Now, It’s Personal

A few weeks ago I wrote about Woodstock School, and you probably guessed from the tone as well as the content that the place means a lot to me. Before I arrived at Woodstock, I had led a tumultuous life which included attending nine different schools in several different countries. Woodstock was a haven and a refuge, and it provided a much-needed stable point of reference in my chaotic life.

So, if there is any place in the world that I truly call home, it’s there – on a beautiful campus tucked away in the foothills of the Himalayas, far from the world and all its troubles.

Or so I thought.

Today, through the alumni network, I learned about the publication in The Indian Express newspaper of the prison diary of Ahmed Omar Sheikh. A British national of Pakistani origin, he was jailed in India in 1994 for kidnapping four people. His objective was to hold them for a very particular ransom: the release of Maulana Masood Azhar, a Kashmiri separatist militant then in an Indian jail. In 1999, a plane was hijacked in India, and this time Sheikh succeeded: the planeload of hostages was released in exchange for the freedom of Azhar, Sheikh himself, and another. According to the Express, “The FBI is exploring leads that Sheikh could have been involved in the transfer of $100,000 to Mohammad Atta, one of the hijackers in the September 11 attacks in the US.”

The diary recounts Sheikh’s arrival in India in 1994 and his various attempts to find foreigners, preferably Americans, to kidnap. His plan was to befriend a foreigner travelling alone, and invite the person to visit his “family”, who would then take the traveller hostage. While travelling about in search of victims, Sheikh wrote:

“Next morning, I went to Woodstock School… and applied for a job as a teacher. … if I got it, I could easily bring one of my co-teachers down to visit my ‘relatives’… I had an interview with the vice-principal and I didn’t get offered the job!”

In other words, he hoped to take a job teaching at Woodstock so that he could kidnap one of its American teachers.

In the event, nothing happened; the vice-principal either smelled a rat, or simply didn’t care for Sheikh’s qualifications. But this news was a fist in the stomach to me. I had already accepted, reluctantly, that now is not the time for me to go to Mussoorie for the 20th-anniversary reunion that I and my classmates were so looking forward to. I’m not so concerned about my personal safety – I have a very good sense of self-preservation and am alert to possible dangers. But, with war going on in the vicinity, things could get messy and travel become more difficult, and I didn’t want to leave my family in Italy to worry about me if I got stuck.

But now I must even more reluctantly accept that my beloved school is a potential target. And that truly hits me where it hurts.


Postscript

In July, 2002, Shaikh was sentenced to death in Pakistan for masterminding the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl.

 

About Woodstock School

This year is the 20th anniversary of my graduation from an international boarding school called Woodstock School, located in the foothills of the Himalayas in India.

Woodstock was founded 150 years ago for Protestant girls. India was a rough place for children then, so it was usual for westerners to send their kids to boarding school back home, or to the hills in India where cooler weather meant less disease.

By the mid-1970s, the missionary population in India was diminishing, and Woodstock realized that, to survive, it would have to change direction and emphasis. A new school charter was adopted, aiming to recruit a student population of 1/3 North Americans, 1/3 Indians, and 1/3 others.

So Woodstock is a very international place. The 60 graduates in my class represented 14 different nationalities, plus every major religion and several “minor” ones. We were intensely together – studying, playing, living, growing up – ten months of every year.

When you grow up with people of other cultures, you know in your gut that, beneath surface differences, we’re all human, with similar feelings and aspirations.

The only thing we didn’t tolerate at Woodstock was intolerance itself. One girl arrived in 1979, fresh from the US where her father had been in India’s diplomatic service. One day she wore to school a “Nuke the Ayatollah” t-shirt she had bought in the US. None of us were fond of the Ayatollah, but many of our schoolmates were Iranis who had left their home during the Iranian revolution because they were in danger from one side or the other. (One boy exhibited horrifying drawings of violence he had witnessed firsthand, such as soldiers machine-gunning a crowd.) All of these kids still had friends and family back in Iran, and of course nuking the Ayatollah would have meant nuking those innocent people as well. I don’t think anyone actually said anything to her about the t-shirt, but she never wore it again.

Woodstock taught us not only to accept the different, but to embrace it. Miscegenation was the rule: most of the teenage couples were mixed by race, religion, culture, or nationality. Many of us went on to marry people of other cultures, races, religions, and nationalities, and are raising children in countries we were neither born nor raised in. This is only the most obvious manifestation of the culture of tolerance that Woodstock instilled in us. Even Woodstockers who go back to their hometowns, marry, and raise children there, have a different attitude than most of their neighbors.

Most of the world’s strife is born of ignorance and misunderstanding. Many people cannot comprehend how someone else could see things differently than they do; their instinctive reaction is: “Anyone who doesn’t think the way I do is evil, stupid, or insane.”

Woodstockers, however, accept that others see things differently, and are able to respect others’ opinions and beliefs even when we do not agree with them. The world could use more people with this attitude. If there were more schools like Woodstock, there might be fewer wars.

I don’t have the money to create more schools like Woodstock. But this idea has been in the back of my mind for a long time: What if we could fund scholarships to bring more kinds of kids from all parts of the world to Woodstock, for at least a year, maybe all four years of high school? Kids from all countries, cultures, and social strata, especially inner city/disadvantaged kids who otherwise might not have much of a future. And, in the present context, we might specifically “target” kids from areas like Israel/Palestine, for whom a chance to meet “the other” in a different context could change their attitudes – and, in a small way, their country’s future.

But I wanted to talk to you all about Woodstock in hopes of reaching some “ordinary” kids as well. If you have or know a teenager who has a sense of adventure, let them know about this extraordinary school. BTW, it’s also a well-recognized place to get a great education. Woodstock grads go on to college pretty much wherever they want (two of my classmates went to MIT), and thrive on higher education (my class can so far boast at least six PhDs, two MDs, and almost everyone got at least an undergrad degree). Great music instruction, sports, lots of hiking, and fantastic scenery. And an experience that will stay with you for a lifetime.

ps One of our distinguished alumni is TED’s Chris Anderson; here’s what he has to say about his Woodstock experience: An international school in India with a message for the world