevention work.

Speaking of SOLD, we have some big news! We’ve just premiered a brand new video–it’s a short, couple-minute clip, but we’d love it if you’d take a look at it and feel inspired by its message of hope. It’s called “Travel With Us” and we hope it’ll serve as reminder that none of us travels alone–and that we all can be part of something larger than ourselves.

Check it out here:

Okay, my coffee’s growing cold now. There’s a lot to do today as I need to run some errands to prepare for my workshop this weekend, and this week is a busy one because (aside from the launch of our video and a couple of other big developments we’re working on at SOLD), finally after all this waiting, my parents’ new car is ready so we can go get it AND the shipment from the U.S. has arrived in Bangkok and will be here on Friday. Of course, my parents’ house isn’t done being built yet, so where we’re going to store all this stuff is a question…but at least there’s forward movement and things are starting to fall into place.

How’s your week looking? Is it a crazy busy one too, or are you getting in some good summer vacation time?

A Coffee Chat

_TMK2684I’m drinking an iced coffee today because it is STILL friggin’ hot over here. We seem to officially be experiencing a drought here in northern Thailand, which is almost laughable when I think back to just two years ago, when the problem was flooding. When it rains, it pours, I guess, and when it doesn’t…it really doesn’t.

If we were really meeting for coffee today, I would tell you I’m enjoying this brief break to chat with you in what is turning out to be a very busy week. My parents are returning to Thailand on Sunday (YAY!), which means I’m spending the week preparing for their return, airing out the guest bedrooms, freshening the laundry, and taking care of a variety of sundry items to hopefully help them feel welcome when they get here.

Cousins from Bangkok dropped in for an impromptu visit last night and we enjoyed a dinner of yellow curry & roti, white turmeric salad, stir-fried chayote, river fish soup, and crying tiger (grilled steak strips with a spicy dipping sauce), with coconut sticky rice & mango for dessert. I knew the restaurant was a hit when my cousins ordered seconds of the curry and crying tiger and one cousin, who normally would never take the last bite of a dish, hoarded the curry & roti to himself.



In the meantime, now that I have a bit more energy, I’ve been using it to get caught up on news regarding Thai and ASEAN policies on human trafficking, and the various economic, development, and social factors that influence regional trends. God, that sounds so dry, doesn’t it? But I love my job, and as easy as it can be to get wrapped up in what’s going on the local level with the group of 140 kids that we’re personally involved with and their individual dramas (who is getting themselves into trouble, who is being abused, and how do we reach out to this one with an attachment disorder or that one whose parents have died of AIDS), I find it helps so much to see things in context, to understand the trends in the world around them, and to make the links between what’s happening on the local level versus the national and international levels. Governments are getting marginally savvier about combatting the trade of human beings, but as the region opens up and movement across borders becomes ever easier, it’s highly likely that the forces behind trafficking will get stronger as well.

This year has been a big year for The SOLD Project, which is celebrating its 5th anniversary. Having secured sponsorship from The Nike Foundation (and its philanthropic arm, The Girl Effect) and made alliances with large, reputable international human rights organizations, we’re enjoying attention from various news sources, and we’ve been able to expand in staff and infrastructure and may even be able to move into other communities, provided we can find the local talent we need to set up and run operations there. Our president has been meeting with other business leaders to work out visions for our 5- and 10-year plans and beyond, and she asked me, in preparation for this meeting, to help her dream big about what our expansion might look like. If I could dream really big, SOLD would one day be able to use both its on-the-ground experience and international legitimacy to encourage local government agencies to meet international standards, especially vis a vis the rights of the undocumented. ASEAN’s greatest asset, its insistence on noninterference with national sovereignty in domestic affairs, is also its greatest liability when it comes to agreeing on and enforcing regulations in issues like trafficking that operate on both domestic and international fronts. This is where I think grassroots campaigns can play the biggest role, helping to apply pressure where international bodies like ASEAN and the UN cannot.


In the meantime, tomorrow I celebrate the 20th week of my pregnancy–I’m halfway done! It is both exciting and daunting, as I can feel the baby move more often and more strongly (real fun when the baby starts punching me in the bladder) and I’m that much closer to being able to meet him or her–but also am that much closer to that fun day of labor, which I’m really actually not looking forward to because, well, pain and me aren’t friends.

Anyway, that’s what’s happening in my little pocket of the world. What’s going on in yours?

P.S. OMG, is it really May tomorrow? GAH.


A Coffee Chat


Today, I’m going to lay low and recover from a very busy week and weekend. My trip to Chiang Rai got a tiny bit delayed when my husband came down with food poisoning and I stayed to make sure he got properly rested and fed. But then I had to skeedaddle up to SOLD, where I stayed until Saturday and slowly drove back down. I think I had imagined a quiet weekend after that, but somehow, with one thing and another, it wasn’t meant to be, and then there was a full-day meeting yesterday, so today I’m officially taking my weekend. Yoga will be involved and I think I will do some Thai language lesson review. Probably doesn’t sound relaxing, but I’m itching to do it!

Puppy cuddles

Puppy cuddles

The body health workshop I mentioned last week managed to go off pretty well, I think, even with a bit of last minute scrambling. The kids grumbled about having to learn, at first, saying they had already learned it in school…but as is typical with their education here, they could name the parts of the body, but had no clue as to their function. Even the teenage girls couldn’t explain how or why menstruation happens. They knew all about HIV/AIDS, but had no clue there were other STDs to worry about. Plus we had some fun activities and we did an anonymous Q&A session at the end. And the Q&A lasted almost as long as the actual presentation, so what might have been just a few hours ended up lasting the whole day and they were far more riveted than they wanted to let on.

I love that little paw sticking up there!

I love that little paw sticking up there!

The other exciting bit of news here (at least for me) is that I’ve started to feel the baby move about! I can only feel it internally, which means poor Toby will just have to wait to feel any of it. It feels like a really light, gentle muscle twitch or spasm, sometimes like the baby is just pushing against my belly, and sometimes there’s a sensation like the baby is rolling over. I don’t know why people describe it as feeling like butterflies…it does NOT feel like butterflies, unless maybe they’re some kind of PUNK butterflies. It’s such a crazy sensation –two parts awe-inspiring and amazing, and one part strange and disconcerting. It makes me really realize there is another being inside of me, part of me, and yet separate and distinct.

In the meantime, it’s my sister’s birthday today (HAPPY BIRTHDAY, SIS!!) and here we’re also celebrating because it looks like we might finally get some rain (HALLELUJAH!).

Tell me, what’s going on in your corner of the world?


A Coffee Chat

So I mighta’ made a fool of myself this weekend. We had a group of students at SOLD who were all graduating from junior high and high school and all of them have plans to continue their education (this is amazing because in this community, roughly half never make it past middle school). So I had prepared a nice little speech to deliver to them about how they’ve overcome challenges that many children across the world can’t even imagine and that when the critics tell them in future how they can’t or they’re not worthy, they should remember this day and know that they can and they will succeed. I stood up and started giving my speech. I was doing fine until about 1/3 of the way through, I looked up at saw one of the older boys in the back getting all teary eyed. I’m PREGNANT, y’all. That’s just not fair to pull that on a pregnant lady. I started getting choked up. Then I started getting embarrassed for being choked up (because in Thai culture you don’t show your emotions). And then I cried through the entire rest of my speech.


On the plus side, I held a workshop on developing self-esteem, and I’m really pleased with how well it went. We started with a trust exercise – you know the one where people pair up and you have to let yourself fall backward and trust the other person will catch you? We did that one. The kids were giggling and having a ton of fun, but it was challenging too, and it was obvious who had a harder time trusting. I had them take note of what went through their heads: how it seemed hard or impossible at first, but they had to control their fear, and once they did, they could do it. I said that’s like any challenge in life: your brain might tell you that you can’t, but if you can control your thoughts, you’ll find all kinds of things you can do. But just like how you had to trust the person behind you, you have to create a relationship of trust with yourself, to know that you can do it.

I think they got the picture, and the trust exercise seemed to be a good way to show them viscerally what I was talking about. We made lists of things they liked about themselves (with some kids, this part seemed like I’d given them a tough exam they hadn’t prepared for, for all the hard thinking they were doing), and lists of things that made them happy. We  sang songs (Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love of All), and made a rubber band chain, with each link in the chain representing something that made them happy. I told them to add a link each time something happened to make them happy, and one day it could grow quite long, and if there comes a day when they don’t feel good about themselves, they can look back at their happy chain and remember all the things that made them happy.

Then we finished with a showing of the movie Brave. I popped popcorn for them, and it ended everything on a happy note.

Now I’m back home, and it’s really good to be home. Except for one thing: the SMOKE. Everyone here is complaining about it. All the expats are writing blog posts about it. It is BAD this year. Every year, we have a burning season where the rural farmers burn old crops to prepare for new ones. It also helps fertilize the soil for a rare kind of mushroom with which they can double their incomes by harvesting and selling. Good for the farmers. Bad for the rest of us who have to breathe the polluted air.

Looks like a cloudy, foggy day, right? That’s smoke.

It’s illegal to burn everything and there’s massive media campaigns to stop it, but it’s also nearly impossible to enforce without the government investing in helping the farmers develop alternative means of growing these crops or finding other income. Most of these farmers are barely scraping by on a subsistence level. They don’t have many options.

I’ve closed up all our windows and doors to try to keep the smoke out, but we can smell it the minute we poke our heads outside. Even indoors, my throat and nasal passages get parched – it’s nearly impossible to stay properly hydrated – and my eyes are itchy all the time. I would seriously consider moving down south for a month and hanging out in Bangkok or down on the beaches (yay beach vacation!)…but we have Dot and can’t really bring her with us. And I don’t feel really comfortable going quite so far away from my doctor in case anything happens with the pregnancy.

So we pray for rain.

And make banana creme desserts.

A pecan, oats & spice crust and alternating banana, creme, and whipped cream layers. I was in a mood, what can I say? I used this recipe for the creme part, except I used only about half the sugar (because WOW it does not need to be that sweet)…but the rest I kind of did by whim & intuition.

Anyway, that’s what’s going on in my neighborhood. What’s happening in yours?

Link up and share with us at Communal Global!


Scenes From My Weekend

I spent the weekend at work in Chiang Rai.
There were quiet mornings before waking,
and hazy skies from seasonal burning.
Flowers for our kids graduating
and balloons.
I taught a workshop on self-esteem and ended it with
a showing of Brave, because our kids need to see more examples
of strong women in media.
But then I see these kids who succeed
despite challenges other children across the world can scarcely imagine
and I think there are plenty of strong women
right here.


That was my weekend. How was yours? Link it up at Bigger Picture Blogs!

A Coffee Chat

Turtle Thumbprint Cookies

My husband asked me to bake cookies for him. When asked what kind he wanted, he responded, “Awesome cookies.” So I presented him with turtle thumbprint cookies because I’m pretty sure anything involving chocolate, caramel, and pecans has to qualify as awesome.

Making them turned into an odyssey, though, when my (cheap-ass) plastic measuring cup that I’ve had for two years split down the side. The nearest grocery store was selling other (cheap-ass) plastic measuring cups for $12, so I made an extra special trip to the mall department store where I was hoping to find glass cups. They did have glass Pyrex models…for about $18 each. And more plastic ones for $2 each. I chickened out and got the $2 one, only to find out when I got home with it that it doesn’t have 1/3 or 2/3 cup marking, or anything marked between the first cup and the second cup. Serves me right for being cheap. So I had to use my broken cup after all (thankfully I hadn’t yet thrown it away). I’ll use the broken one to measure out markings on the new one…but that sure does get my goat.

The cookies survived, though, and that’s what matters.

So I’m sure, by now, you fellow blog readers have all heard that Google Reader is abandoning us. Have you switched over to a new feed reader yet? I decided to try out both Feedly and The Old Reader. Feedly’s import process was a cinch, whereas I still don’t know what went wrong with The Old Reader’s import, so I’m sticking with Feedly for a while.

After about 3 days of use, here are my initial observations.


  1. It’s pretty. I like its minimalist look and chose it because it’s not so loud and blaring like some of the other ones out there.
  2. It seems pretty customizable. There are a variety of different views you can choose from, whether you prefer just headlines, more of a magazine-like format, or full posts like Google Reader does. You can apply filters so you only see unread posts, or choose to have everything displayed. You can customize colors and fonts, and apparently a bunch of other things that I haven’t figured out yet because I don’t speak tech-ese. But it’s there.
  3. Seriously, the switch over was beyond simple. MAJOR points right there.
  4. There are easy sharing functions.
  5. It functions much like Google Reader so it takes barely any time to adapt to the new reader. Plus it functions on computers as well as mobile devices, which isn’t true for all feed readers.

A Few Drawbacks:

  1. This might just be a personal peccadillo, but I don’t really like how much empty space is on the sides, cramming posts into a narrow middle, meaning that for extra long posts you really have to just keep scrolling and scrolling…and scrolling.
  2. Apropos to that, I haven’t yet found a button that lets you skip posts to move on to the next one when there’s one you don’t really want to read. Not a really big deal, but for those extra long posts…well, keep scrolling.
  3. They’ve set the sensitivity to have reached/read a post at a weird spot, so if there’s an uber short post at the very bottom of your feed, you actually have to click through to mark it read.
  4. This complaint is a little hard to explain, but here goes. Okay so I have a feed file I call “Favorite Blogs.” Normally, you can scroll through and read all the unread ones in one fell swoop. Easy, right? No problem. But with Feedly, occasionally, one or two blogs won’t be a part of that stream. They’ll be separated somehow. So I’ll get to the bottom of my unread pile and see I still have 2 unread. I’ll refresh the feed…and just see the old ones. Where’d the other 2 go? There will suddenly be a new thing with just those 2 posts, and I have to click on that to see them. Not a big deal really…but WHY? Makes no sense to me.
  5. I keep my feed reader open in a tab in my browser at all times. With Google Reader, there used to pop up a little count on the tab notifying me when there are unread posts. Feedly doesn’t do that, so I have to check it myself.

The drawbacks are pretty minor, and I’m sure I’ll adapt in time, so all in all Feedly has offered a pretty good user experience so far.

So, any fun plans for the week? This week, I’m heading up to Chiang Rai again for work. A bunch of our students just graduated (YAY!!) and ALL of them are moving on up to the next level in their schooling (double YAY!), so we’ll have a ceremony and celebration party for them on Friday. This year, I’m changing up the curriculum a bit, judging based on what I see their needs to be at this stage, and on Saturday we’ll have the first new workshop in the series I’ve created. I have some surprises in store for the kids and I can’t wait to see how it goes. I’ll be sure to share the results with you next week.

In other news, The SOLD Project just got featured in The Bangkok PostSo we’re pretty excited about that.

And tomorrow marks my first day of my second trimester (WOOHOO!). I celebrated with a cup of (decaf) coffee. It was marvelous. My mom is putting together a small (emphasis on SMALL) baby shower for me in a couple of weeks and I’ll be Skyping in from Thailand, as will my cousin from Australia, and other family from across the globe. It’ll be an international shower! It’s early, I know, but since my parents have already planned to ship stuff out to their new home here in mid-April, we can just add our stuff to theirs. So we really want to take advantage of the opportunity to ship out baby things from the U.S. without having to pay extra shipping costs.

Anyway, that’s our news! How’s your Tuesday?

Join us at Communal Global and
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are spending their Tuesday!

Education, In Essence

Every year that I spend working at The SOLD Project brings me new lessons and deeper understanding about what education means and the purpose it serves. For those of you who aren’t aware, my life role as an educator began at UC Santa Barbara, teaching undergraduates while I completed my doctorate. It was rewarding, and challenging – with the deepest challenge being how to engage kids in material that would make them better American citizens, while half of them were only in college because their parents had insisted upon it and they had no clue what other life purpose they should have.

Perhaps paradoxically, my favorite class to teach was also one of the most difficult (and the one almost everyone else tries to avoid getting assigned to) – Research Methods – but I loved it because nowhere else was there as stark a connection between effort and reward, both for me and for my students. The class brought humility to the students for whom the whole school schtick was far too easy, and then there were moments when I felt I was physically pushing my timid ones to overcome their fears. Life lessons served with a side of statistical analysis. My hours spent teaching that class (and consoling the lost) were longer than any other – but then so were the letters of gratitude slipped in my end-of-quarter evaluations.

At university, educators commonly bemoan students’ inability to craft complete sentences despite 12 years of primary and secondary schooling, and the major value we consistently work towards is cultivating children’s critical thinking and skills in analysis. Supposedly, primary and secondary schools attempt to teach this as well. If so, we on the college end feel we see little fruit of those efforts. Students trained on endless state and national testing continue to come to college wanting to be told what to think. By college age, you should be curious and seek information on your own steam. So our job as educators becomes teaching kids how to think – which means kids must relearn the capacity to ask questions, natural to them at the age of 4, a chore at 19. And we do the best we can, and if we can’t change the lives of our undergrads, we hope at least we might do better with our own children.

This is the background I had before starting my work with at-risk, disadvantaged children in rural Thailand. I had plenty of high-minded ideas about how I could come in and challenge these children to think critically, to analyze, and to help bring them up to speed to compete on a global stage.

It’s kind of laughable, really, the gap between my highfalutin’ ideas and the reality. The first year was a lesson in humility for me, a constant stepping back and back and back to realize that the “basics” with these kids was even more basic than what I had ever known in my middle class, born to highly educated parents, upbringing. I couldn’t teach them to write or analyze poetry if they didn’t even dare to put words to a page, or utter a question (because in some classrooms here, asking a teacher a question implies the teacher isn’t teaching properly – a major loss of face). I had kids who were too afraid to color for fear of coloring incorrectly. They copied each other incessantly, too afraid to do anything on their own. If they did anything wrong, then at least their friends were wrong with them and there was safety in numbers.

The realization blew my mind. So the second year of my teaching focused on building the kids’ self-esteem and confidence, to teach them not to fear trying and to teach them that they could produce something of worth and value.

When a volunteer came and started them on entirely new projects and they jumped right in, I began to hope that our efforts were working. When I saw a previously shy 13-year-old jump up on stage in front of 200 people and lead a dance troupe front and center stage, and a quiet 15-year-old belt out two solos in English in front of said crowd, I began to believe the foundation had been set.

But I don’t have forever with these kids. I’m not starting at scratch with 5-year-olds. I have some 5 and 6-year-olds, some preteens, some teenagers. We dream big for them, but realistically speaking, not all of them will go to college. Probably only a small handful will obtain higher than a high school diploma, though we hope to continue to keep our kids in school through the end of high school. Likely, very few will hold desk jobs, and even fewer will obtain upper-management positions. What can I impart to them that will be useful in their world?

If you spend enough time in rural or distressed areas, you begin to hear stories about people: how so-and-so got into this scrape or that, how that person’s neighbor went to jail for this crazy thing that was only sort-of his fault, and how the other person’s sister got taken advantage of by that guy everyone knows is a crook, etc., etc., etc. You probably know somebody like this too: someone who, no matter what they try to do, always ends up in some crazy situation or another and needs to be bailed out and everyone’s afraid of that one time things go too far and you can’t help them anymore. It’s not really about rural or urban, poor or wealthy, schooled or not…there are people like this in all walks of life, though you see them more often in less-advantaged areas.

And you wonder: how does this stuff always manage to happen to them? Why do they trust people no one else would go near with a 10-foot pole? How do they find these scrapes to get into?

The reason, I believe, is and isn’t education. Education, done well, leaves people not only more knowledgable, but also more capable of assessing situations and other people. It’s never taught directly, but these skills are a by-product of careful study and experience. Also, the more highly educated you are, I believe, the more you begin to appreciate your self-worth and value, and are thus less likely to trust where your instincts tell you something is off. Education isn’t totally the answer though because, when you’re facing a class of 30 or more students, it’s a blunt instrument. Children are individuals, not sponges. They come with their own histories and proclivities and the same information is not going to affect them all equally.

But, in essence, this is what I believe education is all about. Sure, you learn what year the WWII began, the makeup of mitochondria, algebraic functions, and how to communicate more effectively through proper spelling and grammar. But what I think education’s key underlying goal is – or what I think it should be – is to help kids learn how to function independently in the real world, in whatever capacity they find themselves, whether as sales clerks or high court judges. Knowledge and information is critical, of course, but so is critical thinking, exercising good judgment, and learning how to ask the important questions.

Which brings me right back to needing to teach these kids how to think critically – but I need a shortcut because I don’t have years with them, I have only moments. So this year, my challenge is to take the foundation of self-confidence that we’ve begun with these kids and turn that into a sense of self-worth and value. My belief (and hope) is that if the kids begin to believe in their own worth, they will be more self-protective and less likely to follow trouble. If we can cultivate their sense of value as individuals and human beings and that protective instinct, then maybe we can talk more cogently to them about how to determine who’s worthy of trust, how and why to avoid situations that feel wrong to you even when your friends or family are telling you it’s right, and what healthy, loving relationships look like and how to cultivate them, so you don’t end up in the arms of abuse.

Maybe I’m back to my highfalutin’ ideas again. This may or may not work (and next year, I’ll most likely be right back at the drawing board again), but I’ll keeping trying because their lives are valuable. Each life is a miracle and has value. If they believe that, then maybe they’ll do an okay job of protecting their own.

Each Thursday, we come together to celebrate living life with intention by capturing a glimmer of the bigger picture through a simple moment. Have you found yourself in such a moment lately? Share it with us!

Live. Capture. Share. Encourage.
This week we’re linking up at Melissa’s!
Tuesday, February 5, 8:00 p.m. CST: Fiction {Host: Jade}
Wednesday, February 13, 8:00 p.m. CST: Memoir {Host: Hyacynth}


A Coffee Chat

Happy Tuesday everyone! So, I normally write these posts while sipping a cup of coffee, but today is one of those days that just kind of got away from me – you know what I mean? – so I’m actually sipping a Coke at the moment. Another thing I almost never do, but I had pizza for dinner and it just does not work to follow pizza up with water. So, a Coke it is. But a chat over coke probably sounds like something it shouldn’t, and I figure a lot of you are probably reading this over coffee anyway so it’s not that big a stretch.

I’m rambling. I do that from time to time.

How was your weekend? Mine was intense. The SOLD Project, the NGO I work for, was participating in a challenge hosted by Nike & The Girl Effect. The organizations with the most donors would win. We were just hoping to be a finalist, but in the last hours we suddenly jumped up to a neck-and-neck race for first place against last year’s winner. They were giving us a serious run for our money BUT our friends, families, and supporters are AWESOME, some of them even going so far as to pull over to the side of the road in the middle of the night to donate and we won with a margin of just 15 donors (we had 660 donors total). So each donation seriously mattered. PLUS we raised over $18,000 – not including the grant we’ll get from Nike and the added exposure which could result in more donors coming our way.

The Thailand Director and I were sitting up in the wee hours watching the leaderboard and having a mini heart attack every time our competitor surpassed us. Then, when we won, we sat in shock and a sense of overwhelming gratitude for all the people who had helped us out along the way.

(If you’re one of them, by the way, I’ll be sending out a proper thank you note with details of what these means for SOLD as soon as we hear the specifics from Nike, which they said they’ll send out on Dec. 6.)

So that’s exciting. The fun didn’t stop there this weekend either. I was at SOLD, spending time on Saturday teaching the kids how to bake Christmas cookies and cut snowflakes. And it snowed in Chiang Rai!

Haha – just kidding. If there was any snow in Chiang Rai, it was the window spray kind:

Photo by Tawee Donchai

But I did build a couple of snowmen for the kids.

And then I scurried home because we had (yet another) visitor come for the weekend. The night I got back, we went to see The Impossible. Have you seen it or heard of it? It’s with Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts, and it’s about the tsunami that hit Thailand (among other places: India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, etc.) the day after Christmas in 2004. Do you remember that?

It’s a time I can’t forget because my husband, Toby, was actually down at the southern beaches in Thailand right when it hit. He was on a 7-month trip around the world with his best friend, just after college. I had gotten an email from him two days before saying he was on one of the islands – one that, when I saw the news about the tsunami, I knew had been decimated. I was at work back in the States when I got the news, and I literally went nuts. Seeing the death toll rise into the tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands, and not being able to get in contact with him while I saw scene after scene of absolute terror and destruction, I couldn’t work I was shaking so hard and feeling so nauseated. I have a vivid imagination and it was doing me NO favors just then. It was a few days later that I found out a friend had convinced him to go to a full moon party on the gulf side of Thailand just the day before the tsunami hit, and thus, he was completely safe and unaware a tsunami had even happened. Full moon parties are notoriously crazy…but that one might have just saved his life.

Seeing this movie, then, was super intense. It’s already an intense film with what happens in it and knowing all that was real. It was even more intense because it made us relive that time again. It was also both poetic and strange to watch it in Thailand, where it happened, and to sit in a theater full of Thai people who were all in tears – many of whom know people who were hurt, lost, or killed by the tsunami – and have the movie be almost entirely about foreigners. Whoever made the film made it about foreigners traveling to Thailand, and there were seriously only about 3 Thai people in the whole thing with any speaking parts. It was like the tsunami happened to the tourists, not the Thai people who were there as well.

So it’s been quite an emotional weekend. But I’ve recently started getting back into yoga after a few years away and I’m remembering again how much lighter, and more energized, and more at peace with myself I feel when I’m practicing yoga. And I discovered I’m much less stressed driving through crazy Thai traffic when I sing. So, if you see me out there, I’m the nutty woman belting Christmas carols into her helmet as she nonchalantly swerves around the motorcyclists going the wrong way up her side of the street.

Hey, whatever works, right? Do you do anything funny to help reduce stresses?

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