musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Keeping the Kids in School

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Amidst the recent exchange of New Year’s greetings, I got a note from my friend Kazuko in Japan. She is a frequent visitor to Tat Ein village in Shan State, the same village where I sometimes teach English language classes and take the students and novice monks on field trips. Kazuko visits even more often than I do and she has been a very generous donor to various projects in the village and at the primary school over the years.

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In a post last month I wrote about Maung Thwe, one of the boys in the village who had been a novice monk at the local monastery for several years. Kazuko knows his family well and has tried to encourage the children (the family has 8 kids!) to stay in school and study foreign languages. I had asked her, now that Maung Thwe was finished at the monastery and back at home, why he wasn’t attending classes. I’ve never asked how old he was, but he can’t be much older than thirteen or so. Not exactly a good age to drop out and start working, and yet that appears to be what’s happened. Kazuko said that she wasn’t sure the reason either. Money is not so much a factor as much as the father wanting his son to work. The father, she added, can’t read or write, so maybe he thinks that attending school is a waste of Maung Thwe’s time.

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Whatever the case, children dropping out after only a few years of school is a common problem in Myanmar and other Southeast Asian countries. Despite the persistent efforts of Western governments and NGOs to eliminate child labor, the reality is that many children are working to help their families. For many poor families the children are considered valuable bread-winners and any income they earn helps to supplement the parents’ often meager earnings. In Myanmar it’s fairly common to see boys in their early teens, or younger, working in teashops and restaurants. And those are the good jobs. Less fortunate children can be found working long hours in workshops and factories. And those less fortunate than that are either homeless or walking the streets and collecting bottles, cans, and other recyclable items that they can sell.

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A friend of mine in the US sent me a book a few months ago called Teacher Absent Often: Building Sustainable Schools from the Inside Out by Kari Grady Grossman. This book is the “youth edition”, a condensed version that was adapted from the original memoir that Grossman wrote, Bones That Float: A Story of Adopting Cambodia. It’s the story of how in 2001 Grossman and her husband adopted a Cambodian boy, and in turn ending up “adopting” a village in Cambodia. Like many Westerners who visit countries such as Cambodia and Myanmar, Grossman found herself entranced and moved by the kind people she met, but saddened by the lack of educational opportunities that they had in poor communities. She decided to try and open schools in rural Cambodia that didn’t have them. I won’t rehash the whole story, but Grossman experienced a discouraging number of problems, disappointments, and obstacles. But this tenacious woman never quit and her determination finally won over the students, teachers, parents, and administrators. It’s a pretty incredible tale.

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Even in “modern” Thailand where I’m living, many kids never finish high school. Most of the motorcycle taxi drivers that I know, for example, are ninth grade dropouts. Back in Mandalay, some of the kids in my 90th Street neighborhood never made it past fifth grade. Sometimes money is a factor, such as the instances when the teachers don’t show up to teach because they have to work another job that pays better, or the students can’t afford to pay the extra money that the teacher needs to supplement their paltry salary. And there are the cases when the children are either asked to work to help earn money for their family, or they decide that making a bit of money is better than sitting through some boring, pointless lesson in an overcrowded classroom. Clearly, the system is broken.

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Kazuko is also frustrated by seeing kids in “our village” drop out and she has asked me to help her brainstorm and think of ways that we can encourage the local families to keep their kids in school. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I think I will send her a copy of the Grossman book, hoping that might be a source of inspiration and ideas.

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