February 27th, 2007

Strategies for children: (Part I) saving them

[This is the first of a two-part series. Tomorrow Part II, "killing them," will appear.]

Last night I was working at my computer when I got a call from a friend telling me to turn on my TV and watch the Oprah Winfrey special called “Building a Dream.”

I don’t watch much TV to begin with, and Oprah isn’t usually on my list. But I trust this friend so I turned it on, even though I’d missed the first twenty minutes. And within a few moments I was surprised to find tears streaming down my cheeks.

The premise? The plans began five years ago, when Oprah went to South Africa to build a boarding school (grades 7-12) for girls who’d shown special scholarship and leadership abilities. These were not children of the elite; she combed the countryside to find girls in out-of-the-way places, children of poverty who’d known terrible privation and yet hadn’t been beaten down by it–yet.

Oprah’s idea was to make sure that never happened, and in doing so she believes the project could have a transformative effect on the next generation of the whole country–Oprah thinks big. There’s no doubt there’s something to what she’s saying; children are the future of any society and as they go, so goes the nation.

Oprah’s got money, scads of it, so she spared no expense in constructing a school with 28 buildings, and began a process that would ultimately select the 152 young girls who would be the members of its first class.

And it was those girls who were the stars of this show, the ones who caused my tears. You can take a look at Oprah’s (rather simplistic) website for some information and photos, but I urge you to watch the repeat of the show (I can’t believe I’m doing this!), which airs the evening of March 3 on ABC at either 8 or 9 PM (check your local listings).

What was it about these children that was so moving–and yes, so inspiring? Even though they were individuals–some fat, some thin, some quiet, some talkative, some pretty, some plain–they all shared a common charactistic that is actually quite uncommon, at least in my experience, a trait not usually seen in girls in their early teens. They showed remarkable poise and self-possession without a hint of obnoxious arrogance, a sweetness combined with a steely strength. All were well-spoken and almost superhumanly polite, obviously intelligent, with a maturity not only beyond their years, but beyond the years of most people on earth even if they lived to be 100. And yet somehow they retained the lightheartedness of children.

These girls have known hardship, all right. There are Lincolnesque scenes of doing homework by candlelight, no running water, primitive outhouses. And material privations are not the only ones they’ve experienced; far worse is the amount of violence and death–particularly of parents–in their young lives. But even as they describe these things there is a reluctance to consider themselves victims–or, as one girl, Lesego, says, in her lilting, musical voice (speaking of herself in the third person, but charmingly rather than obnoxiously), “Lesego is a fighter and she’ll never give up.”

When you hear her say this, you believe it’s not just idle boasting. In fact, it’s not boasting at all, just a simple statement of fact. She’s been through enough already to know whereof she speaks.

There’s a famous statement by Ernest Hemingway: The world breaks everyone, and afterwards, many are strong at the broken places.” These children are among that “many.”

What has given them their phenomenal strength? That certain something is mysterious, but from studies of so-called “resilient” children (also see this), we’ve learned that it usually includes the loving support of at least one adult. Often, in these cases, it’s a grandmother, something Oprah (and I) can identify with. Resilient children also probably have some innate personality traits that predispose them to doing well despite the odds: they usually possess a naturally optimistic and outgoing personality, for starters.

These girls appear to fall into that category. Despite their losses, they all seem to have at least one loving adult in their lives (perhaps even a village of them). You can see it in their faces when they bid good-bye and leave for the school; there are heartfelt tears there. But they know they are going on to a place that will give them opportunities they may have dreamed of, but were impossible–till now.

There’s a celebrity presence at the ceremony for the opening of the school. Besides Oprah, of course, there’s Nelson Mandela, as well as the usual Hollywood biggies (Spike Lee, Sidney Portier). But the true celebrities are the shining faces of these girls, standing proud and as tall as they possibly can (maybe even taller) in their new uniforms.

31 Responses to “Strategies for children: (Part I) saving them”

  1. Ymarsakar Says:

    These girls have known hardship, all right. There are Lincolnesque scenes of doing homework by candlelight, no running water, primitive outhouses.

    We’ve talked about this before, I believe, Neo. About where will and determination comes from. I do believe that will, regardless of what the will is there to do, comes from desperate situations, times that call out for leaders and for heroes. It is the situation combined with human dynamics, that creates willpower, determination, and hence the modification of human behavior.

    Or as others have said. Horrible circumstances brings out the best in humanity.

    This seems only to prove things out. Because after all Neo, how many of the Hollywood and political elites of not only this country but the Netherlands, would compare in any favorable sense? And why wouldn’t they, have they been blessed with the creature comforts and opportunities of a free land? Ah, but to all things there is a price. The price of the poor is powerlessness, but a very great desire to be rich. The price of richness is decadence, weakness, frivolity, and the desire not to risk anything of their own except for themselves.

    This is one of the true meanings of why the human condition cannot be improved or “corrected”. This dynamic will always occur, even when factoring in individuals. The crude and petty amongst the poor, and the ethical and enlightened amongst the rich.

    Modifying human beings was always done on an individual basis. Because mass manufacturing just doesn’t do it for humans. You could give 50 million people the best circumstances in the world, and half of them would try to tear it down. Monkey hysteria, they called it. You know, where they scatter to the four winds, as a biological imperative to make sure that “some” of the monkeys survive if only by statistics.

    Communism and Marxism always seemed to me like they attempted to engineer societies from the ground up via communities, systems and “classes”. But none of that factors in individualism. And Neither does the Left factor in individualism, either Neo. you can see some of that by how the Left dislikes American heroics yet glorifies the freedom fighters and resistance. Whether Arafat or Z man. It becomes a cult of personality, where you have people manipulating the human need for individualism, and yet creating a system not for individuals but for drones, which ultimately crash.

  2. stumbley Says:

    Call me cynical, but I can’t help feeling that endeavors like this of Oprah’s and that of shows like “Extreme Makeover”—efforts that spend a great deal of money to benefit an (admittedly deserving) few—are more about “look at me” than about helping. How many children in America could be helped by the money Oprah’s spent in Africa? How many more families could benefit from the money spent on “Extreme Makeover”?

    It’s not that I don’t applaud Oprah’s school—I do. It’s an admirable effort, and one—based on what Neo’s observed—that seems to be targeting children that will make the most of the opportunity. I just somehow feel that kids in America watching the program will wonder, “what about me?”

  3. Robert Schwartz Says:

    “Oprah Winfrey’s Lavish South African School: True, the world’s most successful woman has always shared her wealth. But her latest project is really one for the books,” by Allison Samuels in the Jan. 8, 2007 issue of Newsweek

    – Two thousand and six was the year Africa went Hollywood: Madonna, Clooney, Brangelina. And now, in 2007, the most exclusive spot on the continent will undoubtedly be in the town of Henly-on-Klip, about 40 miles outside Johannesburg. Set on 22 lush acres and spread over 28 buildings, the complex features oversize rooms done in tasteful beiges and browns with splashes of color, 200-thread-count sheets, a yoga studio, a beauty salon, indoor and outdoor theaters, hundreds of pieces of original tribal art and sidewalks speckled with colorful tiles. … As spectacular as this place sounds, it’s not a resort. It’s a school: the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls. Winfrey has spent five years and $40 million building the school to her own Oprahlicious specifications — did we mention the huge fireplaces in every building? …

    Oprah also knows that some people will complain that charity should begin at home, even though she has provided millions of dollars to educate poor children in the United States, especially via her Oprah Winfrey Scholars Program. But she sees the two situations as entirely different. “Say what you will about the American educational system — it does work,” she says. “If you are a child in the United States, you can get an education.” And she doesn’t think that American students — who, unlike Africans, go to school free of charge — appreciate what they have. “I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city schools that I just stopped going. The sense that you need to learn just isn’t there,” she says. “If you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers. In South Africa, they don’t ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so they can go to school.” …

  4. stumbley Says:

    “The sense that you need to learn just isn’t there,” she says. “If you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers.”

    So…let me get this straight. Since American kids don’t have a sense “that you need to learn”, so we’ll just give up on them and spend $40 million on African kids, rather than spend any time or resources trying to change the minds of kids in the inner city. I see. Take the easy way out.

  5. nick Says:

    You’re perfectly capable of and allowed to spend your money on whatevery you desire – go build all of the schools you’re able to for cute American kids! We’ll all likely aplaude! Your attempts to brwobeat others into disapproving spending in ways you don’t approve is totally unreasonable!

  6. stumbley Says:

    Yo, nick!

    Wasn’t intending to “browbeat” anybody…and I pay my taxes for schools like everybody else…I was just noticing the disconnect between what Oprah professes to want to do for kids and what she actually does. It’s great for those kids in Africa…but what about here at home, when the article that Robert Schwartz links to indicates that she’s given up on American kids.

    Again, I don’t begrudge Oprah spending her money any way she pleases…and it’s a great thing for her to be helping African girls. That’s a great school, and it’s bound to be a very valuable educational experience…for a very few.

    And notice that African boys don’t get any love…

  7. Justaguy Says:

    You mean Nelson Mandela the terrist? Jeeez.

  8. Judith Says:

    I think it’s great for this to be available to African girls. But if something of a corresponding nature isn’t done for African boys, there is a built in problem incubating that will hatch in 10 to 15 years.

  9. The Bunnies Says:

    I strongly commend what Oprah’s doing. She recongnizes that it’s what’s on the inside that counts, and she’s putting her wealth into supporting children who are already strong, thus augmenting strength.

    Giving the money to spoiled American kids is like pouring it into a vacuum. Sure, our kids’ lives aren’t perfect, but let them live in a Rio slum for a year and then come home to complain.

    Even our inner-city schools would produce phenomenal successes if inner-city culture glorified mathematical ability as much as it does basketball. How much money have we already spent trying to augment a cultute that simply doesn’t work?

    In regards to helping boys, I agree that both genders need serious help. Aiding one is as good as another, so let Oprah take her pcik.

    If urban American girls were attracted to scholars instead of athletes, you can bet your bottom dollar that the zillions of boys who don’t have the “support” necessary to do well academically would find themselves on the honor role within months. They already have the work ethic, they just don’t apply it (in part) because dysfunctional females will ignore them if they don’t go for the short-term glory on the court. (I recognize that both genders have a lot of growing up to do–each is responsible for their own mess-ups, and each helps the other stagnate.)

    Healthy women produce healty men, and vice-versa. Healthy African women will lead to healthy African men. Go Oprah!

  10. Lee Says:

    Where the hell’s MY car?

  11. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

    I have two “resilients,” sons from a Romanian orphanage who are doing well against all odds. I don’t want to hijack your thread, but both links fail to mention religious belief, which is an empirically-verified factor in resilients.

    Christian schools come under much criticism – some of it deserved, as I have known good ones and bad ones. But the practice of short term missions, of sending American kids to Ukraine, or Honduras, or Senegal to live with families and do some work, is one of the most powerful lessons they teach. Rich, spoiled, American students do get it – if you give them a chance.

    Ironically, my Romanians are now my more stereotypically American children, with ipods, brand names, and myspace pages. My two native-borns are more atypical.

  12. Ymarsakar Says:

    Oh btw, you might find Grim’s “On the Virtues of Killing Children” an interesting backdrop for your Part II, Neo.

  13. Jimmy J. Says:

    My wife and I watched the program and found it very moving. I am very thankful that Oprah is willing to use her money in the service of education for poor children, regardless of where they live.

    I hope these young women and many others who follow will grow up to become leaders that will help South Africa to improve the lives of all their citizens.

    It is an impressive start and I hope to see follow ups as the years go on.

    My only worry is that, in spite of a first rate education, these wonderful young women may not have the positive influence on the country that is hoped for. If South Africa can’t curb government corruption and foster more free enterprise these educated young women will find little demand for their talents and that will be a tragedy.

  14. AST Says:


    And just today, I saw a report in the LATimes that America’s efforts to give its students more self-esteem have produced a generation of self-centered, egotistical little jerks. Apparently there’s a difference between “loving support” from an adult and institutional self-esteem building that our education establishment seems to practice. Could it be that resilient children actually achieve something, while those given self-esteem have had standards lowered for them?

    What Oprah’s doing sounds like true affirmative action, giving disadvantaged kids a real chance to achieve, as opposed to rewarding them merely for having had heartbreaking life stories.

  15. Charles Frith Says:

    It’s a good thing. ’nuff said.

  16. Sergey Says:

    “to change the minds of kids in the inner city”

    You can’t successfully educate those who do not want to learn. This is also impossible to change anybody’s mind if he/she does not want to change it. Even apostles sometimes found their mission impossible – due lack of will to change in their audience. In underdeveloped countries everything depends on composition and moral of ruling elite, like it or not. So Opra’s approach is the only workable option: find the most willing to learn ang give them a chance to become leaders. This is the way Soviets for decades conduct their world transformation projects: recruiting Asian and African students, give them university education in Moscow (in medicine, politics, management) and brainwaching them so they became future leaders of comunist regimes in their countries, or, at least, agents of influence. This was very large, government funded project. And it worked, at least at the stage of power seizure. If US government have ability to think in terms of decades-long projects, this could be much more effective investment that zillions of dollars funneled through UN into pockets of corrupted African and Asian bureaucracy.

  17. Sergey Says:

    Jimmy J., this is possible, of course. It would be better if these girls also have some guaranties of admission into US universities in case they fail to find work at homeland. They can make excellent students and help State Department to formulate more knowledge-based policy in respect to South Africa.

  18. Sergey Says:

    Education is the best long-term investment – something that Jews, Chinese and Brahmin caste of Indians figured out thousands years ago. And now see bibliography to almost any “hard” science paper: I’ll bet that the half of author’s names there are Hebrew, Chinese or Hindu.

  19. Sergey Says:

    Real, not formal education always creates and supports hierarchy of knowledge and skill, it reveals and amplifies natural inequality of individuals and so undermines egalitarian leftist world-view. So their knee-jerk reaction to it is to derail quality education under pretext of “inclusiveness”. So Brits destroyed their workable two-tiered school system (grammar and modern) and replaced it by unworkable comprehensive school, where lazy and stupid must sit in one classroom with brilliant and eager to learn. The result? Dumping of educational standards and society-wide lack of initiative, motivation and vigour. These South African girls clearly do not need any self-esteem training; they already have all self-esteem which is needed to them, because they were selected by having it. And every elite-creating project should include such selection. Meritocracy is the only workable alternative to thugocracy.

  20. Jen in NY Says:

    Sergey, I believe during the program Oprah said she would make sure all the girls who graduated got a chance to attend the university of their choice.

    In fact, IIRC, this is what happened:
    One of the girls talked about her desire to go to university, but thought she wouldn’t be able to, but Oprah said if she got in and did well she would pay for her to go to whatever university she chose. The girl just put her head in her hands and cried.

    This is why I disagree with Stumbley. It is, in my opinion, infinitely more tragic to have young people like this girl, filled with desire to learn and with natural intelligence and ability, denied an education.

    But I didn’t like the celebrity filled grand opening. Being charitable, it may be that she hoped the more celebrities she involved, the more the word would spread and she might get more donations for more schools. But I wonder if she would have included any wealthy and well-know donors of a more conservative bent.

    In any case, job well done Oprah.

  21. Ymarsakar Says:

    People might want to check out this video of AHA, Hirsi Ayaan.

    Because it almost seems as Neo was describing her personally with this post of hers.

  22. Joe B Says:

    I salute Oprah for opening this school. I would like to suggest that they not expose the young ladies to Gangsta Rap videos as seen on BET and MTV. We wouldnt want them to think that we dont value young women and their minds here in the “first world”

  23. stumbley Says:

    “This is why I disagree with Stumbley. It is, in my opinion, infinitely more tragic to have young people like this girl, filled with desire to learn and with natural intelligence and ability, denied an education.”

    Jen, I couldn’t agree with you more. And I suppose that if all you can afford to educate is 152 girls, then you do the best you can. But I’d bet that if Oprah tried real hard, she could find 152 kids (girls and boys) in the U.S. that fit the bill too. That’s all I’m saying. I applaud the effort, I just question the location.

  24. Richard Aubrey Says:


    You may be right about trying real hard, and with Oprah’s resources, quibbling about a bit of additional difficulty may seem ridiculous.

    But it appears that she found it easier to discover the 152 kids in South Africa than in the US.

    In addition, helping one striver in a dumbed-down inner city school where getting good grades could be hazardous to your health may not be as fruitful as taking care of a whole school whose learning environment is already good if underresourced. Which would be illegal in the US. Or at least fought by the various interested parties until it went away.

  25. stumbley Says:


    No doubt the African experiment will be successful. The kids I saw on the program were already head and shoulders above most in my daughters’ classes—and that was in a “good” school district—where Chemistry class for my oldest consisted of watching films like “The Right Stuff” (because rocket fuel had something to do with chemistry, I guess).

    You make the world better one person at a time, I know.

  26. Sergey Says:

    I doubt that any serious improvements in US public education are possible until the whole paradigm of it is not drastically revised. And the education establishment can and will block this move. Only school voucher privatization can undermine combined political influence of teacher unions and educational bureaucracy. I know the system from my American friends, recent immigrants from Russia and Ukraine; they found it almost identical to that of Soviet Union, except for absense high-quality government-run “special schools” for gifted children.

  27. Richard Aubrey Says:

    The Detroit Public Schools turned down $20 mill from a philanthropist for school improvement. Too much invested in business as usual.

    Oprah, having more star power, might have succeeded in getting them to take the money, but it would go down the usual rat holes.

  28. Sally Says:

    I haven’t seen the program, but by these accounts, it does sound like Oprah’s project is a good one. I don’t have a problem with the publicity surrounding the thing either — it may help the project directly, but even if it didn’t I wouldn’t begrudge a good just because the benefactor might also benefit (though I might wince a little if the motivations looked phony). I do have a problem with the exclusion of one gender, however — there are surely boys too who have “known terrible privation and yet hadn’t been beaten down by it”, who also possess poise and self-possession without arrogance, and who could be a great benefit to their society with the same kind of help. I agree that girls may be discriminated against in many African cultures, as they have been in the past here — but it would just be spreading our own mistakes to think that you can fix one kind of discrimination with another.

    On the other hand, I agree completely with her decision to discriminate in favor of Africans, precisely for the reasons she gives (as quoted in Robert Schwartz’s comment above): “I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city schools that I just stopped going. The sense that you need to learn just isn’t there” — whereas it is there, in abundance, in these African girls. The only thing you might wonder is why she doesn’t ask what makes the difference? It’s not likely because the American kids, even in the inner-city, have a harder time of it, is it?

  29. Jimmy J. Says:

    It might be a loss for Africa if these talented young women went to school in America. Why? I recently had a long discussion with a missionary who has been doing work in Guinea for over 30 years. He used to send talented students to the U.S. for medical training. It didn’t work. Once they finished med school they tended to stay in the U.S. He has finally established a med school in Guinea. The students now stay in Guinea to practice medicine.

    Africa has many talented, intelligent people who can be trained to do most any modern career. What Africa doesn’t have is honest democracies with free market systems, which offer opportunities to their citizens.

    Educating the children is only one part of the solution for Africa.
    to read my ideas of what Africa needs.

  30. Sergey Says:

    What Africa desperately needs is the change of ruling elite, and it can be done only you have alternative group of prepared people to replace existing rulers. This should be the ultimate goal of every educational project here. And it still is much better if talented people could realize their potential anywhere than if they could not do it at all.

  31. Daria Werbowy Josh Hartnett Says:

    Daria Werbowy Josh Hartnett…

    I Googled for something completely different, but found your page…and have to say thanks. nice read….

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.


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