Here’s What I Didn’t Learn In The Classroom - From A Teen Girl Travelling The World - My Family Travels
Valerie, with Her Friend, Oma.

I could tell you all about the Pythagorean Theorem. I could go on and on about the difference between illusion and allusion in Shakespearean literature. I could sit and chat for hours about the Cold War, and if you ask me if a rock is igneous or sedimentary, I’ll let you know.


But if you asked me about global poverty and education, I probably couldn’t tell you. Sure, I’ve had my parents tell me about the starving kids in Africa when I didn’t want to finish my green beans, and occasionally I sit down with the homeless of my New York City streets and have a slice of pizza, but not once has global poverty made it to my high school curriculum.

So when I got on a plane this summer to Southeast Asia for three weeks, I didn’t know what to expect beyond the Google images of Buddhist temples and Vietnamese rice fields I’d saved on my phone. I had a mission – to share teenagers’ stories from around the world – but I didn’t know at all what those stories would be.

And then I got to the village of Ngwe Thaung. To get there, we took a bus down a dirt road, two boats across a murky river of Myanmar, and walked through dry farmland with rotten squash that never made it to a dinner table, until we finally heard the faded chanting of little kids in a building. I grinned. We were at the school.

We were each given some toys for the kids; I got balloons. Pretty soon, my face was as purple as my longyi I bought in Laos at the night market. I started playing with one girl, and then her friends joined, and soon I was organizing a balloon throwing event with fifteen giggling Burmese nine year olds. As time went on, the balloons popped and thirty eager eyes looked at me for another activity. I grabbed some paper and pens, sat them down, and drew a cat and wrote CAT at the top. They all stared intently at the drawing and copied, adding their own little flare. Then, they’d put their picture in front of my face and wait for my reaction.

“OOOH!” I’d smile and they’d giggle and keep drawing. Our language barrier was quickly forgotten, as well as my knowledge of where I was. I didn’t feel like I was teaching English at a rural school to Burmese girls a million miles away from my New York home. I felt like I was just playing with some kids.

And then, our leader told us it was time to go. The girls all ran and hugged me and gave me their pictures. As I was leaning down to tell them goodbye, their heads all turned and they sprinted to the front of the school, where the rest of the students were pushing and shoving to get something out of a garbage bag. Oma, a girl I had just been teaching, grabbed one and held it close to her, smiling from ear to ear. A boy pushed his friend to the ground and stole his. What was it? I walked closer and then, I saw. Toothbrushes. They were fighting over toothbrushes. And reality struck. I would most likely never see these girls again. After we leave, they would go eat lunch with their families in the huts that surrounded the school. Next year, they’d graduate fifth grade. Less than half of them would make it to sixth, because it takes miles on a wooden boat at six in the morning to make it to the classroom. About twenty percent would make it to high school, and only a handful would make it to graduation.

Ten years from now, if the village of Nwge Thaung continues its trend, Oma and the other kids I taught English to will be living in the village with only a primary education. When they turn eighteen, the presidential candidates – currently totalitarian military generals – will come and trick the villagers, promising a good life if they win, only to leave Nwge Thaung and hundreds of other villages in Myanmar the same that they have been for generations. Oma and the others will grow up, get married and have kids of their own, barely scraping by to make sure dinner gets on the table and still fighting over toothbrushes. If the majority of the village decides to use the budget to have electricity instead of education, Oma’s kids will have to travel miles to make it to school in the city starting at age five. Oma’s dream of being a teacher will probably remain just that; a dream. This cycle that the village knows all too well will continue as it has for the past hundred, and it will for the next hundred if we don’t do something.

“Do something.” That’s what people always say when they hear about a problem. But how am I, or any other American teenager, suppose to do something if the insidious cycle of Nwge Thaung and so many other villages never makes it to our classrooms?

I could tell you all about the Pythagorean Theorem. I could go on and on about the difference between illusion and allusion in Shakespearean literature. I could sit and chat for hours about the Cold War, and if you ask me if a rock is igneous or sedimentary, I’ll let you know.

And one day, when I ask my kids about global poverty and education, they will know. One day, they’ll walk into their classrooms and the story of Oma and Nwge Thaung will be in their lesson. But if I have anything to do with it, Oma’s kids will not be clutching toothbrushes.

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