Henrik says before the MMUN conference, the biggest crowd he had spoken in front of was a school assembly.
Facing a 1,500-strong crowd would be enough to give most adults pause. But 11-year-old Henrik Kaas was undeterred. Last March, as a Grade 5 student, he was selected by organisers of the Montessori Model United Nations (MMUN) conference in Rome to speak in front of the entire assembly.
“Was I nervous? Yes!” he says. “I stuttered a little. There were way more people than I’m used to but I think it went OK.” In fact, by the end of the conference, the Lower School MMUN advisers Alice Sikora and Jamie Raskin say that Henrik had emerged as a highly competent speaker.
At the MMUN conference, the young delegates take the role of national representatives, presenting, debating and brainstorming. Henrik was allocated Cuba as the country he had to represent, and he was challenged to argue for fair trade. “Until that point, I knew nothing about Cuba and I knew nothing about fair trade,” he says. With the help of the UN’s resources, online information and some guidance from his teachers, he put together a presentation that he delivered, first to other delegates before presenting to the entire assembly.
This isn’t the first time Henrik has been away from home with the school, but this trip, he says, was the best so far. “I was lucky to share a room with my friend, but I made friends from other countries and I learned a lot during those few days. We talked about completely different stuff from normal.”
It was an intense experience – to qualify to attend as one of a dozen ZIS delegates, Henrik had to present in front of a panel of ZIS teachers. “Probably the biggest thing I can remember from the whole experience is that there’s an island of plastic in the ocean twice the size of Texas!”
He returned to school “more informed about the world” and with a determination to speak up. “I learned that it’s not only adults that go to conferences; children also get the chance to have a voice. And that it’s stressful to talk in front of big crowds – I’m amazed by the number of people that do it and don’t appear stressed or panicked.”
But he’s ready for his next public-speaking engagement. “I’ll definitely feel calmer. When you do something for the first time, it’s scary, then you get the hunger for it and want to do more, so I can’t wait.
Words Helena Pozniak, Photography Kate Peters