When School Seems the Impossible Dream

Aug 24, 2008

“I’m about 9 or 10. I’ve been studying for the past year.”

Neeraj, a girl from from India
PBS Wide Angle program,
Back to School

“My [late] father told me to go to school, and not to rest.”

Nanavi, a girl from Benin
Back to School

As youngsters throughout the U.S. return to the classroom, I’m reminded of the mixed feelings with which my friends and I approached that prospect when I was little.

Like most kids I know today, we were dying to get back to school so that we could hang out with each other regularly. We could return to the business of dawdling over lunch together; passing verboten messages and other contraband in class; gathering for our yearly cootie shots; venting pent-up energies on the playing field; and cramming the last crucial bits of kid-info into the bus ride home in the afternoons.

In fact I even loved the classes, if you didn’t count mathematics.

On the other hand—defying reason entirely—I despised the compulsory nature of the exercise. You had the clothes-shopping rituals. You couldn’t stay up late anymore. You were again being turned over to a new set of grown-up strangers—very suburban-looking people who used that very hard Chicago “ar”, in my case—whose word indeed became your law from September to June.

You had to produce. You had to wear shoes.

Ah, the untold human suffering!

But before the school year gets fully underway in 2008, I hope you’ll share a truly life-changing hour-long video with the children in your circle. It’s called Back to School, and it was broadcast on PBS stations in 2006.

Obviously, I didn’t know the first thing about human suffering when I was a kid. But the children in Back to School do.

The report follows an international mix of five highly motivated children living in some of the toughest conditions imaginable; a sixth trying to excel in the wake of communist rule; and a seventh for whom rigorous scholastic training has been a factor in life since the age of 1.

War, totalitarianism, poverty, gender inequality, disease, death of a parent, and the lure of the streets are the kinds of phenomena that have brought devastating consequences for most of the children featured in Back to School. Their daily duties—and the experiences they have endured—make them seem more like full-fledged adults in the ranks of the working poor rather than youths in the schoolyard.

But then you see them tearing across the schoolyard. Grins a mile wide. Eyes forever hinting at hope.

Despite the pressures, children in this program are determined to shoe-horn “book-learning” into a day that will involve non-stop labor for survival—perhaps caring for younger siblings, herding livestock, working in the fields, gathering firewood, tending the hearth, cleaning house, prepping meals, or fetching water.

At one point, the kids are shown video segments featuring their counterparts in the other countries. Ultimately, they are invited by the producers to send video messages to each other.

Want to give your heartstrings a monster workout? All the children ask each other questions ranging from the philosophical to the whimsical, as children will do.

But then Ken, who is Japanese—and clearly the most privileged of the group—sees that Neeraj, from India, is relegated to late-night tuition in her village because there, girl children must labor daily from pre-dawn through the evening hours. The 9-year-old Ken has this video message for Neeraj, who is not certain of her exact age:

“Neeraj, when you are coming home from night school, please be careful.”

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On seeing how difficult it can be for children in other places to simply live, in safety and with dignity, your own kids might come to feel a kinship with the seven strivers featured in Back to School.

The lessons those seven have to teach us would be rather hard, to say the least, to squeeze into a textbook.

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