• If Only To Say Yes

  • Admin08/12/2013
  • This post was originally published on Tomas’ personal blog and can be found at http://tomasquinonezriegos.wordpress.com/2013/07/22/if-only-to-say-yes/Two Second Grade Students

    The sun has set hours ago and the warm evening I am sitting in is like the warm coolness of my spirit after a full, deep, belly laugh. A dear friend recently told me that one belief he knows to be True is that when you listen to the birds, your soul will be refilled. I would add to that axiom insects. Even at night, the earth here is teeming with an overabundance of life as the dense explosion of vegetation I am looking at envelops me with an orchestra of song. And my soul is refilled.

    Growing up in the northern California valley, I must say that I was pretty well off. The weather was pleasant, the people were pleasant. Life was mild. Safe within the massive protective arms of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, the world’s harshness couldn’t reach me. Yet I was the boy from a different place who was displaced into this valley, in this natural daycare. I never belonged there and I knew it. I never saw myself in the faces of the other children and I never seemed to fit in. That which was valued as normal or desirable in the valley was the antithesis of what I saw in the mirror. I did not come from the valley. I was transplanted there at an early age to be safe, however, I knew that there was a place over the ice-capped ridges where I could be normal and even desirable. I grew restless and was constantly looking for an opening, a crack in the foundation, a hidden tunnel I could escape into. So when I was offered a ticket to live thousands of miles away for the next four years, to see what lay beyond the first hill, I took it. I said yes.

    Since then, I have continued to be approached by people offering to take me just past the next hill. I keep on saying yes. I said yes to a professor and a friend. I have spent all summer living in a small town in rural Panamá. I said yes to another friend. I spend several weekends on a tiny, beautiful, black-sand beach, having bonfires with local surfers, swimming under the stars, watching unbelievable lightning storms. I said yes to a smile. I hike 8 hours into the jungle, ford rivers, and skid down muddy hillsides to reach a hidden waterfall nestled in the heart of the mountain. I said yes to a whisper. I meet handfuls of Panamanian professors, academics, medical professionals, filmmakers, and young students.

    I said yes to an invitation. I am now the effective international director of the iTeach organization and last week met with department directors of two Panamanian universities as well as one Saudi Arabian university to discuss partnerships with iTeach. I will be spending the upcoming few months studying in Japan and overseeing these projects, incubating an organization that connects youth across the world in a targeted, intentional manner to address economic disparities compounded by English proficiency. I was asked to speak to several university classes about my experience in Panamá, as well as the organization. I said yes, and will be speaking to two classes later this week.

    By saying yes, I have travelled far from the valley of northern California. At each invitation, I am guided beyond another hilltop, and beyond each hilltop I am astounded by the love and open arms I am welcomed by.
    By saying yes, I have pushed myself beyond what I thought possible and have made bounds in self-esteem and confidence.
    By saying yes, I have seen and been amazed by what these hands are capable of. Last night I met a kindly, old Peace Corps volunteer named Bill. After telling him a bit about what I have been up to, he looked at me, smiled, pushed up his circular thin-framed glasses and said,
    “You’ll go great places, young man. Don’t ever forget your spirit.”

    Before continuing this post, please enjoy a brief interlude and watch this:

    After some reflection recently, I was struck by a profound, ground-breaking, and personally revolutionary idea:

    If this is how far I have come by saying yes to others, how far can I go by saying yes to myself?
    Thus far, I have limited my scope of possibility to what I am told is possible by others. Well, what if I define my own scope of possibility? What if I define my own reality? What if I recognize my own dreams not only as possible, but as a compass to guide me? To what heights can my own dreams take me?

    Last semester I was sponsored to attend the Clinton Global Initiative University conference in St. Louis. Although I did take issue with quite a few of the projects my fellow attendees were proposing (what sort of Brown student would I be without critiques), I enjoyed immensely the amazing panelists presented before us including Mohammad Yunus, Kenneth Cole, and Jack Dorsey among others. What I was most profoundly struck by were the words of Women for Women International founder, Zainab Salbi who told us that,

    “The world we live in is a product of our imagination, so might as well create the life that you imagine.”

    I am going to take a moment to announce my dream. Starting next summer of 2014, I will begin a bike ride for one year in southern South America and will make my way up the continent. Along the way, I will document a network of suitable iTeach partners, and host training workshops for online resources (such as the Khan Academy) at schools and community centers as means of socially engaging the communities I come across. Essentially my dream is to act as a Johnny Appleseed of education, sowing the seeds of self-directed educational growth everywhere I go. This dream is an experiment to push myself to my physical and mental limits by completing the trip on bike. To push the limits of trust by believing in the people and communities I will encounter and possibly stay with. Even more, this dream is an experiment to see exactly what one person can do, to push the limits of the possibility of impact that one year of one life can make.

    Although I have certainly enjoyed my experiences thus far, and have been thrilled with each passing hilltop, I have been aware of a much larger mountain range looming in the distance that I still remain comfortably protected by. This dream is of climbing the mountain no one has invited me to, of forging my own path and creating the life I imagine, of being bold, of taking risks, of recognizing the fleeting transience of life, of taking one look off the edge and plunging into the unknown.

    And it all begins with one step. I begin now.