Of course I did not know it at the time, but when I was born, the youngest of eight children, to a farming family in Meath, I hit the jackpot in a birth lottery taking place each and every day in an increasingly unequal world. So privileged was I, that I regularly experienced the state only the under-worked and over-privileged feel – boredom. From my earliest memories, long before my pathological obsession with tea drew equal with it, I have loved the power of the printed word. I am a self-confessed word junkie – I’m Belle from Beauty and the Beast, Aunt Josephine from Lemony Snickett’s Series of Unfortunate Events, Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Name your cliché of a character who is so engrossed in the universes spun by words, and I am it. Books are not only a portal to knowledge, but a chance to go places in your head – anywhere you want to be, and a good book can take you there. For most of my life I never even questioned that literacy was something special that my circumstances of birth could have denied me. Once I finished my M.A. I realised that, to paraphrase Jane Austen, it is a fact universally acknowledged that a single girl in possession of an arts degree must be in want of a life. Since it has been said that “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page” rather than going someplace in my head I went to China instead.
Working from official statistics, the People’s Republic of China had a literacy rate of 90.8% in the year 2002, with primary school education provided for six years in the state-run public education system. Official statistics often do not show the full reality of a situation however, and the current completion rate of primary education is a little over 78%. Almost 5million students a year fail to complete compulsory education on time. About 1 million children drop out of school each year because of poverty, particularly ethnic minorities and girls – and those girls who remain in education are often the victims of systemic gender discrimination, particularly in rural areas. The poverty of an area as well as the poverty of individual families is an obstacle, with many schools in China lacking the resources to provide more than two to three years of schooling. They are poorly equipped, often providing little more than desks and chairs, and their curricula are severely limited. Notebooks and writing materials, not to mention quality stimulating textbooks, are often prized possessions for the lucky few with access to them.
My friends and I were teachers in XingMeng School, a combined primary, middle and senior school with over 4,000 students. Our job was to teach English as a foreign language, with special attention being paid to improving the oral and
aural capabilities of our students – ranging from teaching 5 year olds to say “book” and “name” instead of the dreaded “bookah” and “nameoh” they were so fond of reverting to, to the almost fluent conversations about anything and everything with some of the senior students. The students were all very dedicated to their education, raising at 6am for morning exercises before breakfast and class beginning, with supervised study after the days schooling only ending at 9pm. It was apparent in every one of my students that they prized their education, and considered themselves lucky to be getting it.
The rote-learning favoured by the Chinese education system does not encourage creative expression or individual thought – our classes were the polar opposite, and the effect that our Western teaching methods had on students was astonishing. Glancing through classroom windows I would often see a class of students sitting with their arms neatly folded on the desk, staring directly ahead at their teacher. Used to seeing these same students practicing their new vocabulary with me through the most frenzied games of hangman the world has ever seen – the contrast between the teaching methods couldn’t be clearer. I was constantly interrogated on all manner of topics from locations to food to ways of living, and indeed taboo topics, that the students had discovered for themselves in books. Unable to go places in reality, they went their in their heads. Bringing ‘fun’ into the classroom made us popular with the students, but it was remarkable how it never made education frivolous for them. It was too important to ever be that.
All over the world, every day, people experience loss. They lose their jobs, their homes, their partners, their minds – no one can ever lose an education. Chose to waste, yes, but never lose. I believe every child on earth, no matter what their nationality or economic status, should have primary education as a building block they will never lose – not least for the ability to go places in their heads.
Published in the book “The Optimism of Youth” based on Millennium Development Goal No 2 – Universal Primary Education by 2015, an advocacy project by St. Wolstan’s Community School, Celbridge, Co. Kildare. St. Wolstan’s were supported in this project by Self Help Africa