At 12 Years Old – One Voice For Many

The gunshot was meant to silence a small boy on a distant field, yet its echo continues to reverberate around the world today. Thanks to a Canadian boy who, at 12 years old, used his one voice for many.

     I attended Sixth Grade at McMaster Catholic School in Ottawa. My classroom was on the second floor of the red brick building. Big excitement ensued when the city’s Bookmobile (library on wheels) would pull into the parking lot. My mother would carefully pack my lunch in my Charlie Brown lunchbox and I was the fastest runner in my class. There were swimming lessons in the summer, and skating lessons in the winter. Riding my bike on the winding tree-lined streets of Alta Vista by day, reading Nancy Drew books curled up under a blanket by night. This was my life at 12 years old. I was born and raised in Canada. In terms of birthplaces, I had won the lottery.

     Two years ago, my friend, Dan Ryan, visited my own Grade 6 classroom to share his experiences on a work-leave program, Leave for Change sponsored by UNITERRA. Sent to Burkina Faso to help establish greater economic sustainability, Dan spent a month working and living in one of the poorest nations in the world. There, school is not free, and students depend largely on foreign sponsorship to attend. There, classes can be as large as 90 students, classrooms have dirt floors, no electricity and water runs for only one hour before school. Dan shared that the magnitude of the experience truly hit him while sitting on the plane ride home. The sheer emotion of returning to Canada, brought tears to his eyes as he reflected upon the faces, sights and experiences he had encountered.image     Dan called our privilege of being born in Canada: “The Lottery of the Womb.” So much of what transpires in our lives is dictated by the country we are born into. For me, as a tiny girl born into a middle class area in Ottawa, Canada, many doors opened to me without thought or notice. The rights to an education, health care, and freedom of speech, were not even considerations when my parents brought me home for the first time. It is something, we as Canadians, sometimes forget to recognize or appreciate. During his visit, Dan challenged my students to appreciate their Canadian citizenship and to never forget its value, which is something I aspire to do with my students every year.

     It is so important that students value their rights as Canadians and, in doing so, see the importance of living in Solidarity with others. We need to teach them to be compassionate and empathetic citizens in a world in which not all children have the same rights and privileges. They need to see that their voice can be powerful and can be used to empower those who are voiceless. 

     Our classrooms themselves are diverse, with students from various points of origin and ranges of experience. In the past two years, our school has welcomed many refugee families. Many of these students and their parents have been traumatized by the events in their own homelands. While living in Syria, my student could not attend the school across the street due to the missiles flying overhead. These newcomers truly value the rights and privileges we enjoy and benefit from in Canada. How can we encourage all of our students to do the same?

     The single greatest source of inspiration for me as an educator is the story of Craig Kielburger. While his role as an adult today truly inspires, it is the younger Craig, at 12 years old, that resonates with me and guides me in my teaching.

     At the breakfast table in Thornhill, Ontario in 1995, Craig read a story about Iqbal Masih in the Toronto Star. Iqbal, a 12-year-old child labourer turned activist, had been gunned down on Easter Sunday in Pakistan. He had allegedly been silenced from speaking out against the carpet merchants and bonded labour. Craig brought his sense of outrage into his classroom, organized a group of classmates and founded the organization, Free the Children. He convinced his parents to travel to Pakistan to meet with enslaved children and emerged as a global leader against child labour. Today, 20 years later, Craig continues to walk this same path, demonstrating the tremendous course an inspired and empowered child may have.  Today, Free the Children, rebranded this summer as WE , is an international organization and youth empowerment movement. It is the largest organization of children helping children in the world.

     The juxtaposition of two 12-year-olds: Craig, the Canadian school boy and Iqbal, the Pakistani child labourer, provides a glimpse at the privilege of birth. Iqbal had been bonded into a life of labour at the age of four, had been chained to a loom and had worked long hours apart from his family. Craig was raised in much the same environment as I was in Canada. While the two boys never met, their stories are forever intertwined. Iqbal’s fight against the injustice of child slavery, continues today through Craig’s leadership in his organization. Craig’s determination, perseverance and courage are a powerful example to my students. Craig is proof that children can be powerful leaders, when given the forum and empowered to do so. His story is also a testament to the adults in his life who paid attention to that 12-year-old voice, starting with his parents and teachers.

     I have attended three National We Day events in Ottawa with my students. We Day is an annual event focused on recognizing the leadership of youth who are making a difference in their communities. A ticket to We Day cannot be purchased and must be earned through volunteer work at the local and global levels. When Craig steps onto the stage to the thunderous applause of 18 000+ people, for me, it is the 12-year-old boy stepping onto that stage. I see the humble beginnings in their family home, and I see the possibility of every child with a passion. I see what is possible, and what can be created, given an innovative, determined and persistent mind.image

     On the way to We Day this year, my student, Valerie, tweeted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a question. To our astonishment, he responded via video message the next day. In his message, the Prime Minister addresses that our Canadian citizenship “comes with a responsibility to do right by those opportunities.” His message validated my message to my students, but also provided proof to them that their 12-year-old voices could be heard and their message conveyed.

     There are countless examples of children, such as Craig and Iqbal, who have implemented change across the world. Each year, my students launch an inquiry into one such child activist. Students need to be given opportunity to think deeply and to develop a greater moral conscience through their questions and investigations. Inquiry into topics which advance the common good, allows our students to be personally engaged, and allows them the opportunity to become leaders and change agents. Such themes are a major focus in my classroom, as will be explored in future posts.

     Our OCSB theme this year is “Sent to be the Good News” (Luke 4: 14-20). How are we, as educators, going to empower our students to live out their faith, use their voices and show Mercy towards the disadvantaged in their own communities and abroad? This school year, let’s challenge ourselves to help our students find their “Iqbal” – their passion and their fighting cause. Let’s help our students find the strength to advocate for themselves and others. Be it standing up to the bully in the school yard, becoming passionate about world issues, or representing their own personal needs, student voice needs to be heard and valued.

     This year, I will sit down with a brand new group of students at the kitchen table with 12-year-old Craig Kielburger as he eats his cereal and opens up the Toronto Star. He, and they, will become enraged as the story of Iqbal, and millions of other children, is revealed. It is my hope that, in the process, they will come to value their own rights as Canadians, uncover their own passions and find confidence in using their own voice. Change starts within us. I am only one, but together we are many. Come, join us at the table.

“ I am only one; but still I am one. I cannot do everything; but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.” Edward Everett Hale

You may read about Dan Ryan’s experiences in Burkina Faso on his blog: