Memphis Cambodia Speech
Severe weather kept me from traveling to Memphis to deliver this speech at the inaugural event of Memphis Cambodia; a series of events that feature the life stories of two young Cambodian women. Lina Hun and Bormey Sivorn grew up in a very poor country but with education, dedication and hard work, they were able to defy the odds. They are now grad students at Rhodes College in Memphis, through a fellowship arranged by the Harpswell Foundation whose mission is “to empower a new generation of women leaders in Cambodia and the developing world.”. Harpswell was founded my friend Alan Lightman and has been educating young women with leadership ability since 2005.
I was devastated to have to cancel because I am so proud of these young women and empowerment though education is something that I believe in with all of my heart. In the words of Malala Yousafzai, “one child, one teacher, one pen, and one book can change the world”.
Here is the amended version of the speech I would have given.
Memphis Cambodia Speech
December 7, 2013
This is Kathy Bates speaking to you. Not in person, but through the words I wrote for you. I’m heartbroken I can’t be with you all today. Ever since Alan invited me I couldn’t stop thinking about you. I’d go to sleep at night trying to find ways to light a fire in you. I thought my passion might reach just one of you out there who may be feeling hopeless about your future, about becoming who you want to be. Maybe it’s hard for you to believe you can have a happy life, a life you can be proud of and a life that can bring joy to the world. Maybe you think you’re nobody, so who cares what you do. Maybe you feel like you’re nothing, so you don’t deserve it. I felt that way when I was your age. It’s true. Somebody I loved told me I was nothing. I still fight that voice inside. But I had a dream. I didn’t dream about being famous; I just wanted to be the best at what I could do. I’m not just talking here and making up words to cheerlead you. I know what you’re facing is a real struggle. I know from experience how hard it is. How overwhelming it seems. But there is a way to achieve your dreams if you’re willing to work hard, stop listening to the bad voices and love yourself.
We are so lucky to live in a country that believes in education. There are countries in this world where girls are literally fighting to have an education. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, a religious group called the Taliban believes girls should not be educated. The Taliban tried to kill a Pakistani teenager by the name of Malala. They shot her on her way home from school. But Malala survived and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She said, “I don’t want revenge on the Taliban; I want education for the sons and daughters of the Taliban.”
In America a hundred and fifty years ago, black slaves were forbidden to read. If a slave was able to read or even caught with a book, they were hung because the slave masters knew that if a slave could read, if they were educated, they would no longer submit to being a slave. The slave masters knew that knowledge is power. Knowledge is something no one can take away from you. Knowledge protects you from people who want to control you. Knowledge gives you the confidence to think for yourselves and never let anyone bully you into doing something you know is wrong.
I believe the richest, most powerful gift we have lies right here between our ears: our brain. It generates our thoughts and emotions, our curiosity and our imagination. We do have the power to decide the course of our own lives. We do have the freedom to be what we dream of becoming. Making that dream come true is a process called education.
Learn to read. That’s the first and most important step. Do you know that 2 out of every 3 students in this country can’t read at their grade level? That’s sad, isn’t it when it’s so much fun to read; you can escape this crazy world for a while and vanish into another one. When you lose yourself in a story traveling through time or being other characters, you find meaning in your own life, you build your own character. And reading is the best medicine I know for feeling sad.
But if you’re one of those who can’t read very well, I don’t want you to get frustrated and give up. That’s just making things worse. Don’t feel embarrassed. Don’t let other people make fun of you. Just start reading at the level you are right now and dive in. Honestly the best way is to find something you like to read or are curious about. I know you have to read books for school, but reading for pleasure is just as important for you; I don’t care if it’s comic books or fairy tales, or science fiction, just read.
Neil Gaiman who wrote “Coraline” and “The Sandman” comic book series, traveled to China in 2007 for the first Science Fiction/Fantasy convention in Chinese history. Neil was curious about this because he knew the Chinese had disapproved of Science Fiction for years. An official there told him that the Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans, but they weren’t inventors. They didn’t imagine. So they sent a group to the United States, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, to learn about the people here who were inventing the future. And lo and behold, they discovered all of our inventors had read science fiction when they were young”. So it turns out science fiction is super food for your imagination.
Finally I want you to take a minute to look around you at this beautiful theater—the chairs, the walls and ceiling. If somebody hadn’t imagined all this, or been taught how to engineer and build it, we’d be sitting on the ground in the middle of nowhere. Somebody somewhere a long time ago imagined and built the first chair. Nobody knows her name. She’s not famous, but I’m really thankful to her because I’m old and it takes me forever to get up off the floor. Now we have these comfy movie theater chairs with nice upholstery and cup-holders and they recline! Aren’t we lucky?
And then when you think of the thousands of imaginative people it took to make all the movies they show here, Star Wars, Titanic. It’s mind-boggling—all that know how and imagination. Think of it this way: we are living in a world imagined by our well-educated ancestors. Education gave them the ability to give birth to their dreams and bring them into the world for us to enjoy. Joy to the world. Now we need you to bring your joy to the world. So read. Educate yourselves. And be free to be who you want to be!