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Dr. Grauer's Column - The Morocco Earthquake Story I Promised to Tell

Travel with Dr. Grauer into the heart of Morocco's earthquake-ravaged Ourika Valley, where amidst the rubble and despair, he unearths stories of resilience and optimism that challenge your every notion about educational travel and expeditionary learning.

The Morocco Earthquake Story I Promised to Tell

I.  Looking for Schools

I visit schools wherever I go and have for many years. I call these visits “edu-tourism.” Normally on these edu-tours, if I’m lucky, I can find a way to help out: a little faculty training, consulting with the leaders, a donation, an educational exchange—maybe even just playing some sports or doing some art with the kids. I get enormous purpose and joy out of combining vocation and avocation in this way, and in bringing back appreciation and perspectives, if not methods, to my own school. 

I thought I had mastered the art of edu-tourism, but my recent experience in Morocco, and an unforgettable indigenous man I met along this arduous trail, upended my prior notions and mixed pain in with the usual joy I experience. While it's beneficial for us all to have our presumptions shattered now and then, I'm faced with the task of piecing together those presumptions, a solemn promise I made to that man.

Stuart distributing bookbags and soccer balls en route to High Atlas Mountains

Five years ago, I read a National Geographic article about Morocco, its World Heritage sites and warm people, and decided it was time for me to visit their schools there, too, and perhaps experience their exotic music. The pandemic was a shapeshifter that caused three postponements of this trip over 4 years. Then, a week before departure, we receive this:

“… particular villages south of Marrakech (about 80 km) suffered many deaths and were completely destroyed.” The epicenter of a 6.8 Richter scale earthquake.

All over the world people cancelled their trips to Morocco, but our destination was the Ourika Valley in the High Atlas Mountains: precisely the epicenter. I call our agent and say: “If the roads are open, we’re going.”  She says we are “a message of hope and support that is vital for this country right now.” She is crying. Our school visits will be more important than ever.

Done with the city souks of Fez, we set out for the schools in the mountains. The universal joy and energy of children all over the world have animated my photo albums and stories for many years. However, now the king has decreed that people may not take pictures inside the schools. Down below at the foot of the mountains, many schools are waiting for building inspectors to inspect for cracks or weaknesses and we can’t find anyone who knows what’s happening in the mountain schools.

Stuart distributing bookbags and soccer balls en route to High Atlas Mountains

We start making our way up higher into the High Atlas. I have a large van trunk load of soccer balls, hula hoops, and bookbags that I bought in Fez to distribute. Kids come running when they see the sight of a soccer ball spinning on the finger of a smiling westerner who has just stepped out of a black Mercedes touring van. I'm tight with them because I know I need most of the goods for high up.

We stop at schools along the way, meeting the grinning, energetic children outside the school yards, or else talking with grim officials inside. As we continue our ascent, we spot the first row of yellow, Morocco Ministry of Interior tents. 

From here on, and continuing our way up are villages where the indigenous Berber (Amazigh) have lived traditionally for many generations. They seem naturally adapted in this environment, so it bears mentioning that this population has faced historical marginalization, including forced Arabization and limitations on the use of native languages and cultural expression. In recent years, Berber culture and language have experienced a revival and gained greater recognition. The higher up into the mountains I go, the more I learn of this and the clearer my cause becomes: to find ways, however small, to recognize and honor this traditional culture in the schools.

I had little prior experience with the Arabic cultures. Even way up here, stopping for mint tea, the village bullhorn comes on like it does all over the country five times a day for a call to prayer. I had no experience whatsoever with the native Berbers, and drinking the frothy tea with them at every stop is more than refreshment, it is a ritual that seems like a sacred recognition of their ways. It feels like an honor and a responsibility to have access to people so distant from my world, so perseverant, and to be considered by them to be a teacher, or what they call mu'allim. Reclaiming this title to its original dignity has everything to do with my travels.

Mint tea all over Morocco is a sacred ceremony. (Photo, Stuart Grauer)

Higher and higher up the Ourika Valley we wound, for a while following a large truck filled with relief supplies. At last, we pull into a high mountain Berber village nestled into lush landscapes and trickling waterfalls, with a mix of traditional life and enough rug and pottery sellers for tourists. It has been two weeks since the earthquake. Women and children peer out from yellow tents alongside the road and a few men are milling about over fires, rolling carts, or just gathered. 

From here, our van can go no further. We meet Mustafa, our mountain driver, tall, dark and wiry. We load into his 4x4 vehicle.

We're heading up as far as you can drive, to the school and traditional Berber village of Tizi N’Oouchg, above Sti Fadma. These villages cling to the mountainside cliffs high above the Ourika Valley. As we head for an altitude of 1600 meters, the roads remind me of the old Swiss Postal roads and the road from Oaxaca to the coast—only worse. The horrifying switchbacks are so tight that the car's front end protrudes over sheer drop-offs. As we round each turn orchestrated by the crunch of slippery gravel, we look straight down to certain death. I know that looking down a steep drop can make your amygdala go wild. I've learned to temper my brain:  A quick glance down, then back up, another glance for 2 seconds, and so on until the fight or flight passes.

Mustafa is high-strung, his eyes darting. He's animated in his discussion with our guide for the week, Mohammed. Despite his name, Mohammed is half Berber and half Jewish, he is trained as a teacher, and he prompts Mustafa incessantly. 

"We are lucky to be hit by the earthquake," Mustafa says. "The fat cats in the city are now sharing with us. They've hardly noticed us before." It's déjà vu: the indigenous experience I have learned about on almost every continent.

Mustafa's animation is contagious, but his wild gestures and responses while driving are unsettling. His eyes sometimes dart anywhere but the road. Mohammed, endlessly garrulous, keeps baiting Mustafa into heated discussions in rapid-fire Arabic. The car inches closer to another cliff with no guardrail. We contemplate turning back but decide to press on, I just accept that is it out of my control.

People in traditional garb pass by, some with donkeys and carts, others on foot. Mustafa shakes his arm out the window at them when they don’t make room. His head is out the window and he is looking back at them as we pass, just as we approach another hairpin turn of gravel and dusty dirt. The sensation is like flying through space with no controls.

Daily life in the High Atlas Mountains (Photo, Stuart Grauer)

Don’t look down unnecessarily. Slow the breathing. We're entering another world.

At last, raw and vulnerable, we reach the high mountain village. We're dropped off near a guest outpost for mountaineers—the only other visitors who venture up here. Edu-tourism is not yet a thing, even though I have written two books on it and made dear friends. Across the path is Ecole Tizi, the multicolored schoolhouse. We meet Rachid, our local mountain guide. He's fit, grinning, and speaks surprisingly good English. Beyond here, there's only the narrow mudbrick village, and paths beyond laid by nomadic shepherds and sheep.

“Yella,” he says. “Let’s go.”

II.  High Mountain Village

Following Rachid, we first pass the graveyard. Then the path is lined with a few dozen blue 6-meter by 6-meter Moroccan Ministry of the Interior tents for displaced families. A couple even have solar panels. Finally, we enter the village of red clay houses clinging to the hillside.

Along the village of two or three red clay streets winding unpredictably, we meet and greet locals. “Shalam Alaichim!” One expresses how touched they are at the help they got from the Moroccan people. Solar panels from Casablanca! Much wheat from various parts. The wishes and national guard sent by the King. Delivery trucks with all kinds of help.

Tizi N’Oouchg is a pristine, untouched, normally self-sufficient high mountain village. Clean air. Strong families that take care of each other. Natural food. Earthen buildings that withstood many generations and climatic conditions.

We set out on the trail to the higher mountains, passing the goatherds, shepherds, and talking villagers. Men, women, or children are driving donkeys bearing loads, or sheep. As we start making our way up a craggy rise, we approach a woman who is at least 80, picking her way from the mountain terraces down the steep, rocky trail while carrying a gigantic, outsized bale of corn husks for the village donkeys and horses. 

Woman carrying greens for animal feed from high up terrace farms (Photo, Stuart Grauer)

“Should I offer to help her?” I ask, and Rachid says she is not having any trouble and is completely used to this. Rachid offers twenty dirhams and we try to capture her photograph, eager to preserve her blend of hard-earned wisdom, quiet resilience, and the hint of untamed vitality her eyes convey.

One man in the village is said to be 129 years old. They do not generally rely on any hospital. They pick herbs. They have vigor. 

I slip on some gravel, get up with a bleeding hand and dust off. “Should we ask the old woman to help you?” somebody says.

“Rachid, how old do you think I am?” Back home not long ago my cardiologist set my biological age at 59, 13 years lower than my chronological. “85?” he guesses. Is this a compliment? He then studies me more and says, kindly, “82?” 

I am not particularly oriented to where I am. The High Atlas Mountains are a warp of where I live, timed all differently: these people may fare less well in California, no question, and we fare around the top in U.S. life expectancy:

On average, we live to 81.

Up high the red clay trail has become narrow, and sometimes harrowing with steep drop-offs that trigger my sympathetic nervous system, like in the jeep on the way up. Slow my breathing. Remember to look up not down. We pass a large cave for resting, ford a little mountain stream, head up past the cedar trees and up to the shade of an ancient black walnut tree. Around it we find walnuts perfectly dried and crunchy, and munch on them. My cardiologist says if I eat 7 a day I will have no heart attack, and it seems evident that these people understand this. Their walnut trees are cherished in heritage and for sustenance. 

Back in Tizi village after a robust hike, we weave through the red clay or cobblestone streets. The vistas are of jagged peaks and deep valleys, with no snow and little vegetation this time of year. I joke with Rachid that this house or that would be $5 million with a view like that back home. We all laugh, but cautiously, as we study the village. 

I love this kind of community. Small communities like this have been sustainable historically, relying on local resources rather than imported goods. We do not see a single piece of trash on the trail or in the streets, and almost no plastic anywhere, especially none that will not be reused. The communal approach to agriculture or gardening the mountain terraces gives everyone a role. It's easier to share resources, from physical items like tools to less tangible assets like expertise or labor. What’s more, you know where your children are and that they are connected. Free range kids with trusting parents and a focus on the natural world: a healthy formula I’ve spent decades trying to bring into The Grauer School back home, though I do not plan to live to 129. I love visiting their schools, which require special understanding, and I have been called to chair the accreditations of many.

Smaller communities and their schools all over the world often have a set of shared values or cultural practices, which can create a strong sense of identity. If enhancing that cultural identity, shared values and collective narrative are what you are after, historically a natural catastrophe may enhance the best strategic plans. Catastrophe often means unity.  Obviously, this is not without serious limitations or hardships.

III.  An Invisible Tribe

Through Tizi N’Oouchg village and on the trail, we pass chickens, cats, dogs, and donkeys with giant saddle bags, all roving about to some rhythm I can’t sense. I am here to sense what life is like for the kids. I don’t see any teens.

In Berber communities, like most indigenous communities I visit, many of which are nestled in rural or mountainous regions like this one, the educational landscape for teenagers presents its own set of unique challenges. Secondary schools are often few and far between, necessitating long commutes for students. It impacts them all deeply, though it disproportionately impacts girls, who may face societal or familial pressures that discourage or even forbid them from traveling to schools. Many Berber children don't proceed beyond primary education.

Stuart purchasing student art at a Berber (indigenous) elementary school

Like many small towns and villages worldwide, Tizi lacks a secondary school. In many locations, as village and small community campuses are shuttered, students are bussed to larger, consolidated, fenced educational campuses that feel like compounds to many teens. This trend of consolidating secondary schools, which is happening not just in the U.S. but globally, is alarming to me and to many members of smaller communities I hear from and read about. It contributes to a sense of teen invisibility, as young people are removed from their local communities. What’s more, these local communities—their elders, shopkeepers, volunteers and others—are no longer in touch with their schools.

To me, the struggles and aspirations of teenagers in these diverse settings might be considered as facets of a larger, global issue. Teens form an 'invisible tribe,' united not by ethnicity or language, but by the shared challenges and opportunities that come with transitioning into adulthood in a world that often marginalizes their cultural heritage along with their personal identity. “I want to get out of here, but I don’t know what I would do or where I would go,” is a teen sentiment I have heard in all of the above locations.

A hopeful trend is language. There is widespread discussion about preserving indigenous languages in educational systems all over the world. On my school visits I have witnessed a growing international trend to integrate native languages into curriculums: Navajo in the United States, Lakota among the Sioux tribes, Gaelic in Ireland, Basque in Spain, Quichuan in the Altiplano, and various languages across the African continent. There are ongoing efforts for the teaching of the Amazigh (Berber) language, culture and identity in Berber-area primary schools, though Berber high schools, if they even exist, typically offer little to no support for their native language. But there’s talk.

I do see elementary age kids all around this village. When I want to photograph them, half race right in. The others first peer in from the sides, then move in carefully, snuggling together and grinning shyly, not wanting to miss out. I have no idea how they feel about catastrophe, but around the village they are industrious in their tents. I see some practicing their penmanship.

Student practicing her lettering, village of Tizi, High Atlas Mountains  (Photo, Stuart Grauer)

Around the village, a few buildings are cracked. Three people have died. Three dead is a tragedy, but there is no overt mourning at this point. Along the trail and in the village, people have an effect of peace, no matter their burden.

I have studied this size community in schools for many years, and I believe: The intimate scale often leads to community-driven solutions to problems. Of course, smaller communities and their schools also come with their challenges, such as limited resources or opportunities, but simplicity in life seems to be part of the formula for better and worse.

Smaller communities otherwise tend to offer a sense of belonging, which can be emotionally fulfilling, and which is why I developed a school like that. Governance-wise, there’s little red tape. A more intimate setting allows for innovation, plus faster consensus-building and decision-making, which can be crucial in various aspects of community life. And for emergency response.

A tightly-knit community can provide emotional support, reducing feelings of isolation and promoting mental well-being that must be needed badly now. As a secondary educator once again afield in a small village, I only wish this sense of support were experienced by teens in their drive to independence and identity.

IV.  Cinnamon 

Happy from our hike, we retreat to the 4-story lodge for climbers and travelers, set at the edge of town on the cliffside, across from the school. Looking out over the layers of the High Atlas Mountains, the sweet tea is poured into the glasses, very hot, the pot literally stuffed with mint leaves with their stems. 

We await a sizzling pot of tagine. This is the name for the stew and the conical earthenware pot in which it is traditionally cooked all over Morocco and north Africa. The meat is seared for a while, then the vegetables are added, in this one, today: carrots, potatoes, turnips, onions. Cumin, coriander, saffron and other traditional spices are added to build flavor, creating a harmonious one-dish meal. 

We all want to talk about the event that is and has been on our minds, and Rachid begins: When the earthquake came, they did not know what it was. They had no prior experience or context for the ground shaking. Rachid was here outside the lodge, sitting at a table with his friend. He heard something… the shop doors…shaking. I could sense the uncertainty and probably anxiety he felt and wanted to express.

The top is lifted off and steam curls up as the spicy scent fills our nostrils. The sliced potatoes, yams, raisins are bubbling in there and the onions, brown and caramelized, are falling into all the crevices of the food. We’ve been served tagine almost daily all around the country, and the spices give this one particular depth, the slow cooking melding the flavors together. I breathe in deep and slow, look at Rachid and smile: “Is that cinnamon?”

IV.   Earthquake

The tagine is finished. Rachid resumes: the earthquake. 

The first couple seconds’ sensation was a light shaking or trembling, almost like standing on a large truck driving by. Rachid immediately felt the disorientation. What was it? Then the floor shook all around. This quickly transitioned into more intense shaking, where it became difficult to stand or walk, and Rachid and his friend bolted from their table by the door, bracing each other. Some others around them needed to drop down to their knees for balance.  

Starting around seconds four or six, or was it ten, the quake sent a 'wave,' and Rachid was able to feel the ground roll in one direction and then back, like a boat where seasickness is coming on. A low rumble was getting louder, randomly.  

Rachid said that he and his friend literally “thought the world could be ending.” Then strong jolts felt like a sudden shove or thrust, both physically and into some kind of unknown, while inside the lodge and all over the village unsecured objects were flying and a few buildings were cracking open. They looked around. Some got on the ground and prayed. “My friend and me hugged each other. 

“It sounded like a train and it was hard to walk. 

“We were holding each other and we recited our last words together, the Shahada: ‘There is no god but Allah. There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God’.” There was a buzzing or vibrating sensation, especially in his feet at around seconds 12-plus, but it already felt like a couple minutes: A jolt or two came, then continued disorientation, and at last nothing, leaving a void and vast unknown. “Then we realized it was an earthquake.”
A 6.8 Richter earthquake in an area of hillside homes made of mud clay was bound to have an extraordinary impact. It lasted only 22 seconds up here (12 seconds in Marrakesh). To Rachid and others in the village, this time felt distorted and interminable, perhaps a couple minutes in length. 

We depart from lunch at the lodge and start heading towards the school. Meanwhile, from a palace in Marrakesh, Rabat, Fez, Casablanca, or an undisclosed location, the King has already ordered all schools to close for earthquake safety inspections. Up here there is no talk of the King or inspections. Many of the tents are uninhabited.

In this remote village of around 200 people, school is still in session. I love this size village. It aligns with what’s known as Dunbar’s number, a theory suggesting that communities (and schools) of around this size can naturally maintain stable social relationships. Right now, though, it’s mid-day, the school gates open, and children—perhaps 30 or 40 in total—pour out. We have brought none of our gifts in the jeep, but I give some cash that, admittedly, much of the world thinks of as the best gift. The children are heading home to escape the midday heat, a break that lasts about three hours. And our ride is here.

Grinning and tight with energy, Mustafa stands beside his Land Rover Defender, the unofficial yet indispensable vehicle for treacherous terrain, and we begin navigating back down the loose-gravel trail. On occasion, I consider getting out and making the two-hour walk, but hold my tongue and make this out to be some kind of life challenge. I mainly just wish he would watch the road.

At last at the bottom, it feels like we have left a lost world. 

IV.  Epicenter

We switch back to our regular touring van and head down, marveling at their engineering and gracefulness carved out of massive, craggy mountains. As we reach the next village, we pull up to the gate of the Ouirgane elementary school. However, they are preoccupied with a TV interview. Turning down the offer to appear on Moroccan TV, we venture into the village—anticipating a shock we knew we would find.

The visible devastation increases as we go deeper into Ouirgane, towards the reservoir. We walk slowly, taking in the caved in walls, the people huddled in nooks, the apparent lack of activity.  Soon we see entire streets where most buildings are cracked and, still deeper in, turned to a wild jumble of wood beams, red clay ruins of all shapes, unusable. It looks like … an earthquake zone. Some complete ruins are made strange with blooming bougainvillea draped about, or a crate or a cooler tumbled in the mix. 

Village epicenter of Moroccan earthquake ( (Photo, Stuart Grauer)

This small village of probably 200-300 has lost 16 people. 

I walk slowly with a respectful, surveyor’s affect. Around a corner, a group of people are gathered in the shade of a ruined wall, sitting or standing. One glances at me, hard. I say the widespread greeting, “Salaam Alaikum,” touch my heart, and nod in reverence. The tall, intense looking man replies, “Wa Alaikum Salaam,” and then “You English.” The spirit did not feel at all like this back up on the top of the mountain.  

“Yes. I’m sorry,” I say, “I’m sorry for this trouble. You will rebuild. I know you will rebuild!” I know there is nothing for me to say.

“$140,000 Dirhams! He says angrily. This is how much the government will give us each for our lost houses,” he says indignantly.

It’s $14,000 US equivalent. “You cannot do anything with that for a house!” I say in solidarity, which sets him off.

“No, this is nothing! Are you a journalist?  Will you help us!  You must help us!” he says, defiant and backed by a massive morass of earthquake rip rap. “Here, take our picture.” This is a demand I would never hear, except from kids. “The people must know!” He is off into Arabic now, and I keep interrupting Mohammed to translate more but he is going too fast.

Citizen of earthquake epicenter demanding government assistance and asking for press coverage of village suffering Village epicenter of Moroccan earthquake (Photo, Stuart Grauer)

Am I simply a tourist here? I have long vowed never to walk on eggshells, but I am doing a bit of this now. I've brought sports and arts supplies to communities all around the world and have always found them to be well- and joyfully received—especially by children. Here, though, I feel “I don’t belong here, but I can’t leave.” I am a teen! I get a sudden insight about why so many teens at my school are so passionate about photography class. It lets them be both in the moment and a witness to it—allowing them to immerse themselves without having to fully commit. What a gift we are giving them with a class like this!

“I will share your pictures and tell your story. Your story must be heard,” I promise. He nods in agreement and continues elaborating for several minutes, impassioned and vehement, his whole arm emphasizing every point.

Many indigenous cultures including Berbers of the High Atlas Mountains do not want photographs taken of them for a variety of reasons. The reasons may be varied and personal, but my best understanding is that some have a general mistrust of tourists, while others believe taking a photograph can capture the soul or essence of a person, thereby potentially causing them harm. Others will abide but want to be compensated for it. Still others seem to go case by case, trusting in some not others. In a few days, we have run into all kinds. I find local guides invaluable in these areas of knowing.

“I will take your picture and send it to as many people as I can,” and I snap some photos of the group. Several of them want to be in it, and want their story heard. Others seem to ignore us.

I think back to Carl Jung, who described the power of stories and archetypes as tools to help people understand unconscious elements. By bringing unconscious thoughts and feelings into the realm of the conscious, individuals could confront, understand, and integrate these aspects. Here, now, these people have lost their homes. I think the act of telling their story and knowing it is received can serve as a form of catharsis, helping them make sense of their experiences, confront the traumas, and foster the sense of community that has exploded in this town. 

This, and soccer balls for the children! This man is angry. I want to keep my distance, but he owns my ear now. He holds his finger up in the air and his voice rises as his finger wags, “The next village over is where the state minister lives, and he has gone home to get aid for those families! But here in Ouirgane village we have much more damage!” He is shaking. “We have lost everything. He will give them the money while we have $140,000 dirhams. It is not enough. It is NOT ENOUGH!”

I can do nothing but bear witness to this anger. All I know is how to express empathy, or to try, in the hope that it may help alleviate the hostility I see. In these moments, I wonder if one needs to be a billionaire to make a true impact, or if being a teacher for children is insufficient. I'm aware that others might have filled a van with Chromebooks, tablets, or solar chargers instead. I interrogate the adequacy of my own contributions—the sports and arts supplies—and my steadfast belief that play must hold the same essential value for kids (actually, for all of us) as other basic necessities.

“I understand, yes, I understand this is terrible,” I keep nodding. “I will tell your story. You are right to be angry!” And I shoot more photos.

Village epicenter of Moroccan earthquake ( (Photo, Stuart Grauer)

Secretly I believe this much anger makes people unhealthy. I know I cannot tell him to start work clearing the debris out, or that I hope he will not wait forever for the government. He is grieving. Of all the things I can offer him, advice is the worst. “I will tell people!” I assure him, nodding, and nodding. 

I could not help but compare this way in Ouirgane to the peaceful pressing-on high up in Tizi N’Oouchg, where healthy, high, isolated villagers live forever. In my mind I was asking: What determines where a group lies upon the sliding scale from self-sufficient to victim, from acceptance to rage? This damage is much worse than up above. They will need earth moving equipment or it could take years. Relief support in rebuilding homes--and lives--is critical in any event like this. Even then they will not have their life back. They never will.

We shake hands, and I am left with a final impression of this man with his straight back, his pleading, heavy eyes, and his outstretched arm: nobility. I am leaving and he is staying. Mohammed and I move through the main village, the narrow red clay roads and passages are mainly clear with a fringe of rocks and rubble spilling in and a couple cars are squashed. All along beams and foundations jut in random directions. The village is very quiet, the mountain air clean and pure.

There is our driver’s cousin, who lost a brother in this. They hug for a long time and cry. We board our van again, and head further down the road to the lower part of Ouirgane where the school has been relocated. In a couple miles, the sides of the road are lined with yellow tents, 6 meters by 6 meters. Some of the front flaps are open and inside are whole families. 

V.  The Road to Marrakesh

Winding further down the road, we reach a flat that looks like a parking lot. There are rows of large white classroom tents, maybe 12 of them. We walk in through the makeshift school gate spilling over with elementary students, bringing some sports supplies and backpacks:  pumps for bicycles and balls, plus soccer balls and basketballs. But it is a closed campus, and we can’t get in to hand them personally. This little community is exposed to the outside world now, and “keeping the gate,” is what the best school leaders do.

We hand our gear over to the vice principal. As often around the world, there are no high schoolers “Where are the high school students?” I ask. He explains that 700 high schoolers from the region will be offered free room and board and a place in a school outside of Marrakesh, 60 kilometers down the road. 

Students displaced from their homes by the earthquake, living in Ministry of Interior tents, are making the best of it  (Photo, Stuart Grauer)

We press further down the road and approach another tent village, all yellow Ministry of Interior tents. Out in front on the side street children are milling around, so we pull the van over. I take a soccer ball out of the large boxes in the trunk and children come running. I take out a few more and toss them to one child or another. I’m looking into their eyes seeing if there isn’t some way to decide who to give things to: 30-some kids, maybe 10 sports items left after a week of pulling over like this and emptying the van, and as many backpacks.

Gift-giving here and anywhere can be fraught. For instance, do I adhere to traditional gender norms or challenge them? I opt for hula hoops for girls who are not joining in soccer, unsure if this is cultural or just outdated. Balancing my own experience against the assertive viewpoints of younger generations like “Gen Z” isn't easy. But with years of experience, I question whether I should adapt or assert my own perspective. It's a tightrope of cultural sensitivity, nonjudgement, and open-mindedness, a conflict I like to imagine Socrates dealt with long ago. 

More kids crowd around, some jumping up and down wanting a gift, others looking especially polite as their way. One little one, probably four, is looking up at me with crying, brown eyes. Of course, I cave. 

On the main road next to us, more relief delivery trucks are heading up the mountain with food and supplies, but I know that few will think of the students, or of the need for fun or play at a time like this. I can see with my eyes that my help is a thrill to these kids, who deserve to be kids. 

The next day we will continue down to the high energy Marrakesh and its colorful souks, and prepare to head back across the Atlantic Ocean, but right now I enjoy and appreciate playing with these children more than the camel rides with stunning sunrises, the aromatic cuisine, or the historic casbahs.

Soon all my gifts are dispatched and the children are playing all over the street. The normally reserved mothers watch from the side and gesture to me in delight. 

Stuart with mosque in background distributing sports and play goods to earthquake-displaced children, government tents behind

I want to play! There are a couple white, metal storage cannisters along the side of the road. I draw a circle on one for use as a basketball target and start playing basketball with a mixed group. They tend to be better at dribbling than I thought they would be. But just then my guide comes over and says not to use the storage cannister as a backboard. 

“There are people living in there.”

VI.  Smile

From the earthquake-ravaged villages in Morocco to bustling corners of cities worldwide, one constant remains: children are inclined to play, to smile, and to be just what they are—kids. This is a universal truth I've observed in my experiences engaging across diverse settings, though we can find some salient exceptions among senior high-age teens. To me, as “fearless teachers,” our starting responsibility is to recognize and foster this inherent joy and resilience. This means viewing our youth not as incomplete adults but as innocent and emergent contributors to and creators of a future world that is good. In doing so, we conceive of a world where they grow optimistic, engaged, and expect better for everyone, no matter where they come from.

Rachid, mountain guide, in the High Atlas Mountains (with Mohammed, guide, Stuart and Sally Grauer)

Our driver starts the engine. We pull away, our work is done. The children wave, their faces lit up in smiles, a stark contrast to the yellow tents and the rubble behind them. I can still imagine my eyes meeting those of the passionate man in his ruined village; he is giving me a nod, as if acknowledging that at least his story will be told—and so it is. I have moved from eco-tourist to eco-witness. For this moment, two diverse worlds connect, and I'm reminded that these fleeting instances of understanding and shared humanity matter. 

As we descend further down the mountain, I hope that the stories I've gathered up there, the hopeful and the heartbreaking, are threads I can weave into the larger tapestry of what I teach and advocate for. Because to understand leadership, and maybe even the human condition, you simply must dive into the action and, from there, at least try to make a mosaic out of a complex world where pain, hardship and fear drive out beauty and connection if you let them. That, and send money. I’m somewhere between 59 and 85 years old now and my takeaway is that there is nothing we can’t find a way to smile at, all in good time, especially for the sake of kids.

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Photos for Dr. Grauer's Column

Stuart with mosque in background distributing sports and play goods to earthquake-displaced children, government tents behind

Stuart distributing bookbags and soccer balls en route to High Atlas Mountains

Mint tea all over Morocco is a sacred ceremony. (Photo, Stuart Grauer)

Daily life in the High Atlas Mountains (Photo, Stuart Grauer)

Woman carrying greens for animal feed from high up terrace farms (Photo, Stuart Grauer)

Stuart purchasing student art at a Berber (indigenous) elementary school

Student practicing her lettering, village of Tizi, High Atlas Mountains  (Photo, Stuart Grauer)

Village epicenter of Moroccan earthquake ( (Photo, Stuart Grauer)

Citizen of earthquake epicenter demanding government assistance and asking for press coverage of village suffering Village epicenter of Moroccan earthquake (Photo, Stuart Grauer)

Village epicenter of Moroccan earthquake ( (Photo, Stuart Grauer)

Students displaced from their homes by the earthquake, living in Ministry of Interior tents, are making the best of it  (Photo, Stuart Grauer)

Stuart distributing bookbags and soccer balls en route to High Atlas Mountains

Rachid, mountain guide, in the High Atlas Mountains (with Mohammed, guide, Stuart and Sally Grauer)

Fearless Teaching® Book
by Dr. Stuart Grauer

Fearless Teaching® is a stirring and audacious jaunt around the world that peeks—with the eyes of one of America’s most seasoned educators–into places you will surely never see on your own. Some are disappearing. It is a bit like playing hooky from school. You will travel to the Swiss Alps, Korea, Navajo, an abandoned factory in Missouri, the Holy Land, the Great Rift Valley, the schools of Cuba, the ocean waves, and the human subconscious—oh, and Disneyland.

There you will find colorful stories for the encouragement, inspiration, and courage needed by educators and parents. Fearless Teaching is not a fix-it book—it is more a way of seeing the world and the school so that you can stay in your work and focus on what matters most to you.

"Grauer’s writing reminds us that Great Teaching, singular, rare, unusual, is something that should be sought after and found. Thank you.”
Richard Dreyfuss, Actor, Oxford scholar, founder of The Dreyfuss Initiative

Click here to order Fearless Teaching® today

Dr. Grauer's Column: Archive of Past Columns

Dr. Grauer's Column - Ways Of Knowing

Join Dr. Grauer on Indonesia's serene Lombok Island for this story that rethinks intelligence through the lens of nature's vast sensory world and the limitations of modern education. This is a journey that inspires you to remove some limitations on how we might all bring about change.

Dr. Grauer's Column: Learn Twice As Fast

Play is the embodiment of discovery, a path to strength and curiosity. As children grow, their innate drives for curiosity, play, willfulness, and sociability must be fostered, not hindered. This column gives educators and parents the knowledge and tools to ignite the "play circuit" in your students.

Dr. Grauer's Column - Informed Skepticism

How can our students distinguish fact from fiction or uncertainty? What was once a mundane task, “don’t forget to cite your sources!” has now become a literal pillar of our whole democracy. Educators and parents must teach and instill a sense of informed skepticism in our graduates. 

Dr. Grauer's Column - Standing on One Foot

In a world rife with challenges and threats, how do we navigate the turmoil with compassion and understanding? Drawing inspiration from ancient Talmudic wisdom, this story helps us explore the practical role of compassion in education and community-building.

Dr. Grauer's Column - The New Foragers

Dive into a tale of sustainability, leadership, and the transformative power of outdoor education that our children need more than ever, as a reminder of the sustaining beauty in the world.