Last night I watched a heartwarming documentary called, On the Way to School. A film by Pascal Plisson (2013, Netflix), it chronicled four sets of children and their long and arduous journeys – every day – to attain what most of us take for granted – an easy access to an education. Spanning three continents and showing glimpses of each family’s culture, the common denominator was the sheer determination to achieve an education and make a better life.
The story begins with Jackson (11) and his younger sister, Salome, who walk 9 miles early every morning through the arid bushlands of Kenya, afraid of the elephants and other dangers along the way. Then we meet Zahira (12), a girl who treks 4 hours every Monday morning through the rocky Atlas mountains of Morocco to reach a boarding school where she – and two other girls she meets along the way – can study during the week – and then make the long journey home every weekend. In the marketplace she barters for snacks with a chicken she has carried over the mountains. Next is Carlos (11), who takes his duty as a big brother seriously as he hoists his little sister on the back of their horse and trots through the windy Patagonia tundra of Argentina on an 11 mile journey every morning to their school. Finally, we find ourselves in India and meet Samuel (11), who has a bright mind but a physically disabled body. His two younger brothers gladly help push him to school in his rusty wheelchair every day. The wobbly wheelchair breaks but they persevere and find a shopkeeper, also handicapped, who is more than happy to help fix it.
Each of these brave children takes their journey in stride (literally!). At the end, Jackson smiles broadly and speaks of his desire to be a pilot and view – from above – the beautiful world that he traverses every day. Zahira tells of wanting to be a doctor so she can help the poor in her village and encourage families to send their daughters to school. Carlos wants to go away to boarding school to further his education and his sister wants to become a teacher. And Samuel strives to become a doctor to help others, like him, who cannot walk. The last scene is his family holding him as he gleefully puts his feet in the lapping waves of the ocean, giggling from the soft sand mingling with his toes, as he takes some steps. His brothers, who have shared the difficult journey every day on the way to school, clap their hands and shout with glee.
These children’s stick-to-itiveness (yes, the Merriam Webster dictionary has this word – “the quality that allows someone to continue trying to do something even though it is difficult or unpleasant”) and sheer determination are an inspiration. Education is not a given for everyone.
It made me reflect on my own journey and the struggles I overcame to achieve an education. Granted, I was privileged simply by the fact that I had access to an education – and for that I am forever grateful. My biggest obstacle was trying to figure out how to pay for my education – all three degrees on my own. I remember the pang of anxiety I felt as I walked into the Bursar’s Office at the start of the semester and dutifully handed over a check, wondering if I’d have enough in my bank account to eat and pay bills. Sometimes I didn’t. My office supplies were often paperclips and pens that I found discarded on the sidewalk. I saved one dollar each way on my journey into the city as I walked to the train station; then transferred to the subway; then skipped the trolley and instead walked 15 blocks to the university. While I didn’t have to journey over tundra, mountains, or desert, I still had to persevere because I knew that education is a gift. It is an honor. And I don’t take it for granted. In my own small way I guess that is why I pursue teaching intercultural competence in the hopes that we can live in a better world.
This film also touched me on an emotional level as I reflected on my parent’s pursuits to help achieve a fair education for my sister, Kathy, who has Downs Syndrome. For nearly five decades they have fought tirelessly for the rights of the disabled. In their retirement they created a grassroots organization to support families of the mentally challenged; started a theater group that performs on stage every year; and founded two daytime art programs. My father is no longer with us, but now at 84 and struggling with multiple health issues, my mother is starting yet another program for special needs adults with autism.
Hope, determination, and resolve in the pursuit of an education and a better life can be an inspiration to us all, regardless of our culture.
Photo: Atlas Mountains, Morocco 2013 (Tuleja)