A Memorable Birthday Tangier, Morocco, April 9, 2016
It was the last leg of my nine-week, five-country tour of conferences, professional development, meetings, and visits to family and friends. I had left a national conference in Atlanta and was heading for an international one in Tangier, Morocco, a conference three years in the making: “1er Salon Marocain de L’Education et de l’Innovation Pédagogique (SMEIP, 8-19 avril, 2016).” I, along with the other invitees, had received dozens of warm and welcoming emails over the past eight months so I was eager to finally meet the organizers in person. Merely reading the titles of the talks got me excited: “Communiquer autrement: Parler pour que les enfants écoutent, écouter pour que les enfants parlent” or “Eduquer sans violence: ni punition, ni récompense, ni promesse ni menace, ni compétition ni comparaison.” Or better yet, “L’amour comme moteur d’apprentissage!” I who have long spoken about fostering a love for mathematics in our students, or about passion as the missing ingredient in the teaching of mathematics, felt even before arriving that I was going to be surrounded by like minded-people.
I had even looked into the Congress Center: the famous Palais Moulay Hafid in the central Hasnouna quarter, built in 1914 by the ex-Sultan Moulay Hafid, that hosts international and national events such as le Salon International du Livre de Tanger. I was eager to arrive.
Two other speakers and I left Charles de Gaulle and landed at Tangier Ibn Battouta Airport on Thursday afternoon the 7th of April. Instantly, the radiant sun, the warm temperature, the azure sky, the swaying palm trees, and especially the warm welcome of our host-and-driver, Faycal, set a stage for joy. On the way to the Golden Tulip Hotel, the three of us were carrying on about all sorts of things pertaining to our talks the following days: Had we prepared our presentations or did we still have some work to do? Was one hour too long or too short? What were the chances that my 500-seat room would be filled to capacity? Wow, 10,000 attendees expected! We sensed the cordial demeanor and attentive ear of our host but we failed to discern his concerned look. After all, he was facing forward while we were taking in the scenery and chatting at the same time.
Suddenly Faycal clears his throat and politely interrupts: “I’m trying to find an opportune moment to tell you something,” he begins. I thought to myself, perhaps there’s been a change in hotel, or in venue, or that perhaps one of the speakers cannot make it. Worse. “The Salon was suspended this morning by the highest authority of Tangier” he continued. “You can’t even visit the Congress Center: barricades are blocking the entrances. We remained silent in disbelief. Was this a joke? Was this a nightmare? Was this surreal? Was this possible? “But,” he said, “We’re concentrating all our efforts to reopen the Salon. We’ve contacted ambassadors, the mayor, and other influential officials. We should have good news tonight!” He concluded.
The atmosphere had changed from joyous to somber. As we checked into the five-star hotel, we were told to meet in the reception area of the hotel at 9 PM that evening. By then the final decision will be known and all speakers will have arrived.
Final decision: The Salon was suspended permanently. Closed. Over. Fini. “For security reasons.” All in one day. After three years of work, hundreds of emails sent, thousands of dollars spent. The reactions varied from audible gasps to silent shock, from tears to trembling. Our hearts went out to the organizers. Especially to Abdelkarim Irbaiyne, President of the SMEIP and his right-hand coordinator Malyka Azeroual.
Leonardo de Vinci wrote, “I love those who can smile in trouble.” He would have loved Abdelkarim. As the president of SMEIP sat before us talking about the cancellation of his brainchild, he never once swore, cursed, blamed anyone, or had an unkind word. Instead, he stood there stoically, with a gentle smile on his face, trying to understand for himself while simultaneously trying to provide explanations for us. The mode quickly transitioned to “problem solving,” a mode that particularly excites and energizes me. What were we going to do? Capitulate? Go back home? Or capitalize on the many talents gathered together at the same time, in the same place? Of course, we opted for the latter. Adversity strengthens the mind so we all became creative. We brainstormed for hours and came up with a solution.
Inspiration had kicked open a door: we decided to hold a private conference the next day, April 9, on the beautiful and spacious campus of the American School of Tanger (AST), headed by the dynamic Sarah Putnam. And where else but in the AST library! Thank you Sarah! We decided that each presenter would offer the essence of his/her talk in exactly ten videotaped minutes. And these 17 video clips would to be put online and travel through Cyberspace. “Un mal pour un bien,” as the French saying goes. Perhaps in the end our concerted messages will reach more than the expected 10,000 attendees. Henry David Thoreau said, “However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names.” Precisely what we did!
That night, all seventeen speakers were busy condensing hour-long talks into 10 minutes. Not an easy task! Frightening for some, who disliked being filmed. That part didn’t bother me but I had a hard time making choices among my slides. What do I keep? What do I delete? I actually ended up creating a whole new presentation. While we all worked through the wee hours of the morning, neither of us imagined the magic the next day held for us.
The big day came sooner than expected. The sun shone bright through the glass ceiling of the AST library, which added warmth to an already warm atmosphere. Having only 10 minutes, we each gave our best. We couldn’t share the details of our research or our practice but we conveyed our message with conviction. While there was unity in theme—“L’Education autrement”—there was diversity in style: some spoke softly and moved us to complete silent attention; others spoke passionately captivating our attention in the palm of their hands. We were all preaching to the choir, but it was nevertheless a privilege to have such attentive and convinced colleagues as our sole audience. Their animate reception was a gift. It was intense.
So many inspirational themes: Place the child at the center of his learning. Guide her to be metacognitive and take charge of her learning. Listen to the children. Respect them. Foster curiosity and creativity. Don’t employ violence. Don’t use emotional manipulation. Don’t employ rewards or punishment. Foster a desire to learn. Celebrate mistakes for they are human. Mistakes are springboards to new learning. Transform schools into places children can’t wait to enter. Help children feel safe, in all senses of the word. Cultivate cooperation and collaboration instead of competition. Don’t compare students; celebrate diversity. Foster a love for lifelong learning.
Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which one can use to change the world.” We all felt empowered. United for a weekend, from all parts of the world—North America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, etc.—we felt for a moment that we did have the power to change the world for our children. In truth, individuals change society. So perhaps, if we keep the momentum going, there is promise for change, individually and together.
Life holds moments of unexpected joy. Such was the celebration of my birthday: strangers reunited for a common educational cause, for a short but intense while, in a beautiful country, with resilient people. We all attended fully to the moment and lived it completely. We gave each other the gift of presence. We had stepped off the merry-go-round of life to simply BE.
“March on, and fear not the thorns, or the sharp stones on life’s path.” Khalil Gibran