A little less than a year ago, Richard and I were at Lake Atitlan, and I read the news that there had been an earthquake in Nepal which had caused an avalanche at Base Camp of Mt. Everest. At the time, I was teaching a book all about a boy who climbs Everest, so I read the article and was excited to tell my students of this current event, bridging fiction and real life. I looked forward to hypothesizing with them what this avalanche would mean for the climbing season, which takes place during a short weather window each year.
But when I told Richard about the article, his eyes got big and worried, and he gasped, “My friend is there! She’s at Base Camp right now!”
For the next day or two, Richard checked facebook maniacally, waiting for an update from his friend. Thankfully, she checked in, reporting only minor injuries and announcing that she would be evacuated in the next few days.
But that was the first time I heard about Barbara Padilla, a Guatemalan woman who has so far made three attempts to conquer Everest, all of them so far unsuccessful due to no fault of her own. The seed was already planted in my mind then. Wouldn’t it be awesome if she could come and talk to my kids?
Fastforward nine months, and Richard and I are still friends, and one January day, I mentioned that I’d begin teaching Peak (the book about Everest) soon. Richard asked whether I would be interested in having him send Barbara a message to see if she’d be willing to come in and speak at my school. I practically squealed in delight. Yes, yes I would be very interested!
So he put her in contact with me, and wonderfully, she said she’d be more than happy to come and speak at school. She even had a presentation prepared already; she’d given public talks before.
Just one glitch. As Barbara is headed back to Everest for attempt #4 at the end of March, she’s currently fundraising like mad. (A trip to Everest costs around $60,000). And because she’s fundraising, she charges for her talks. And because her trip costs so much, she charges WAY more for a 1 hour talk than our school normally pays speakers.
I checked with my administrators to see if we had any money in the budget for a speaker. I was told she was simply too expensive. But by that point, my heart was set on having someone who had been at least part way up the mountain come and talk to my kids.
So I struck a deal with my principal. If I could raise half the money, the school would pay the other half.
I launched into the fundraising, getting the entire 7th grade involved in running bake sales and pizza sales for a week. It didn’t start off very well. One day all we had to sell at morning recess were one pan of brownies (that I brought) and juice boxes left over from another student sale. As one would expect, in a country as poverty-ridden as Guatemala, I had a few students complain, “Why should I donate to a girl just so she can go to Everest for the FOURTH time? Why aren’t we raising money for a charity--an orphanage or something?” Perhaps they have a point. But I think there’s something to be said for following one’s dreams and persisting in the face of resistance, and I think Barbara’s message was worth it. Thankfully, there were a few others who agreed with me and who bought in completely and rallied their classmates around them. In the end, we actually ended up passing our fundraising goal by quite a bit, reducing the amount the school had to put in.
So it all worked out.
Today, Barbara Padilla finally came to our school. She spoke in the auditorium, in front of the entire middle school. And she was a success. At the end of the day, I still had students commenting to me, “Ala, can you believe her oxygen tank broke? This time, she should bring 2 hoses with her, just in case.” “So, did she really break her teeth when she fell running from the avalanche? Her teeth looked fine today…” “Did she raise enough money? Is she going again this year? Will she leave a Guatemalan flag at the top?”
I am content.
And in the next month, as Barbara begins her journey, you can be sure my 7th graders and I will be tracking her progress day by day, and the process of climbing Mount Everest will be just a little bit more real to us all.