Schools and Culture, Poverty and the Deep Blue Sea

The setting is emblematic of paradise and, yes, I am on vacation. Blue sea of multiple shades from deep blue to turquoise and back, ever changing with the drift of clouds. Palm trees lean from the steadily westerly wind. The light, bright sand the foreground, the barrier reef rippling with breakers in the distance. We watch families gather playfully, often mothers with a variety of children, but fathers, too. They cool in the water teasing one another, jumping from shoulders, or the kids in the shallow water concoct the usual play from nothing. A scene typical of family oriented resorts world wide, no doubt, but this one is different. The families are local, those of the employees of our hotel. I suppose even that would be unremarkable except that the quality of scene is repeated in different guises in the adjacent town.

Elsewhere along the beach well behaved children learn the family business while helping their parents hawk crafts (which turn out to be largely from a neighboring country). In town, we drink coffee and watch kids going about their way to and from school, conspiring with their mates in the way of the young, without obvious burden. In the coffee shop, the barista is attentive, while his wife serves other customers. While we order, a young man, both a father and a son, enters with the owners’ grandchild. I imagine the older lady in the quarters adjacent is the great grandmother, who cooks for the establishment. Families maintaining together. The broader town itself, though typically third world, seems to bustle with purpose, a significant amount of which is intent to serve and attract tourists.

I am reminded of impressions that have stuck with me from third world travels of mine some years ago. A toothless native highlander, Colombian, seemingly elderly but probably no more than 45, climbs on his rural bus with a chicken in one hand, but gleeful in the company he is keeping as his group is off to market to sell their produce. Life has clearly abused his body, but I am more struck by his excitement. If this is poverty, then apparently it is more complex than the statistics that detail the increased income gap both within our own country, and between the first world and those peoples who strive to emulate us. Context matters. An earthen floor in a rural town with adequate food (sometimes the rub!) when many neighbors live similarly may be less poor than a favela shack amid towers of luxury. More to the point, am I ultimately a better off person than those of the families I have observed, though I am rich by the standards in which they live? My own parents, children and young adults of the Depression era, certainly told stories of their fertile family relationships and of the positive lives they led though they not always knew how the next bread was to land on the table. As a foil, I remember a recent study, a headline, about the relative unhappiness of rich Americans.

Of course the answer is many books long, and is even then still inconclusive, and I certainly don’t mean to give the mean spirited in our political life ammunition to claim poverty ain’t so bad. I just am led to ponder what I understand only dimly and, as I try to help lift my own students from their origins via the education I try to give them, to be humbled by the subtlety and the complexity of the peoples with whom I work and the work I have chosen.

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