EDMONTON — In November, the staff and students of St. James School embarked on a project which served to continue a school-wide focus on the importance of peace and resulted in the joint creation of a peace calendar which showcased the students' art and written work.
All of the students in the school contributed illustrations and written reflections centred on the peace theme. Much deliberation went into the selection of the artwork for the front cover, made more difficult by the excellent calibre of work displayed in so many of the students' submissions.
But one Grade 6 student's picture stood out because of the beautiful way in which she depicted and combined a number of compelling peace symbols.
Several weeks later, the background of this young student came to the attention of a school staff member, making the choice to showcase her art on the cover of the Peace Calendar seem all the more poignant. This girl had actually been born in a war-torn country and had first-hand experience of the devastation of war and importance of peace.
Here is the story of Maja Miljkovic as she shared it with me:
"Just five days before I was born, war had broken out in my home country of Serbia. In fact, my parents were staying in a bomb shelter when my mother went into labour. My father drove her to a hospital even though much of my city had already been bombed with bridges, factories and many facilities destroyed.
"Again, on the day of my birth, bombs started to fall on our city. My father, who was a professional firefighter, went out to work on the streets and fight the fires. Within an hour, the city hospital was bombed. The maternity ward was destroyed and many babies died.
"Although I had been separated from my mother, she found me and covered me with her body to protect me from the parts of the buildings that were falling everywhere.
"Many doctors and nurses were killed. My mother and I survived.
"My mother used a mobile phone to contact her father who came to the hospital to get us and bring us back to the safety of the bomb shelter.
"Over a period of time, though, the shelter became so dirty that my family decided to go back to their home.
"By the time I celebrated my second birthday, a new government had come into power and the war had ended. Still, as a child growing up in Serbia, it was a hard life. I was six years old when my family decided to move to Canada and that is when my life changed forever.
"I will always love Serbia and many of my cousins and other family members still live there. But I would be happy if they too would come to Canada.
"I can remember when I came to St. James School for the first time at the end of last year. I loved seeing all the peace posters and peace work in the school.
'I felt like I was in heaven and it filled me with so much peaceful energy. I was so happy the school was working on a peace book called Our Book of Peace and that I was able to write something that would be in this book.
"This year, the whole school worked on creating a peace calendar for 2011. When I was working on my picture for the calendar project I was thinking of all of the people in the world, in Serbia and people in places like Africa and Haiti who are suffering.
"Then the symbols I used in my picture came into my head . . . the dove, the peace sign and the cross.
"I was so happy when I found out that my picture was chosen to be on the front cover. When I told my family, they were so proud of me.
"We sent a calendar to my grandmother back home and she absolutely loved it. She showed it to all our old neighbours and they also loved it.
"They were all surprised that a little girl who had been born at the beginning of a war had now created the front cover of a peace calendar in Canada."
The 21st century is shaping up to be one which will be pivotal in determining the future of humanity. We have simultaneously reached crossroads on so many fronts and the evidence that we can no longer allow the "same old" structures, attitudes and values to prevail seems to have become irrefutable.
Across the globe, educational stakeholders are attempting to determine what life in the future might look like and what skills and attitudes today's students will need.
More importantly, questions are being asked about ways that educational visions and philosophies can serve to help shape a better future for all.
Central to this discussion is the awareness that we all need to begin to see ourselves as global citizens, intricately connected to all people and all things on this planet. The notion of global citizenship and its inherent implications, expectations and responsibilities will be a cornerstone of education in the 21st century.
An important component of this will include an increasing focus on empathy and service and empowering students with the knowledge that they can become powerful agents of positive change in the creation of a more just and peaceful world.
This has always been one of the basic tenets of Catholic education, the recognition that we are part of a "global family" - God's family. God has uniquely gifted each one of us with the aptitudes and talents we need to carry out our "mission," be it large or small, thereby helping to make the world a better place. The kingdom of heaven is at hand and we have a vital role in its creation.
How fortunate we are to teach in schools where we have, not just the responsibility, but the liberty to share with our students the awareness that we each have a key part to play in helping to make God's plan for humanity a reality.