A few weeks ago I drove through Kenyan tea fields to attend an end-of-term celebration at Woodland Star School, a small international school tucked under the trees at the end of a long bumpy driveway. I’m not a parent of the students there, and of course had a hundred other obligations that I needed to put on hold to make the trip, but this was an event I didn’t want to miss. Because this year, Woodland Star has decided to use Peace Heroes as part of their efforts to develop the social and emotional learning of their students and create a culture of peace at the school. To kick off the year, WSS chose to focus on a local hero: Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and the person whose commitment to protecting and replenishing the forests of Kenya quite literally transformed the country. The last time I visited the school was when I introduced the teachers to the Peace Heroes program just before the start of term, so I was excited to see what had transpired in the months since that seminar.

It turns out that what had transpired was magic. At least it was magic for me because I’ve spent the last three years alone with my laptop, researching, writing, crafting activities (and emailing a lot with Elie!), trying to imagine what it would look like for a school to truly bring the values of the Peace Heroes to life in their own context. I knew the Peace Heroes stories were being taught in many schools around the world, but for me, so far, the program was primarily words on a screen. So when I walked into the large room where friends and families had gathered to celebrate the term with the students and saw giant leaves swinging from the rafters, a huge painted mural of Wangari Maathai propped up near the door, and dioramas of Maathai’s life lining the back wall, I knew my work was about to take on a whole new meaning.

I watched from the back of the room as young primary students stepped to the microphone and began to teach their friends and families about this phenomenal woman—about her childhood in rural Kenya, her determination to attend school, her pioneering work as one of Kenya’s first female scientists. I listened to parents cheer from their seats as their children described Maathai’s response to the devastating effects of deforestation in her country, and the way she mobilized the women of rural Kenya to change their communities—and lives—by planting trees. Students of all ages, ethnicities, and a wide range of abilities read poems they had written about Maathai and the global effects of deforestation. One non-verbal student taught the audience sign language vocabulary related to trees with the assistance of his verbal friend. Every student brought his or her own abilities and understanding to this story of courage and restoration.

The final event of the afternoon was the performance of a play about Maathai’s life that I had written and which had been expanded into a musical by the incredibly creative and talented music teacher. Watching these students enact key moments from Maathai’s life—her childhood reverence for the sacred mugumo (fig) tree, her call for village women to work together to plant trees in their communities, and her arrest and imprisonment for standing up to the government and corporations bent on destroying forests for development—was beautiful and moving. When the young Kenyan student (brilliantly) playing the role of Maathai knelt behind prison bars and sang, “Right is right even when you’re alone,” I wasn’t the only one in the room with tears on my cheeks.

At the end of the show all the students were invited onto the stage to join the cast and audience in singing the anthem, “We must, we must, we must, plant trees!”  Watching this diverse group of children excited and empowered to face the ecological crisis of their time by following in the footsteps of a brave and brilliant Kenyan woman was one of the highlights of my professional career. And when the headmaster closed the event by reminding the audience of the community tree-planting event the next day, I knew that the learning that had happened that term through Peace Heroes was already extending far beyond the classroom.

I learned later about some of the challenges the students and teachers had faced as they prepared for that celebration, about students who struggled with confidence and with learning, who worked tirelessly to perform a role that seemed at first beyond their capacity, but that they ended up embodying with grace and success. And I realized that the impact of Maathai’s story extended beyond the new seedlings growing in that community. Because Wangari Maathai’s story isn’t over. New chapters are being added by students who are gaining confidence in their capabilities, by young girls inspired to become scientists or Nobel Prize winners, by schools like Woodland Star that are empowering their students to be world-changers, one tree, one story at a time. And that is exactly the kind of magic this world needs.

Picture Credit: Jeffery Hennessy, courtesy of Woodland Star School