A Tribute to Yan Yang

Yesterday we were shocked to learn of the passing of Yan Yang, a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a former team member of Out of Eden Learn. You can read a formal tribute here. Yang was drawn to Out of Eden Learn because of our student-centered pedagogy and commitment to inviting students to ask questions about the world and other people’s lives. She attended our team meetings last year and took on a research assistant position during the summer of 2014. During that time she helped us to prepare new curriculum materials, organized Paul’s dispatches by category, and put together a bibliography of literature related to Out of Eden Learn.

She also wrote a blog post that we are republishing today as a mark of respect for who she was and the intellectual and personal contributions she made to our project. Yang was a highly original thinker and the idea for this blog post was entirely her own. While many people might focus on Paul’s writing, Yang was fascinated by the “fantastically enthusiastic” comments that appeared beneath his words and the kinds of learning they represented. Her piece – STORIES WITHOUT BORDERS – illuminates for us the ways in which Paul’s account of his guide’s improvised water cooler opened up a space for new understandings to emerge, as people from a variety of contexts made connections to their own lives and experiences. Yang’s articulation of the potential power of paying careful attention to the everyday is beautiful: “By looking closely, at an object, a smile, an action, a conversation, or a place, the boundaries of nationality or ideology dissolve, our imagination of ordinary experience expands, and life stands out.”

Yang herself had an unusual capacity for looking closely at the world and she paid particular attention to the processes and pathways by which individuals learn. She also had a special vibrancy about her that helped her to connect with people in a way that transcended any real or imagined borders: her infectious laugh and smile, as well as her sheer curiosity about everything, will stay with us all for a long time.


Walking past Israel and the West Bank just before the conflict there escalated, Paul recently wrote about how he felt differently than his local walking companion, Bassam, did when scrambling away from an attack.

“I feel bad,” Bassam says, as teargas drifts across the grassy pastures. “Just walking away like this.”

But I do not feel bad. I have walked away from dozens of conflicts before. Few were mine.

Punctuated frequently, Paul’s straightforward words feel heavy in meaning. It makes me think of how he described his previous journalistic work in a video, “just jetting in and out of assignments”. In and out, yours or mine: palpable boundaries.

He went on to talk about his struggle to pitch a story about a conflict in Congo that resulted in much more severe casualties compared to the violence in the West Bank. In contrast to the indifference toward Congo’s sufferings, he wrote, “The world’s gaze burns on Israel, on the West Bank, on Gaza.”

How to tell stories that honor the significance of individuals’ lives regardless of borders? To me, Out of Eden Walk enacts and inspires such explorations.

I started following Paul’s dispatches a few months ago and in my view, readers’ fantastically enthusiastic comments are an essential part of the journey. I marvel at the variation of stories readers share and when juxtaposed, the commonality of their overarching meaning.

In his dispatch Awad’s Refrigerator, Paul wrote about a water-cooling thermos that his Sudanese camel handler Awad Omran made from “found materials,” including burlap sack used for rice, cardboard, plastic twine, knife, rusty needle, plastic water bottle, to which he added, “Also essential: clever hands and a big toe.” He further wrote,

“Awad’s water refrigerator operates on the simple principle of evaporation. Wetted and hung on a camel saddle, its dampened cardboard insulation cools our cupfuls of drinking water by several degrees. We refill it constantly. It is the water we always reach for. The jug took 20 minutes to build. A cheap cell phone playing exhortatory Sudanese ballads while working is optional.”

Together with photos, Paul’s words brought to life for us Awad’s delight in and ingenuity of creating the refrigerator. His language, which is neither heavy in generalization nor mechanical in its detail, simultaneously brought us into the world of Awad while inviting us to make connections to our own life experiences.

Some recalled their childhood experiences with nostalgia and warmth,

“When I was a child in the Australian bush, we used bags of tightly woven hessian to cool drinking water. The small amount of water that “wicked” to the outside of the bag evaporated cooling the water. The bag hung outside the farmhouse back door. A tin cup hung on it for us to drink. Strict rules applied about not wasting the water, and filling the bag from the tank each night…”    —-Shelley Smith

“When I was young my Dad used a canvas bag hung on the tractor …using evapration as a coolent. That was in the 40′s in North Dakota, USA.”    —-Lyla Kraft

A traveler shared a smart trick that might otherwise go unnoticed,

“Another cheap trick – When drying freshly washed socks, I sometimes place a smaller water bottle inside the sock to chill the water. It slows the drying process for the sock, but sure is worth it on a hot day.”    —-Jay Simpson

To this, Paul responded jokingly,

“Nice touch. Though I’d have some trouble getting anyone to drink from bottles that had been in my socks, Jay.”   —-Paul Salopek

Better still, there was a wonderful recollection of an unexpected breakthrough in understanding how evaporative cooling worked,

“This post reminded me of the first time I truly understood how a ‘swamp cooler’ – so prevalent in El Paso, but foreign to a girl from Iowa – functioned. I was driving from El Paso to San Diego in an old Nissan Sentri without air conditioning. 10:30pm and 103 degrees passing Yuma AZ…a wet bandana wrapped around my head taught me the principle of evaporative cooling! …”    —-Janie Maxey

Perhaps inspired by some of the earlier comments, this reader (purely in my imagination) jumped to his feet and exclaimed,

“Hi Paul, I have found a hidden connection to a global story in this dispatch on evaporative cooling. Our species has very little hair compared to most other land mammals. Some suggest that this is an evolutionary adaptation to allow sweat to cool our skin by evaporation. In early years this may have given us the edge in running down prey — prey that could out-sprint humans, but, due to overheating, not outlast us on a long chase.”   —-Richard King

This dialogue between Paul’s writing and the readers makes me think of a comment made by an Out of Eden Learn student, Annie. She wrote, “I think when exposed to the details of other’s lives, you start noticing your own.”

Perhaps Annie’s comment, in addition to the collage of stories, characterizes what Paul called a human pace of story-telling. By looking closely, at an object, a smile, an action, a conversation, or a place, the boundaries of nationality or ideology dissolve, our imagination of ordinary experience expands, and life stands out. Immersed in numerous and compelling stories, everyone can find their version of, to use reader Richard King’s words, “hidden connection to a global story.”

* Paul added in parenthesis that “The dead Congolese got their due only later, in a special project.”





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