Enduring and Prevailing

Maria Toorpakai Wazir, among the world’s best squash players, visited Country Day on Tuesday. The human rights activist and author has spent more than a third of her life in some form of hiding. The first thing she hid was her gender, masquerading as a boy so she could play squash against the boys rather than being confined to her home as other girls were in the Wazir tribe. Later she would hide for her life, receiving death threats from the Taliban in reaction to her rise to the top of international squash and her embrace of multiculturalism.

Music: Creative Commons, Dlay

Toorpakai never doubted the sincerity of the terrorist group’s threat, and she stayed safe by staying at home.

For three straight years, behind locked doors.

She continued to play squash for hours each day, against the first opponent who was as tireless as Toorpakai was: her bedroom wall.

Years of fighting American and Afghan troops took a toll on the Taliban, weakening them enough for Toorpakai to venture outside. Within months of that first step back into the world, she finished third in the world junior women’s squash championship.

Toorpakai success continued at the junior level, and two years after her strong showing in the world championships, she turned pro.

Toorpakai still plays professional squash, but she has also combined her passion for the sport with her unique life story to become something more than a pro athlete.

During her day at LCDS, Toorpakai spent twice as much time talking to Middle and Upper School students as she did playing squash on the new courts. What makes her compelling is that she speaks with more than just the indomitable will and laser focus one would expect from a competitor of her caliber. Toorpakai’s keen intelligence and resilient character allowed her to overcome numerous difficulties, any one of which could reasonably have stymied someone slightly less driven.

She shared stories of enduring ceaseless bullying and harassment from the boys, who were apparently allowed to carry on that way with impunity.

The havoc and destruction of war became another daily occurrence, and Toorpakai described how Taliban bombs leveled her mother’s school, her father’s university, and killed many family friends and neighbors. Toorpakai’s student audience sat rapt while she recounted the terrifying, nightmarish period in a matter-of-fact voice.

One topic that did bring fresh anger to Toorpakai’s story was the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam. A devout Muslim, Toorpakai could barely conceal her disgust for the puritanical, benighted dogma that the Taliban regards as the word of God. It bothered her that they presume to call their ignorant interpretation Islam. What bothered her more, however, was that the beliefs espoused by this tiny group conforms neatly to — and confirms — the simplistic caricature of Islam that’s an essential element of Western prejudice and misunderstanding.

Toorpakai recently published her first book, “A Different Kind of Daughter,” and was chosen to become a member of the International Olympic Committee. In addition, Pope Francis tapped Toorpakai to join his new organization, Sport At The Service Of Humanity. Its mission is to explore “the power for good that [faith and sport] could deliver in partnership with one another.”

For as rich as her life story is, and for as compelling and inspirational it might have struck many in the audience, the highlight of Toorpakai’s day — not to mention every Country Day squash player — came when she stepped onto the court.

For more than two hours, Toorpakai took turns rallying with the large, revolving group of students who packed the spectator area waiting for their turn to hit around with the best player any of them had ever hit around with.

Toorpakai was all smiles and it was hard to tell whether it was she or the kids enjoying the casual squash-stravaganza the most. More than a few times, Toorpakai stopped play to provide pointers on technique or to talk strategy.

It was a vivid example of a truth she had shared with the Middle School a few hours earlier.

“We’re all from the same planet and squash is a universal language,” Toorpakai said.

‘Why Not Give it a Go?’

In early November, Country Day hosted Fiona Kennedy, the first teacher to visit LCDS as part of our new faculty exchange with Kelvinside Academy in Scotland. “Fiona was the perfect first teacher for the faculty exchange,” said Director of Global Programs Heather Woodbridge. “She’s so instantly warm and open and the kids just loved her. By the end of the week her classes were ending with hugs and group photos. That’s just her.”

Most of Kennedy’s time was spent introducing variations of handball to students of all ages. “Fiona would have fit it well regardless, but being a PE teacher really allowed her to reach all three divisions and experience as broad a classroom experience as you can get,” Woodbridge said.

The PE teacher and handball coach spoke to Cougar News with a thick Scottish brogue, and told a story you’d never believe if it weren’t true:

When Fiona Kennedy couldn’t get two tickets to the 2012 London Olympics, she was disappointed, but had another idea.

The Olympics set aside a certain number of tickets for schools, so while she couldn’t score two for herself, she was able to get 40 for her and a group of students. The only events that hadn’t sold out were basketball and handball, so that’s what they saw.

“I thought the kids would be excited about basketball and not care much about handball because it wasn’t something they were familiar with. But it was the other way around. They loved handball. Loved it.”

The entire trip back from London to Glasgow, her kids were relentless in asking her if the school could start a handball team. Somewhere in the middle of England, she said sure.

“I just thought why not give it a go,” Kennedy told the BBC in 2014.

“And within six weeks we’d entered the Scottish championships, where we came third.”

In the five years since launching the program, Kelvinside’s handball team has won 15 national titles and its players make up a third of the roster for the Scottish national handball squad.

With the team’s ascendency, Kennedy traded her coaching position for a managerial one where she oversees the program as a whole. Finding a new head coach for a team BBC Sport dubbed “a talent factory” was as effortless as it was auspicious. Kennedy’s replacement is Sarah Carrick, whose other gig is playing handball for the British national team.

All of this takes some of the sting out of Kennedy not being able to get those two Olympics tickets for herself back in 2012.

Kennedy’s visit was part of larger faculty exchange program. Last Spring, Learning Specialist Jill Englert kicked off the exchange when she spent a week teaching at Kelvinside and staying as a guest in Kennedy’s home. Englert returned the favor when Kennedy arrived stateside, setting aside time for a full Pennsylvania Dutch experience.

PE & Athletics Center Grand Opening

The community turned out in great numbers to be the first to tour the new Physical Education & Athletics Center, the most significant addition to the Country Day campus in more than a decade. Thank you to the Room to Grow donors and volunteers who made the building possible!

Also on Saturday, maintenance team members Ty Book and Kevin Cotchen won the John A. Jarvis Competitive Croquet Tournament. They played as Team Maintaining Bonner, to honor math teacher Jeanine Bonner who was injured in the previous week’s Cougar Bowl. The tournament began with a moment of silence in memory of Sally Jarvis.

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