Monday, September 17, 2012

Lessons from the Squatty Potty

Up until my early twenties, I spent every other summer in Karachi, Pakistan. I've grown to love the city, but it wasn't always like that. I hated going there when I was younger, when my mom had to drag me there by force. Of course, as an unworldly seven-year old, I wanted to spend my summer vacation playing Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo. Don't get me wrong, I loved my extended family. I just didn't consider bonding with them in over 100 degree weather and rolling blackouts "fun." My mother often took my reluctance into consideration, but I knew she'd never let me win. She would buy our plane tickets anyway and tell me to shut the hell up because, "This is the only time I get to see my family. This is the only time I get to be away from your father. Cry all you want, we're going." Touché mom.

After what seemed like a week-long flight, we'd finally land in Karachi and make our way to the baggage claim. Since my dad never came with us, this meant I was doing the heavy lifting, which sucked because my mom abused the shit out of the baggage allowance policy. Between her and me, we had four very large, seventy-pound suitcases packed to the brim. Yes, in the 1990s the weight limit was seventy pounds, not sixty a.k.a. "the good old days." Only one of those suitcases actually carried our clothes, the rest were packed with gifts for family, friends, and random people who may need to be gifted later on in the journey. You never know I guess. Our carry-on bags were bursting at the seams. Even my Superman backpack, which was only supposed to be my stuff, was jammed with candies, perfumes, and jewelry. This is how we traveled.

After picking up our bags and funneling through immigration, we'd make our way towards the terminal exit: a giant glass wall with a sea of people pressed up against it from the outside. From afar, it looked like hundreds and hundreds of people were waiting for their families and friends to arrive. This was not anything like what an arrivals section of a U.S. airport would look like. Somewhere between the glass doors and immigration booths, the crisp, air-conditioned environment abruptly ends and Karachi's intolerable humidity bitch slaps me across the face. I'm sweating like I'm a grown man, but I'm not. Welcome to the real world, you spoiled American bastard. Now here's some diarrhea, enjoy.

I really could've done without diarrhea. As a kid, I could take the humidity and the heat if they were the only variables I had to manage. I'd eventually get over the constant need to shower, but diarrhea significantly limited my traveling radius. This meant I was usually grounded at an uncle or aunt's house for the majority of my stay. What made matters worse was that as a spoiled Westerner, I couldn't deal with the squat toilets some of my aunts and uncles had. Squat toilets were generally associated with a lesser wealth level and since my extended family's wealth levels were all over the place, I wasn't always safe. Whenever we'd visit Karachi, my mom would try to stay with at least everyone once. Obviously when I had the runs, I was very excited to stay with certain aunts and uncles more so than others. Sorry aunty, I have to be honest: it wasn't always your company I enjoyed, it was your coveted Western-style toilet.

Recent evidence suggests squat toilets are better for you, apparently because the position you assume while using it has many health benefits. Great, but I just can't see myself caring about this as a child. The way I saw it, if I'm going to be spending a lot of time in the bathroom, might as well be sitting down. Even that I couldn't have for the most part. By the end of our trips though, my weak American stomach ensured the squat toilet and I spent a great deal of time together. We came to be close friends, squatty and me. Perhaps it was all for the best, as these experiences provided me with prospective. I certainly wasn't rich back in Chicago, but simply living in America meant I led a somewhat relatively cushy life with regards to accommodations. A valuable lesson for any child to learn but, as Beavis and Butthead would say, "That lesson sucked."

Once I got over my own bowel movements, it was nice to experience life as a local. My mom always booked our Pakistan trips from early June through the end of August, which meant I spent a solid [insert diarrhea remark here] three months absorbing Karachi life, culture, and food. Schools in Karachi started August 1st, so I was able to enjoy two months of free time with my cousins before they were back to school. In fact, one of the best things my cousins ever did for me was to take me to school with them from time to time.

At my cousin's government elementary school, many students spent a great deal of time regurgitating textbooks. Classes were direct lecture or simply a teacher asking various students to read from a textbook aloud. Everyone took copious notes. After school, my cousins visited private tutors to understand the material better in groups. After these sessions, my cousins would recopy entire portions of textbooks into their notebooks, and then they would begin memorizing. They memorized word-for-word. The textbook was usually borrowed, which explained the copying.

I remember first learning about the earth's crust, mantle, and core from my cousin's notebook. She was three years older than me, which probably put her in the 5th or 6th grade at the time. She asked me to listen to her repeat from memory what she had written from in notebook. I was supposed to tell her if she missed anything. In her first try, her recitation was near perfect and I remember being completely impressed with her. These kids had memorized complete chapters, I wonder how many honor roll students these schools produce, I thought. Maybe we could all have jobs in America and I wouldn't have to visit these guys here so often. Clearly, I was an idiot and more importantly, I was wrong. It takes a lot more than knowledge, skills, and talent to get into a college or university if you're non-elite in Pakistan. It really just takes a shit ton of money and well-connected people, or maybe a family legacy. We talk about education inequity in America, but it's a different ball game abroad and sometimes it's really hard for me to work where I do, knowing what I know.

The memory of my cousin reciting her notes aloud depresses me now. If these kids have that kind of motivation and determination, what would be possible if Pakistan had a properly funded national education system? Sometimes I think about this memory and I wonder what I'm doing with myself in New York City. I spend a great deal of my work time in "planning" mode, carefully thinking about how to relate what I'm teaching to what's out there in the real world. I'm anticipating, "Yo Mista, what does this have to do with my life?" A simple, "Bro, it's on the Regents exam," isn't a good enough response, but it definitely would be abroad. Don't get me wrong, I'm very excited to help students connect math outside of the classroom, but from a cultural perspective, it seems I would lose them if I didn't make the content extremely interesting everyday. On the flip side, there are children on the other side of the world memorizing textbooks. Somehow, it's been drilled into their minds that education is their only way out.

I need to stop, my legs are sore from typing this on the pot.


NYCDOEnuts said...

All things considered, I think I'd rather teach my spoiled western kids. The worst thing I can imagine is having to stand by and powerlessly watch as a smart, talented kid suffered from NOT having a good college opportunity.

But holy crap, what a good piece!

Yo Mista said...

Thanks man!

You may be right, but I don't think going to college is everything - especially in a developing nation. I think I would be just fine knowing that I have taught this "smart, talented kid" everything he should know. After all, I provided the tools and the kid was hungry enough to learn everything from me. Who knows how it may help him/her later? Even if the kid owns his/her own laundromat someday, s/he will have at least appreciated the education.

If effort and motivation aren't reciprocal, the battle for us teachers will always be uphill. And you know there will always be plenty of people willing to throw teachers under the bus, blaming us for students' bad performance, drop-out rate, etc.

Plus, at least the kid is high school educated - isn't that a key factor in reducing poverty rates?

Anonymous said...

excellent post. i especially agree with your frustrations in terms of motivating students to learn.

however i do think you are conflating a little too much to make your points and connections. there are major socio-economic differences which cannot be downplayed when making these connections. while a high school education may signify an opportunity to get out of poverty in America, it doesn't necessarily provide the same opportunity in places like Pakistan. Also, education here is free and open to all (the quality across the board, and the desire to make the most of that, are both besides the point) whereas the kind of public schooling that might provide the tools you need to maybe potentially break the cycle of poverty just doesnt exit the same way in the developing world. it's already divided along the haves and havenots, before you get into anything more complex like motivations etc.

as for the squatter - did you ever worry about falling in?? absolutely terrifying! many of my (fairly wealthy) relatives did have squatters for two reasons: health and religion (i cant explain either, but thats what they said) and i would plan my entire visit trying to get away with not using their bathrooms. i was convinced i would fall in!

NYCDOEnuts said...

The highlight of my night is going to be watching how the folks over at Gotham Schools describes this piece!!

I grew up relatively poor (for here anyway) and as I worked through those college years, I have to say, just being educated would have been enough.

But when I decided to not try for law school and to teach instead, I was all about the results I could help my students reach. 12 years on, I'm not so sure if that means college. But I am sure that anything less than some socioeconomic results would just lead to a cranky, retired teacher with suvivor's guilt.

...which would just depress the sh@# out of me!!!

Anyway, awesome piece!

Yo Mista said...

Haha, I don't think GS operates on DOE holidays... plus, this is such a random post; you're right - not sure what this would be filed under!

Thanks again dude! Hope this school year has been off to a great start.