At the age of seventeen I went to Mexico on a student exchange. When I arrived I spoke no Spanish. My introduction to the language began at breakfast the morning after my arrival. My host held up a fork. “Tenedor,” he said.
It’s fitting that my first Spanish word was tenedor, or fork, because I reached a fork in the road at that point. Time spent in a foreign culture doesn’t allow a return to “normal” when it’s over—especially when that culture involves poverty and disparity.
A different kind of education
When I started to school there, my education continued, and that meant homework. The first night, I set myself up at the kitchen table. The family maid came and sat across from me. She took out a notebook and a thick pencil like they have in kindergarten classes. She began to write in a notebook, slowly, painstakingly. Aa Bb Cc . . .
I was shocked. She was in her 20s and had never been to school because her family could not afford it.
At the time I probably did know that school is not available to everyone around the world, but I knew it only in the remote, not-truly-aware-of-it way that we know about the misfortune of others far away. But, there I was face to face with it, across the table from it. I could touch it.
It was real.
All of her life she had desperately wanted, but couldn’t have, school. She had started working young and had been moving her way up to better and better paying jobs. By the time I arrived, she was living with my host family. She had a roof over her head, food every day and, finally, enough savings that she could pay for lessons. She thought she was the luckiest woman on earth.
Suddenly, something that I had taken for granted my whole life, even resented sometimes, seemed like the most precious gift.
Studying together, we balanced each other. She had the advantage of oral fluency in the language and a lifetime of rolling the rr effortless. I had the advantage of knowing the alphabet and having hands with built-in muscle memory for writing.
She spoke quickly and beautifully. I spoke slowly and with concentrated effort. I wrote quickly and beautifully. She wrote slowly and with the awkward intensity of a kindergarten child.
Seeing school with new eyes
I returned to Canada and to my final year of high school infused with motivation and enthusiasm I’d never known before. I looked around at my fellow students, skipping school and grumbling about assignments, and I thought, “They just don’t know how lucky they are.”
The transformative experience of teaching a Mexican maid how to read and write in her own language sparked in me an appreciation for education and a love for learning.
Making education possible
Then, a few years ago I read a newspaper article about Tom Affleck. On a trip to Nicaragua, Tom met a young girl and her father. Without giving it too much thought, he did what he thought was a small thing: he gave the girl a notebook and pencil. When her father saw this, he smiled and said, “Now that you have a notebook and a pencil you can go to school this year.”
From that transformative moment came SchoolBOX, a foundation that works to bring education to underprivileged children in Central America.
On Friday, I will write more about Tom and his work.