Teenagers spend a lot of time talking on the phone. But not too many of them get to call their peers in a Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan. A handful of teens from Windward School, a charter school in West L.A., recently became the first to do so.
The nonprofit group Spirit of America, which works with American military service personnel to provide basic supplies to people in combat zones, patched the phone call through in the school library. It was a video conference call, so the kids could see each other. Two monitors (one in each country), some military satellites and a Skype connection were involved.
Naturally, the West L.A. kids fretted over what to discuss with the Helmand Province kids in southwestern Afghanistan, an area populated by Pashtuns under Taliban control. Their respective lifestyles are so different that there was certainly plenty to wonder about, if not ask aloud.
Sophomore Grant Klein, 16, decided he would not ask about the Afghan boys' nights out. Afghan students have no nights out: Curfew begins at nightfall. Afghan teen dating life also leaves something to be desired. "They're conservative," Klein explained. Questions about girlfriends are out of the question.
Also not up for discussion: suicide bombs, Osama bin Laden and the luxuries of West L.A. life. Think we've got classroom overcrowding? Class size in Helmand is as many kids as you can jam into a room. It's all ages, too. A 17-year-old in first grade might sit next to an 8- or 9-year-old girl who has brought in the infant sibling she's baby-sitting. When they're not in school, boys work in the fields, or in their parents' small shops doing motorcycle repair or selling dry goods. Girls -- who make up 20,000 of 120,000 total students in the province -- support the household, taking care of livestock.
"They don't domesticate animals," Major Nina D'Amato said. "So don't ask about pets."
Joining the kids in L.A. was Major General Richard Mills, who had just returned from Helmand Province, his face reddened by sun, medal bars thick as armor on his chest. "You are all combat multipliers," he told the students. "You are all game-changers. Look at the world. It seems crazy out there. It gets more complex all the time. And Afghanistan is about as complex as it gets. But the little things are the things that make the biggest difference."
Little things like pencils. Bosnian kids ask for candy, Mills said. But Afghani kids ask for pencils. He was in Helmand Province for a year, commanding 20,000 U.S. Marines. He spent the first nine months in battle, securing the territory, separating the insurgents from the civilian population. After that, he built schools. The Taliban promptly burned these schools down. Undeterred, Afghani parents knocked on Mills' door asking for tents and erected makeshift classrooms next to the still-smoldering embers.
One such tent classroom flickered into grainy view on the TV monitor. A sea of kids peered out from the monitor, faces open and curious in the bright morning sunshine. A breeze ruffled their robes. Afghanistan is 11 and a half hours ahead. Night in Los Angeles is day there.
Cultural exchange began in earnest. The West L.A. kids did not ask what it's like to live in the largest opium-producing region in the world, responsible for half the globe's total production of the drug. The Afghani kids didn't ask what it's like to live somewhere with electricity and running water. Instead both sides asked about hobbies, favorite sports and foods.
"Hi, I'm Grant," said Klein, holding a photo up to the camera. "This is me and my sisters. I just got my driver's license so I can drive a car."
"My name is Willow," said one West L.A. girl. "This is my dog. I like to Rollerblade. It goes on your foot."
In Afghanistan, 16-year-old Abdul offered that he likes soccer. "Which position do you have in your class?" he asked a girl named Danielle. Confused, the West L.A. students conferred.
"I'm a good student," Danielle answered diplomatically. Abdul crossed his arms over his chest, rubbed his face shyly, then asked, "Do you have a cellphone?"
"Who made the first cellphone?"
"Alexander Graham Bell made the first cellphone," Danielle said.
"What do you do on your free time?" Abdul asked.
Danielle: "I play tennis."
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Abdul: "Do you know how to cook?"
Danielle: "More or less."
Someone in the audience joked what's next, a marriage proposal? The conversation bumbled along. Abdul held a bouquet of wildflowers up to the camera for Danielle. He picked them for her, he said.
Teenage awkwardness makes for good foreign relations, apparently. The idea is to create a human connection between youths with the hope that future generations will be less likely to want to, you know, blow each other up.