Author: Katy Dhanens
The popularity of Greg Mortenson might best be characterized as an unexpected explosion. From his roots as a virtually unknown climber to his nomination for the Nobel peace prize, Mortenson’s accomplishments have grown to giant proportions.
On Jan. 31, I attended Mortenson’s appearance at Santa Monica High School, where he spoke about his accomplishments and his recently published work. Two of the most recognized of these accomplishments are his successful nonprofit organizations: the Central Asia Institute and Pennies for Peace. His extraordinary story, Three Cups of Tea, published in 2006, has been a New York Times bestseller for 104 weeks. The story has been reprinted as a children’s book, Listen to the Wind. Despite this new fame, he has remained focused on his work, which centers on the idea that education, particularly of females, is the long-term solution to ending violence in the Middle East.
Mortenson began his portion of the presentation by describing his own shortcomings. After failing to summit Pakistan’s K2, the people of Korphe, a poor, isolated Pakistani village, cared for Mortenson. While living in the village, Mortenson observed that “school” for most of Korphe’s children consisted of them scratching figures in the dirt. He promised his hosts that he would return to build a school.
Years later, after much struggle and fundraising, Mortenson returned to Korphe with enough funding to help the local people build themselves both a school and a bridge. Inspired by the success of the school in Korphe, Mortenson embarked on a mission to build schools and women’s centers throughout Pakistan. According to his website, www.threecupsoftea.com, Mortenson helped establish seventy-eight schools by 2008 that currently serve over 28,000 children, 18,000 of which are girls.
“Unless the girls are educated, a society will not change,” Mortenson said.
To emphasize his point, he cited an African proverb. “If you educate a boy, you educate an individual; if you educate a girl, you educate a community.”
Still, Mortenson was sure to use his presentation to emphasize that he is not working to fight terrorism, but to promote peace. “We can’t live in fear,” Mortenson reminded his audience. “We have to live in hope.”
Although his message was inspiring, the presentation itself did not live up to Mortenson’s grandiose reputation. Although it was geared towards children, it lacked novelty. Superfluous introductions, an obviously photo-driven procession of children walking across the stage to present Mortenson with a check, and his own daughter belting out “Three Cups of Tea,” stalled what the audience was really waiting for: Mortenson himself.
Although his legendary reputation has cast him in a heroic light, in person Mortenson is ordinary and humble. Despite his many awards and presentations, he spoke with a self-conscious uncertainty. His humility gave him the ability to empower the average audience member and to communicate his vision to a wide spectrum of people from varying walks of life.
Furthermore, the presentation reinforced the importance of children’s involvement in bringing about societal transformation. The audience was very responsive to Mortenson, meeting the ending of his talk with a standing ovation.
“I liked that he was simple and unpolished,” said one audience member. “He’s real.”
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