TOWNSEND — Class reunions tend to be the purview of graduates reliving their youth. This one was different.
“A Night of Peace,” hosted by Squannacook Elementary School teacher Fred Goldberg and company, held at the Townsend Congregational Church, rejoined a group of fourth graders short on years but long on global awareness, thanks to a class project that not only opened a window on another world but brought it closer.
The impressive turnout at the May 15 event included most of the members of last year’s fourth-grade class and their families, Goldberg’s partners in an ongoing educational sideline he’s been working on for a few years, and key folks from The Omid Project, now The Oruj Learning Center, in Afghanistan.
The story begins with a partnership that started last year and has been evolving since. Stacy Kosko, of the Advocacy Project in Washington and a key supporter of Omid in Afghanistan, is a native of Townsend. She tapped Goldberg, her former teacher, as point person for a pen pal project. It was no small undertaking. There were cultural divides, translations and many nuts-and-bolts details, some of which were daunting.
Goldberg’s fourth-graders did their homework last year, learning about Afghanistan and in particular what life is like for kids their own age. Then they wrote letters, drew sketches and sent photos to share slices of their lives with new friends a world away.
The pen pal project gave Goldberg’s students a learning link to a turbulent third-world country where going to school is not a right of citizenship but a precious gift.
It was humid and the sky was full of thunder, but light and laughter came through the open door of the church. The path leading to it was lined with student-made banners. One read: “Afghanistan needs what we have: Peace.” Inside, letters from students in Afghanistan, sent to Goldberg’s alumna, spotlighted names both foreign and familiar to the Townsend pen pals. Names such as Mohammad Munir, Fatema and Salma, Zia Ul Haq, Abdul Mohemian, Latifa and Atefa, Obaidullah and others.
They were last year’s letters but there are more in the offing. Some students were absent from the tent-and-rug classroom in a remote mountainous desert region of Afghanistan when the Townsend fourth-graders’ letters were sent. Students who didn’t receive replies last year will get them this year, Goldberg said.
The original letters were hand-delivered by Ian Guest, a globe-trotting messenger from the Advocacy Project in Washington, D.C., and included drawings, photos and disposable cameras for students in Afghanistan to take pictures and send back. These kids had never seen a camera before, but the snapshots they took were telling. There they were, real kids, not documentary portraits. Their clothes were as different as their surroundings, but their smiles were the mirror image of kids’ smiles everywhere. Their translated letters expressed hope, joy and curiosity, in words not unlike those their American counterparts had written to them.
This year’s event echoed the “Peace Night” celebration Goldberg’s class hosted at the school last year. It was a cultural fair and spotlight moment for his students, some of whom read their letters aloud. There were ethnic foods, artifacts and traditional clothing on display, a video that summarized the project and guest speakers, including Guest, Kosko and Sadiqa Basiri, founder of the Omid Learning Center in Afghanistan, which has since been renamed the Oruj Learning Center.
This year’s event was similar but smaller, more convivial, a lively reunion of students, families and friends, including Kosko and Sadiqa. Parents helped organize both events, from cooking to communication. “They made it happen,” Goldberg said.