A few weeks ago, America was struck by yet another tragedy: the mass shooting at Pulse in Orlando. To be honest, I'm typically pretty jaded to these types of events. As a self-described cynic who learned about terrorism on September 11th at age 9, experienced the explosion of pressure cooker bombs in my city a few years ago and listened to the world talk about a 20-year old killing kindergartners in my home state of Connecticut in 2012, I am more shocked by peace than violence.
That being said, the display of hatred that happened on June 12 struck me in a different way. Although I don't have much of a personal connection to Orlando, one of my fellow OEG teachers named Colleen does. Orlando is her home and her heart but she's physically in Thailand until next spring. She had to make a difficult choice: go home to be with the people she loves in Florida and leave her teaching position here, or stay in this bubble of "mai pen rai," where few people even knew what occurred on that terrible night.
I don't live particularly close to Colleen. She's about an 11-hour bus ride away, down in Nakhon Si Thammarat, across the peninsula from the tourist haven of Phuket. When I thought about what she must have been feeling in the days immediately after the attack in her city, I wanted to cancel school for the week and teleport to her doorstep. Everyone knows what it's like to wish you could help someone you care about while distance, time and other external factors stand in the way.
Being the strong and inspirational woman she is, Colleen thought of a way to process the event from afar while teaching young Thai people about life and love. She shared the news of the Pulse nightclub shooting with her secondary school students and asked them to write letters of love to the families suffering in Orlando. Fortunately, LGBTQ culture is relatively accepted in Thailand, way more so than I've ever seen in any American middle school.
Colleen reached out to our OEG network to see if anyone else was interested. I quickly followed her lead and even asked another teacher in my program to join. While it was initially difficult for some students to understand what I was talking about and showing them news clips of, I ended up bringing a folder that was bursting with cards, drawings and letters - I literally had to tape it closed to contain all of the papers - to Colleen when I saw her the following weekend in Bangkok.
One of my students from 10th grade wrote, "Life is hard. In the life, you will meet some of the worst things in your life but no matter what, there will be someone on your side. But if you don't have anyone, there will always be someone in your heart and there will always be the people of the world. We will take your sadness away and we will share your feelings to the world so you won't carry it alone. My name is not important because this paper is the message from everyone in the world."
Here are a few more of my favorite messages that students at Chonradsadornumrung School shared with people in Orlando.
Colleen told me a story about one of the classes where she discussed this difficult subject and asked students if they should be able to love anyone they want and why they felt the way they did.
One young boy answered, "Yes of course, because love has no rules."
That response touched us both deeply because it's so true. Love is love is love is love. You feel love in your heart and in your soul. Love is part of being human, no matter who you are or where you live or what you've been through.
Another facet of love was confirmed for me during this emotionally trying week: love is universal. The majority of my students hadn't heard about the shooting before I broached the topic. Many had no idea where Orlando was. But despite those facts, the idea of showing fellow humans that peace still existed in the world was easy to comprehend.
When everything in your world seems like it's falling apart and you're struggling to find motivation to keep going, look at the people who surround you and lift you up. There is still good in the world. Say it out loud: Love is universal and love has no rules and love knows no distance.