Teaching Tolerance in the Age of Terror
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le_chat_14sept11_223I began and ended my holidays with a moment of silence, a solemn reminder that the threat of terrorism lurked on every street corner, in every train station and every international airport. Just before our winter break, 7 militants from the Pakistani Taliban entered an army-run, public school in Peshawar and fired at random killing 132 students and 9 teachers during 8 hours of terror.

In solidarity, the next day, our Swiss and International School of Geneva flags flew at half-mast; otherwise we resumed our regular school day. That evening we had a basketball game at another large international school where I looked forward to seeing the opposing coach, my American friend, and my son’s former coach.

Instead of being greeted with his usual bear hug, when I walked in the gym he raised a finger to his lip, and apologized, “Sorry, Pat, we are in lock-down.” He urged us to duck behind a pile of gym mats where his team crouched low.

Overhead the loud speaker blared, “Le train ne s’arrête pas à Lausanne.” (The train doesn’t stop in Lausanne). The code was repeated over and over again heightening our anxiety. Teenagers in hiding whispered nervously, while I wondered why would they “practice” a lock-down drill after school hours.

The following morning, back on my own campus, students from the age of thirteen to eighteen gathered in an assembly to sing, dance, and perform. One was a world champion tap dancer, another played the piano and sang a piece he composed, two students from my home room class, co presidents of our school, spoke eloquently. I marveled at such talented kids, such bright minds.

From the balcony, I overlooked our gym floor covered with chairs lined in rows representing 6 classes in each year group from grade 7 to 13. In a sea of joy, heads bobbed and arms, representing 135 nationalities, waved in rhythm to the jazz band. So young, innocent, so earnest.

Then our principal spoke breaking the festive atmosphere.

“In an international school about our size, terrorists wiped out an entire year group in an unimaginably, appalling attack. Some students were finishing exams; others were in first aid class or in normal lessons. All the children were just trying to learn, trying to better themselves through education.”

Our principal asked us to observe a moment of silence in memory of the victims. The stark contrast between the previous noisy, frivolities to absolute stillness was eerie. Though we practiced lock-down procedures, Switzerland seemed unrealistically safe. A safety we take for granted.

At the world’s oldest and largest international schools, we remained one of the few campuses left unguarded and unenclosed. Teachers, students, parents and visitors come and go freely admiring the bucolic countryside and spectacular view of Lake Geneva surrounded by the Alps.

I left school that day deep in thought. Three weeks later, after our holiday, I returned to school with an even heavier heart. As the sun rose over the Alps, I walked to campus and contemplated the lessons I had prepared for that day. Reeling from barbaric terrorists attacks in he heart of Paris on January 7th; I contemplated how to discuss the events in a school composed of students representing so many different nationalities, ethnicities and religions.

While across Europe, leaders debated ways to assure safety in light of the recent attacks, my school hosted a joint Education for Peace Conference at Palais des Nations to celebrate our 90 years of international education and 70 years of the United Nations. We joined forces around our common values of peace, tolerance, respect and diversity upon which we were founded.

I am an educator, but what information should I impart?

How can we teach vigilance without invoking fear?

How do we protect our citizens without infringing on personal rights?

How do we practice tolerance in the face of terrorism and impart an understanding that terror is not synonymous with Islam?

How do we safeguard intellectual freedom is such gifted, promising, malleable young minds?

Paris Under Siege New Tactics of Terrorism
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Charlie 1Within minutes of one of the worst terrorist attacks in Paris, I skimmed a French newspaper while on layover at Charles de Gaulle Airport, en route to my home in Switzerland.

While I enjoyed the freedom to travel between borders, AK-47 toting terrorists gunned down Charlie Hebdo journalists at an editorial planning session in the heart of Paris.

While France mourned, democracies around the world chanted, “I am Charlie” in solidarity. I know from my own family that the French love satire and the freedom of expression. Charlie Hebdo, born out of the student protests in 1968s, reflects the French tradition of ‘esprit critique’ (critical spirit) and a place where journalists can speak their minds.

Since 2006 Charlie Hebdo received terrorist threats for having published caricatures of Prophet Mohammed. Stephen Charbonnier, the editor in chief, one of 12 victims of the attack, was under police protection. But bodyguards and officers stationed outside the door, also slaughtered, offered little protection against terrorism.

Charlie Hebdo poked fun at all, including the Pope and Jesus Christ, as well as political class leaders including extreme right wing Marine Le Pen and other prominent personalities. Though it often ruffled feathers, it also provoked thought and symbolized the right for freedom of expression.Charlie

Charbonnier said his job was not to defend freedom of speech. “But without freedom of speech we are dead. We can’t live in a country without freedom of speech. I prefer to die than live like a rat

As an American living abroad, I will never forget the impact of 9/11; now January 7/15 stains my soul. Like 9/11, the attack sent ripples of anxiety and outrage across national borders, racial divides and among the traditional French Catholic as well as the 5 million Muslims across the nation.

As the story unfolded live on national TV, the horror escalated. Less than 24 hours later, police were shot on the street in another attack. While the public froze, the government mobilized 90,000 police officers to search for the two terrorists who fled taking refuge in a printing company in a village near Charles deGaulle Airport. Meanwhile the other gunman encamped in a kosher grocery store at the Porte de Vincennes and killed several hostages. Nearby students cowered in lockdown, shoppers hid in garages, homeowners were confined, the peripherique (highway circling Paris) shut down, the nation held its breath.

I waited and watched as experts explain a new era of terrorism, a terror that reigns within. French citizens target their own country in an attempt to disrupt and paralyze society with fear.

President Holland attempted to calm his nervous nation with powerful speeches defending human rights. In spite of the Franco- American differences, our fundamental ideologies remain the same. Liberty, Equality and Fraternity — the bedrock of French values – are also the pillars upon which America was built.

“Each and every American stands with you today,” President Obama said as he offered support to our oldest ally. “The universal belief in freedom of expression is something that can’t be silenced because of senseless violence.”

As an American writer married to a French printer, intellectual freedom has been part of my family’s foundation. My children, born and raised in Paris in early years, were educated in Geneva as global, international citizens.

Over this past winter holiday, feeling discouraged, I contemplated stopping my blog and quitting writing. Yet with a heavy heart, as we embark on a new year, I am compelled to put my pen to paper.

Today I mourn for mankind, for the vulnerability in each of us against the faceless enemy of terrorism that threatens our existence. Like so many people, I want to do something, anything, to stop the madness. Helpless and hopeless I wring my hands and scrawl until my fingers bleed.

I must write.

Because I can.

And I will!

Savor the Holiday Season
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imagesIn December we kick off the festivities with St. Nicholas Day on the 6th, St. Lucia Day on the 13th, Hanukkah on the 16th, Christmas the 25th and Kwanzaa the 26th. However your family celebrates the holidays, whether you are African, American, German, Dutch, Swedish or of another nationality or denomination, no matter which deity you chose to worship (or not) try to make amends with estranged family members, disgruntled neighbors, difficult colleagues. Build bridges not walls. Start the holiday season with a thankful heart.

Think less is more when baking, buying, and boxing up. Remember the greatest gift, especially in this fast paced modern society, is not gold, frankincense or myrrh but time together.

So hang on to those traditions that make your family unique. Frost those sugar cookies, bake those spritz, baste that turkey, decorate the halls, and find that special toy, but know the real significance of the season cannot be found on the table or under the tree. It is within us, in our actions, in the way we interact with others.gingerbreadhouse2008

Cherish friends and family members, near and far. Take a moment to honor the memories of loved ones who have passed on. Slow down. Hold your tongue. Bite your lip. Be patient. Be kind.

Keep in mind that the holidays are not always happy for everyone; real life doesn’t take time out to offer a reprieve from illness and accidents.

Savor this moment. So what if the cookies have burnt edges, the dog eats the ham, the new sweater is ugly, and the package arrives a day late.

We, especially we women, put so much pressure on ourselves to create the flawless holiday, but what makes the day perfect is not all the tra la la, it is simply being together.

Wherever you are, whomever you are with and however you choose to celebrate, remember to give thanks for one another.

Peace be with you and yours.

Sealed with a kiss from SwitzerlandIMG_0818

I’ll be back in 2 weeks.

King James Introduces Kate and William to his Court
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LeBronWhat is it about the Royal Union and their heirs? At the risk of offending my colleagues and friends, I can’t help but roll my eyes at the British medias’ insinuation about those blundering Big Kids, the so called Americans. Apparently « we » made another faux pas when LeBron James innocently put his arm around The Duchess of Cambridge for the photo shoot after the December 8th game between the New York Nets and Cleveland Cavaliers.

Now what could be more natural when cheesing it for the camera than to offer an arm slung over a shoulder and a big smile especially at a good ol’ American ball game?

The British tabloids were even more offended when Our First Lady breached protocol and hugged the Queen in 2009. But hugs are as much a part of our culture as tea is a part of theirs. When in the USA, especially the Midwest, it is considered good manners, part of our warm hospitality, to welcome visitors with a hug or extra long hand shake.

However, LeBron inadvertently broke rules of royal etiquette. Who speaks first, what to say, how to stand and when to sit have been divinely ordained but aren’t they a little outmoded for the 21st century?

Apparently not. An insider, who worked for the British royal family or Her Majesty’s Household, offers these tips when encountering royalty.

  1. Do not speak unless spoken to or ask inappropriate questions.
  2. Never touch a royal. A handshake is the only exception and only when royalty initiate it. For heaven’s sake don’t dare keep holding on.
  3. Address the Queen, as “Your Majesty,” then “Ma’am” and the Duke and Duchess, as “Your Royal Highness,” then “Ma’am” or “Sir.”
  4. Stand when royalty enters a room. Men should bow and women should curtsy on introduction. Are you kidding me ? Curtsy ? In this day and age ?
  5. When the most senior royal in attendance finishes the meal, so do all the guests. Huh. What if you are still hungry ?

“From medieval times, monarchs were divinely appointed to rule by God, so they demanded to be treated as gods,” Dr Kate Williams, a historian at London’s Royal Holloway University explained.”They are treated as people set apart from the rest of us, creating distance and grandeur.”

Ironically, Americans really do like Kate and William, but oh, if only they could buck those pompous traditions.

Get over it already. Remember the bloody Revolution of 1812? We are the ones who dumped your tea in the harbor and refused to bow down to the British crown in sovereignty. The French beheaded their King and Queen.

I am not suggesting anything so radical, but I’d like to offer insight on how to behave in the ‘hood. If you hang out in our playground –what’s more American than a basketball game in Brooklyn– learn to play by our rules. A bit of down-to-earth, genuine appreciation for the common folk can go a long way in smoothing public relations.Prince William and_Kate_Middleton_Wedding_Pictures 2

People on the other side of the Atlantic wonder if it is time that royalty stopped putting on airs and stepped out of that glass castle. To make a difference, you have to relate to the downtrodden. To commiserate with the working class, it’s time to take off the white gloves, get down on the ground and roll in the dirt. Take a tip from our King James; human touch speaks louder than words. Put protocol aside, learn from the kids across the Pond, be real and hug.

Birthdays, Deaths and Miracles
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P & Nic-1_copyBirthdays and death anniversary dates give us a way to cherish those still with us and to honor the memories of those we love who are no longer here. On December 7, 1990, my beloved grandpa, Ralph McKinzie “Coach Mac” died at the age of 96. I was fortunate to have him as a guiding influence throughout the first 3 decades of my life. I was especially blessed since my grandfather and I survived miracles when we were 25-year-olds. In the winter of 1918 and 1983, at an interval of 75 years, we were nursed back to health by kind strangers in hospitals on foreign soil.

On the 100th anniversary of WWI, a war that caused millions of casualties, I reflect back in gratitude that my grandfather survived a one in a million shot. In a freak accident in Germany, a stray bullet from a drunk infantryman entered a window and hit my grandpa in the back. The shot was deflected off a rib, and instead of going through him it followed the path around his rib and exited within a quarter of an inch of his heart.

Northern - bb champions 1940_copyMy grandpa recovered and went on to contribute greatly to society. Though only one of his three sons survived, Coach Mac helped shape the lives of hundreds of men in a college coaching career spanning 7 decades. His son, my dad, went on to teach and coach and raise four children, one who went on to become a professional athlete.Jim & Grandpa_copy

At the peak of my career as a basketball player, I survived a car accident that should have killed me. When our vehicle traveling at 80 miles an hour, flipped off the French autoroute and landed in an icy river during a snowy February, what were the odds of survival? From my hospital window in Verdun, I gazed out at the famous battlegrounds and graveyards of WWI heroes and wondered would I ever walk again.

Even though I still suffer from pain and repercussions of the injuries sustained, I went on to marry a cher Frenchman, raise 2 children, teach, coach, write and lead a productive life.

I adhere to the hand-me-down lessons of life that my grandfather instilled in my father who then passed on to me and I later shared with my own son and daughter. Cherish family. Give back to the community. Set a good example. Do the right thing even when no one is looking. I think they call it integrity.

Jim tossing the coin on McKinzie Football Eureka College

Jim tossing the coin on McKinzie Football Eureka College

If my grandfather were still alive he would have been 110 today. Even though he no longer walks the earth, he lives on in the hearts and minds of the family he left behind.

On November 18, 1990, his first great grandson was born in Paris; three weeks later, Grandpa died. Four thousand miles away I mourned his passing, my family comforted me saying he hung on until Nicolas arrived safely, then he left a space for our newborn son. At the time I felt guilty, as if my son’s birth facilitated my grandfather’s death, but when I see the kind young man my son has become, I understand the divinity of the life cycle. Following in his great grandpa, grandfather, and mom’s footsteps, Nic became the fourth generation to dedicate his life to teaching and coaching our youth.P & Nic-3_copy

Time and again, when plagued by pain and seemingly incurable illness, I question my purpose. The Great War of 1914-1918 took over 16 million lives and destroyed millions of others; why did my grandpa survive and thrive? Worldwide a P & Nic-2person is killed every 25 seconds in a traffic related death. Why was my life spared in that horrific accident in 1983?

Life seems like a crapshoot; each day another roll of the dice.

But one has to wonder, is our existence a coincidence? Or fate?

And miracles.