Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Hail Harpo

Throughout the course of my adult life, I have found that my eyes leak. When I see something beautiful or read a touching story, my eyes try to fill with water. I would not go so far as to say that I cry easily, because crying is a much bigger response. It's just that my body reacts to things that move my heart, such as the recent passing of a friend's dog or an article I read today in Newsweek magazine about Oprah's Opus: a school for underprivileged black girls in South Africa (is "underprivileged black girls in South Africa" an oxymoron?).

Over the past five years, Oprah has spent $40 million dollars building the school in a country where education is a paid-privilege, not a right. Critics, including the South African government, have cited it's extravagance as being "too elitist and lavish for such a poor country." The 152 students will have beautiful bedlinens, a beauty salon, theaters, fancy place settings at meals, designer furniture, and hand-picked uniforms. It seems that alot of folks in South Africa felt that Oprah's money was better spent on educating more students than on outfitting a fewer number with fancy furnishings.

I can see that argument, because it is the same exact one I have when I watch Extreme Home Makeover. I understand wanting to do something really lavish for someone because they are underprivileged, but couldn't Habitat for Humanity build 20 houses with the money Extreme Makeover sponsors spent or donated to build a single one? Did that family of eight really need a Hummer or could they have gotten by with a minivan? Did the little girl who liked sports really need a mock sportscaster studio in her bedroom? From where I sit, this all seems so excessive, but then where I sit is pretty comfortable.

I feel differently about Oprah's school. Somehow, indulging these little girls seems more like an investment to me. Indeed, the money could have been used to build many more schools of lesser stature, or maybe she could have foregone a couple of fireplaces to squeeze in one more student. However, the idea is that these girls are going to leave the school with the skills necessary to lead their countrymen and women out of poverty. Rather than giving them a tangible gift, she is simply letting them use the space. This space will provide nourishment, warmth, safety, and a supportive environment to foster their creativity and education.

Gayle King--Oprah's best friend--muses about the way that Oprah fancies herself a sort of mother to her prospective students. She calls them "my girls," and Oprah has plans to build a retirement home on the property so that she can be a comfortable presence. This is the part that made my eyes water:

"Recently, when Oprah had finished interviewing for the day, she escorted the girls back to their bus and gave each of them a big hug. One girl, Thelasa Msumbi, held on extra tight, then whispered in Oprah's ear: 'We are your daughters now.' "


Liz said...

I love that she built this school too. I just think it's sad that not all girls will get the opportunity. It's sad that we have to, on a world wide basis, celebrate something like this. I wish it was normal for everyone to have access to an excellent education. Even in this country though where education is supposedly a right, I taught next door to a teacher who gave his students worksheets all day and let them color, while he read the LA Times. Oh, I won't forget about the first 6 months of teaching where my students had no books and I was told that it didn't matter because they couldn't read anyway. But, kudos to Oprah for doing something worthwhile.

Kate said...

I was looking forward to hearing your remarks as I know you are an educator. I have so many questions about race and poverty and education that I would love to ask you!