I've just arrived home after a week on the road, visiting twelve primary schools in and near my old hometown.
I grew up in Tokoroa. I think my favorite quote about Tokoroa is this one, from Wikipedia:
Famous for Maori and Pacific Islander Races and a Multicultural melting pot as all races and creeds attracted by seasonal employment at the mill.
I don't really think I need to add much to that eloquent testimony to the multicultural nature of my home town. The town is famous for its Races. Not the kind involving horses.
More recently, unfortunately, my hometown has been more famous for its crime rates. A teacher at one of the primary schools I visited this week was stabbed to death in her own classroom.
Any sense of hope or possibility that existed when I was at school there seems to have gone the way of the shops in the main street, which now lie empty.
So when I was asked to do another round of motivational talks at low-income primary schools for the Duffy Books in Homes charity, I agreed on the condition that I could go home to Tokoroa.
If I was going to spend a week giving children a sense of hope that they too, despite their limited economic resources and ill-reputed hometown, can make a positive difference in the world, then I wanted it to be children in Tokoroa.
The idea is that I visit each school and talk to a full assembly about my work in Afghanistan. The official name of these assemblies are "Role Model Assemblies", but some schools call them "Hero Assembly". I'm often introduced as "Marianne Elliott, our Duffy hero". Those feel like big shoes to fill.
To give you an idea of the kind of heroes that these children might be used to hearing from, take a look at the list of notable residents in that Wikipedia entry. Out of forty seven notable residents, thirty six are athletes. Of those thirty six, twenty two play rugby.
But my point is that when a local 'hero' turns up at a Tokoroa primary school, nine times out of ten they are going to be a sports person. I was not, to put it mildly, what these kids were accustomed to in a Duffy hero.
But at school after school I encountered a deep and engaged curiosity about the lives of children in Afghanistan. Even during the late afternoon assemblies in those final, restless days before the Easter school holidays the children were all engaged and interested.
They had dozens of questions for me. Some of them were questions I'd like to see put to the people who make the decisions that control the lives of so many Afghan children.
"If the soldiers have airplanes to fly in, why do the children have to walk so far to school? Why can't they use the planes?"
"Why did the war start in the first place?"
"How can the children grow if they only have bread to eat?"
"If they cut down all the trees, how will the children have clean air to breathe?"
"If you had a bunker at your office, what about the people in the town who didn't have bunkers? What happened to them when there were rockets?"*
My favorite part of every talk was when I asked the children to tell me what they think every child everywhere needs. Most schools get started with the basics - food, water, shelter - but there wasn't a school where the children didn't move on pretty quickly to the essentials - every child needs to be protected, cared for and loved.
These children had no problem understanding that children in Afghanistan needed all the same things that they needed themselves.
I wondered whether it was possible that children, so often maligned for their cruelty, could be more compassionate than most adults. Is it possible that children are more able to recognise themselves in the lives, suffering and needs of others.
Maybe it's simply that children are (as child development texts tell us) egotistical, so they instinctively related everything I was saying to themselves and their own lives.
But I was left with the impression that these children might be closer to their original compassionate nature. Their natural empathy hadn't been perverted by notions of blame or racist stereotypes. They didn't get caught up in the 'story' of who was causing the suffering, they simply responded to the fact of it.
Their curiosity and their compassion gave me hope for our beleagured planet. So did the passion and patience of their teachers, but that's another post.*I feel the need to point out that some of these questions were from the older groups I spoke with, Year 7 and 8 students who were 11 and 12 years old. I wasn't talking to the juniors about rocket attacks and bunkers!