The Author

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I am a high school English teacher, and mother of two charming little ones of my own. I teach in a high poverty urban charter school, while I live in a typical American suburb that has frequently been rated one of the safest cities in the country. It is a paradox I struggle with constantly, but it is my life.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Your Heroes...

"Your heroes are dead.
They were all in you head.
When nothing is left we’ll start again"
- Andrew Schwab, Project 86

What do we do, as parents and teachers, when role models we have established turn out to be, well, human? Do we pretend it didn't happen and hope they don't find out? Do we use it as a teachable moment, even if it causes sadness and will potentially set them up to believe that no one is what he seems?

This is unfortunately the predicament I am in after watching an episode of 60 minutes last night. There was a segment on the author and philanthropist Greg Mortenson who is the head of a nonprofit organization called Central Asia Institute that builds schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan in areas where there are no real schools. He has been somewhat of a hero of mine, and I teach his book, Three Cups of Tea, each year to my Honors class. The book is overall just a good story with some awesome themes about perserverance and differences in cultural perspectives, and it also just does a great job of highlighting the value of education, which we often take for granted here in the U.S.

When I heard his name coming from the television, I was excited... until I sat down and heard what they were talking about. Based on what they said, it seems he is, at best, guilty of greed and exaggeration, at worst, fraud.  Many of the schools he established have not seen a dime in years, yet his organization is spending millions on travel and promotional expenses for his book tour, despite the fact that the proceeds from the book are NOT going to the organization. In addition, some of the schools he claims to have built don't even exist. He said in one interview that he built 11 schools in one area in Afghanistan, when he really only built 3. Building 3 schools is still cool, but why lie? Plus, people keep quitting his organization, making claims that he "uses [it] as his private ATM" (Kroft).

To a certain extent, I imagine that CBS may have misinterpreted some of what they have found. I understand that accounting for funds spent in an area were purchases don't necessarily always come with receipts must not be easy, and a certain amount of backdealing may be necessary to get things done; however, it seems that there are a variety of sources pointing to the fact that Mortenson has become somewhat guilty of giving in to the appeal of celebrity. The report pointed out that even his organization acknowledges that they do not receive profits from his book, although they support his book tour, since raising awareness about the issue is of great importance and in line with their mission, with which I would agree, but a set percentage of the book should also be going to the organization. I, in fact, assumed it was. I am disappointed to hear this is not the case.

But why wouldn't Mortenson speak to them himself? Why did he look so uncomfortable when they tried to talk to him? Why did he deny an interview and basically run away?  He should have just stood up for himself. I believe that the work he set out to do is still valid, but he, like so many others, seems to have fallen into the trap of greed, in a way that undermines his very mission.

So, what do I do?

The state standards call for students to evaluate credibility of sources, and in my eyes, the one-sided view of the book is not as credible as the CBS story with its variety of seemingly reliable primary sources. The students in my 2nd period Honors class look up to Mortenson as a hero of sorts; do I pretend I did not see this 60 minutes story and ignore it in my classroom, or do I bring it up, given the fact that these extremely intelligent seekers of information probably saw it too? What do I even do with it if I do bring it up? How do I address the reality of life that no one can be completely trusted without evaluation?

And what do I do for next year?  I don't feel like the book should still be my summer reading, but what other book has the non-fiction voice and thematic approach to show the importance of cultural perspective that I so very much want to have as the foundation for our year? 

Ideas? Comments?

Kroft, Steve. "Greg Mortenson." 60 Minutes. Prod. Andy Court, Kevin Livelli, and Maria Usman. CBS. WCBS, 18 Apr. 2011. 18 Apr. 2011. Web. 19 Apr. 2011. .


  1. Keep teaching the book if it's valuable. Perhaps discuss wether the lesions become less valuable even if the book turned out to be 100% fiction. I think it's a great teachable moment and you can incite some great convos in class. If it's true however, the guy is a D Bag, excuse my french.

  2. Lessons, not lesions. Not many of those are valuable :)