The Power of One
I told the teacher, Nannette, what a great assignment she had launched.I had read what my son, then in sixth grade, had chosen when asked the five major events of his life. Each item would grow into a chapter in a memoir project, a treasure for any parent.Nannette laughed ruefully. “Oh, I’ve been getting a lot of flack about that,” she said.”What, don’t the kids love getting to tell about themselves? Who wouldn’t?””A lot of them don’t like writing,” she said. “And they say so.”I considered, and offered to speak to the class briefly about memoirs as a great, and currently hot, form of literature.Thus I packed five select books to the school, and read from each. That was two years ago, and I only remember two of the books, and one of the passages: when Mark Jenkins in “To Timbuktu” recalls how he and his best friend, traveling and camping in Morocco after high school, on a notion swam out into the ocean in the middle of the night – and suddenly realized they didn’t know in which direction the beach was.The other book was “Three Cups of Tea,” the memoir of Greg Mortenson. It had just come across my desk as a magazine editor, and I had not even read it, though I’d assigned a review. Greg was a climber who became lost descending from an attempt on Pakistan’s K2, the world’s second-tallest mountain. Ill and emaciated, he stumbled into the village of Korphe, whose inhabitants took him into their own homes and cared for him. Weeks later when he was able to walk around the village, he asked to see the school, and found a group of children outside scratching numbers in the dirt, that day lacking even a teacher.Mortenson vowed to return and build the village a school. He went home, lived in his car, wrote 580 letters, sold his car and his climbing gear, and found a patron.Having endured a kidnapping and two fatwas on his head, the earnest Greg has now built 60 schools, including for girls, in Pakistan and Afghanistan (see http://www.ikat.org).I clearly remember the last sentence in my writer’s review: “I loved this book.”Nannette read “Three Cups of Tea” that summer, loved it, and told all her friends to read it. They told their friends. I, reading it myself at her urging, gave copies to my friend Betsy and my mother. Both got their book clubs to read it.When the climber, author Joe Simpson wrote the book “Touching the Void,” it first came out as a run of only 5,000. Then the publisher printed another 5,000. At first produced in such small, repeat increments, enjoying no economies of scale, the book in a quiet revolution went on to sell 100,000 and eventually 1.5 million copies.Similarly, Nannette and the words she spread were a microcosm of something greater. With almost no national coverage, “Three Cups of Tea” quietly ascended the New York Times Bestseller List. It is now number four.Last spring Nannette suggested that the book should become our town’s next “One Town, One Book” communal read. I passed her idea to our librarian Marilyn Murphy, and mentioned that I had known Greg for nearly 10 years, since the then-unknown received an award from the American Alpine Club, and that we should invite him to speak. “He’s really busy,” I said, “but he can only say no.”Greg arrives in our valley late afternoon on Nov. 13 and will present at a school reception and a high school. The next day he presents twice before a lunch he won’t eat, and three times after, all at schools. He has just appeared on “NBC Nightly News.” Our stops are hardly major on his full radar, but still make sense. The guy who builds schools is here because of a teacher.Alison Osius lives in Carbondale and can be reached at email@example.com.
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