Crown Prince Haakon of Norway is a man who takes dignity very seriously. Throughout the annual summit of ‘Global Dignity’ on 10-11 April at his gracious home near Oslo, we were treated not merely with dignity but as if each one of us was also the crown prince – or princess – of our respective principalities (which, I’m sure, some of us secretly believe we are!). It was all too easy to forget that the young man casually chairing the meeting of 20 Global Dignity Country Chairs and Organizational Partners was the future King of Norway – easy, that is, until one glanced upwards at the walls only to be stared down by great oil portraits of the former monarchs of Norway – or stumbled upon silver-framed, signed photographs of world leaders and European royals.
Although Beaconhouse has been an ‘Organizational Partner’ of Global Dignity for over a year (which means that we work with them in the 9 countries where we have schools), this trip was a bit of an eye-opener for me because, on the second day of the summit, I had the opportunity of attending an actual ‘Dignity Day’ event at Asker High School near CP Haakon’s home. Not only did I ‘attend’ the Dignity Day but – unbeknownst to all of us – the CP and Thomas Horne, Global Dignity’s Norway head, had conspired to get each of us to conduct dignity sessions with small groups of students! For this seemingly daunting task, I was paired with Katja Menzl, Global Dignity’s Country Chair from Germany and, together with the class teacher, we were marched into a classroom after a brief plenary session with the whole school – during which the Headmistress informed the assembled students how “lucky” they were to be personally counseled by the most accomplished Dignity experts from around the world (i.e., us…)!! Katja, who turned out to be an absolute blessing, launched the session by informing the 26 Norwegian high schoolers in our group that “I have done many Dignity sessions in German but this is the first time I am conducting a session in English” – which gave me an opening to inform the students that, despite running 180 schools, it was the first time I was conducting a Dignity session in any language – which fortunately broke the ice and elicited a few laughs.
We started the session by asking the students what Dignity meant to them. (Strangely enough, even for adults, this isn’t so easy to pin down – as we quickly discovered on day 1 of the meeting when we tried to develop an ‘elevator pitch’ for Global Dignity – i.e., a way of explaining the concept in under 60 seconds to unsuspecting funders and other potential stakeholders who may be fellow travelers in an elevator – or otherwise!). Unsure what to make of us at first, the students gradually warmed up (a bit!) and started offering dignity derivatives like respect, honor, friendship, love, compassion, recognition, and the like. Acting as if I had been teaching my whole life, I expertly drew a ‘mind-map’ on the white board with the word ‘Dignity’ in a bubble in the center (along with its Norwegian translation, ‘verdighet’) and kept adding new words around the bubble as the students excavated the many dimensions of dignity. Once this exercise was over (we were armed with a rather elaborate lesson plan!), we moved on to the next activity in which students were expected to exchange dignity stories in small groups of 4 or 5 – that is, to recall instances where they either felt dignified or believed they had uplifted somebody else’s dignity. Katja and I professionally circulated amongst the groups as they talked, generally to be met with amused looks and a momentary pause in chattering. (Of course, we had no idea whether our Norwegian pupils were exchanging dignity stories or discussing how moronic we were as facilitators!)
Once this was over, we managed to convince/cajole/bully two students, Henrik and Siri (whose name is almost certainly misspelt), to tell their dignity stories before the entire assembly. We were then at the final stage of our classroom activity: asking students to draft letters to their ‘future selves’ about actions they would take over the next one year to improve their dignity and that of others (these letters were subsequently sealed and given to the class teacher who assured us that he would return them to the students after 1 year, as per plan).
While our classroom experience alternated between ‘somewhat insightful’ and ‘highly amusing’, the most compelling part of ‘Dignity Day’ was yet to come. As we all returned to the main hall with the rest of the school, two students from each class were asked to read out their ‘dignity stories’. While some stories bordered on ‘silly’, as my good friend Veronica Colondam – Country Chair for Indonesia – rather publicly pointed out (“I helped a cat cross the street and felt dignified – or the cat did”), others moved us to near-tears. I was silenced to my core to hear a half-Norwegian/half-Swede student talk about how he was bullied for years in Norway (Sweden and Norway share a checkered history) – to the extent that his Norwegian classmates created a game called ‘Kill the Swede’… and how he overcame this trauma with his dignity intact. We were equally unprepared to hear another adolescent’s story of how he discovered that his “preferences” were very different from the norm – and how, as a result, even his former friends turned against him. I cannot applaud enough the courage of these youngsters to be able to talk about such deeply personal issues in front of their entire school – and then face the entire school the following day. That, to me, is the meaning of true dignity.
It is my firm belief that if Dignity Days continue to be observed at Asker High School (and indeed other schools around the world), it will inevitably lead to an environment of greater tolerance and respect – and should have a direct and positive impact on the many occupational hazards of being a student, not least of which is the ugliness of bullying. It is no surprise, therefore, that this experience has redoubled my commitment to Global Dignity at Beaconhouse (and hopefully, in 2013, at The Educators as well).
Other than the school visit, we shared best practices and held strategic discussions on the future of Global Dignity: how to scale it to every country in the world, how to get more funding, how to capture the imagination of the global media, how to convince others to come on board, and so on. All this was interspersed by (what seemed like) Michelin-starred meals (especially an exquisitely cooked fillet of salmon and a ‘2013 tiramisu’) that were possibly sufficient to make even the biggest cynic swear eternal allegiance to Global Dignity! When I candidly told the CP that the food at his home was beyond restaurant-quality, he answered with his trademark humility: “Yes, we’re very fortunate to have such a good cook.” As for the elevator pitch, the best that my working group could come up with was ‘We help young people understand the importance of dignity, something that is universally felt and embraced but hard to articulate’ – a statement that led the delightfully flamboyant co-founder of Global Dignity, John Hope Bryant, to quip “that’s no elevator pitch – you can even say that between two floors!”
As I leave Oslo for Brussels (for reasons unknown!), I feel deeply grateful to the Global Dignity family for the amazing work that it is doing across the world and can safely say that, under the leadership of Crown Prince Haakon, at least Norway’s new generation appears to be in good hands. I only hope that, as we approach general elections in Pakistan next month, our political leadership can also begin to contemplate issues of real substance. God knows, we could do with a bit of dignity all around.