THORNDIKE, Maine — For a few hours on Tuesday, a high school located in the midst of rolling green farmland in western Waldo County felt like it was at the center of the world.
Mount View High School students listened intently as 2003 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi of Iran spoke to them about topics as diverse as environmental sustainability, human rights and the ongoing Arab revolutions.
“I want to talk to the youths about having dreams, and the importance of those dreams,” she said through a translator. “Don’t be afraid of failure. Failure can lead to victory — it depends how you analyze failure. If you look at it like a victory and persist, you will become victorious.”
Ebadi came to the high school after the Mount View chapter of the international service organization PeaceJam won the 2010 Global Call to Action Challenge Award. PeaceJam, which is based in Colorado, aims to inspire young peacemakers, and a dozen Nobel Peace Prize laureates work with the organization to make that happen.
Inspiration seemed to be the word of the day for many of the students in attendance.
“I’m just amazed,” Krys Curtis, 17, of Waldo said after Ebadi’s speech in the high school’s Clifford Performing Arts Center Tuesday afternoon. “She’s got so much courage, so much strength to push forward and make the world a better place. It’s an honor to have her here.”
PeaceJam member Samantha Turner, 15, of Freedom said that Ebadi’s visit was “exciting.”
“You don’t get to see someone like this every day,” she said.
The Nobel laureate is a lawyer and judge who was honored for her work in promoting human rights, especially the rights of women, children and political prisoners in Iran. She is the first Muslim woman to receive that prize and has been living in exile from her homeland since June 2009.
She had many complimentary words to say about the work of the PeaceJam students and also about Mount View High School.
“Among all the schools that participated in the PeaceJam, you were the best,” Ebadi told the club in her speech.
The club began in 2006 with a handful of students and a small organic garden project, with the produce donated to area food pantries. Since then, the students have expanded their vision to include cafeteria composting, recycling and a larger garden project that provides the school with home-grown organic vegetables. Their efforts have reduced cafeteria waste by 70 percent and the money saved through the recycling and composting program has been used to purchase locally raised meat, including a whole cow last year.
Ebadi said she was pleased with the focus on recycling that she saw on a tour of the school on Tuesday.
“Respect for one’s environment has to be learned during childhood,” she said. “I’m sorry to say that in many other schools we see no signs of this culture … You have a great school. Among all the schools that I have been to, it’s exemplary.”
She told the assembled students that 17 million children around the world cannot go to school.
“Therefore, you guys who are privileged should help others who do not have these opportunities,” she said. “The future belongs to you, and you can make the future of this country great.”
After the speech, school principal Lynda Letteney said Ebadi’s words might have been surprising to some students. Eighty percent of students at the school qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a marker of poverty.
“I think it was a shock for our kids to hear ‘you’re privileged,’” she said. “We’re used to being the country bumpkins. The nickname for this school was ‘Cow Patty High.’ It was very derogatory.”
But the culture of Mount View High School has really changed over the last few years, she said, attributing part of the transformation to the work of PeaceJam. About 18 students are now part of the club, although several others indicated Tuesday that they were interested in joining next year.
“The whole student body realized how much their efforts had infused into the school,” Letteney said. “They’ve embraced sustainability in other classes … I’m so proud of my kids.”
That feeling was echoed by some graduated members of PeaceJam who returned for the special day.
“I’m so proud of everything that they’ve been doing,” said Kevin Norsworthy, 19, of Thorndike. “I think it’s absolutely amazing that we had Dr. Ebadi here.
In a question and answer session with Ebadi after her talk, a student asked about her human rights work and how she maintained her motivation to keep going.
“Being a defender of human rights is only fruitful when the conditions are bad,” she replied.
Then she expounded upon some of Iran’s problems, which include inequality of men and women, the execution of juveniles who have been accused of crimes and the fact that homosexuals can be punished by death.
“Although it’s difficult work, now is the time I have to do most of the work,” she said.
Ebadi spoke positively of the recent revolutions that have ousted leaders in Tunisia and Egypt. “Now the youth are on the streets, asking and demanding for democracy. I want to ask you to please read the news of these youths, so you know that young people should not be indifferent,” she said. “If in your community, you see something that’s not right, try to change it. And remember, change in our community starts with change with us.”