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An Evening With Paul Rusesabagina

July 4, 2013

This is remarkable event number two.  Here is the story…

It had taken eight years.  It was May 2005 when I had first shown “Hotel Rwanda” to my Government and Politics class.  The students were held riveted by the remarkable story of Paul Rusesabagina and the lives of 1,268 he rescued from the Rwandan genocide. Everyone knows the story of Oscar Schindler, and the story of Chiune Sugihara has for years been a fascination of mine.  Unlike those gentlemen, Mr. Rusesabagina was still alive.  Was it possible to reach him, and invite him to our school?  What would it take to get him here?

I looked up Paul on the internet, and discovered he did make public appearances on behalf of his Hotel Rwanda Foundation.  I have always been a great believer in inviting interesting people to my school.  Very often, I get turned down, but occasionally the answer is yes.  A few years back, Senator Christopher Dodd finally accepted an invitation to visit our school and speak to my politics class.  My philosophy has always been: the worse they could say is no, right?

So, for seven years, I contacted the Foundation and left voice mails and emails that were never answered.  It was becoming a yearly ritual for me:  leave the message, don’t get a reply, and try again next year.  Don Quixote had nothing on me.  My windmill was the Hotel Rwanda Foundation.

And then a year ago, someone answered the phone.

This was Paul’s manager, an impressive bundle of energy and passion named Kitty Kurth.  I had a wonderful conversation with Kitty, but was discouraged when it became plain that we couldn’t afford Mr. Rusesabagina’s asking price.  I was encouraged, though, by Kitty’s final words to me:  “Don’t worry.  We’ll figure out a way to make this happen.”  For some reason, I believed her.

A year of exchanged phone calls, text, and emails, and I still wasn’t totally convinced it was going to happen.  Then on April 19, I got a text message from Kitty:  Paul will be at your school on May 14.  This is it!  Paul Rusesabagina is coming!  This is amazing!

Paul R on Stage

Then it hit me:  that left us less than three weeks to put the whole event together.

So, once again, my amazing battalion of students and staff came through.  The plan was that we would charge every patron who wished to attend a $10 donation to the Hotel Rwanda Foundation.  We would do publicity in local papers, local schools and colleges.  We would organize gift baskets to be raffled off, and the foods class would make items to be sold at a bake sale.  An aspiring filmmaker student of mine, Aurora, would videotape the talk and we would sell DVD’s to raise more funds.  Paul would also sell and sign copies of his memoir “An Ordinary Man.”  We would pull out all the stops to make this worth his while.

On May 14, I drove out to TF Green airport in Rhode Island and picked up Paul and Kitty from their hotel.  Paul Rusesabagina was in my car!  After returning to Connecticut and a lovely dinner with a former student and now colleague named Maggie, we headed to the high school.   Paul spoke to a packed audience.  It was a thrilling once in a life time experience for the student and community members who chose to attend.  I still can’t believe it happened.

We ended up raising $4000 for the Foundation, and I am grateful to all my colleagues and students who volunteered their time and energy to make it a reality.  I also discovered why Kitty was so optimistic:  she believes in public education, and makes sure Paul visits public schools–even those that can’t afford him.

Paul and I at his hotel in Rhode Island.  Even my hair was excited to meet him.

Paul and I at his hotel in Rhode Island. Even my hair was excited to meet him.

During his talk, I remember Paul saying this:   “All my life, I had been taught to fight with words.”  Fighting with words, of course, is how he saved all of those people.   That quote will stick with me for the rest of my life, and hopefully everyone else who was there that night.  As it turns out–an extraordinary man.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 11, 2013 1:00 am

    Wow. What a privilege it must have been to meet Paul. Hotel Rwanda is one of the most powerful movies I have seen!

  2. July 11, 2013 1:06 am

    It was indeed. As I think comes across in the post, I am still in a state of disbelief about it! I felt privileged to meet him and very grateful so many of my students did as well. I still have a thank you message from him saved on my cell phone!

  3. Lucy Simard permalink
    July 12, 2013 9:44 pm

    My family and friends who were present at this evening felt awe, respect and disbelief at what we heard. All I kept thinking as a retired teacher from our LMHS was : “Is that really Paul Rusesabagina on our stage?” Kevin, you did it! Persistence pays off, as I have also learned throughout my career as a teacher! Great job and thanks so much for including me in the e-mails that went out and about in town! I appreciated that so much, truly! You are the man! :o)

    • July 28, 2013 9:01 pm

      Thanks for your kind words, and I am very pleased you and your family enjoyed it so much. And I know exactly how you felt!

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