I 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?