Day 4 of our CoEd Tour was a different sort of tour day, so this is a different sort of post.
I was three years old, on the cusp of another birthday, the summer that my parents realized just how desperate I was to attend school. My four older siblings left home each day to experience this thing that was only a wonderful mystery to me, but our local Christian school offered no junior kindergarten option. So, after much discussion, my parents enrolled me in junior kindergarten on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the local public school. I had never been as excited for anything in my life as I was to attend JK. Each weekday I would wake up, see my siblings preparing for school, and get ready for school myself. And every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, my mom would have to convince me to stay home. I was insistent that I should go to school every day, just like my older siblings. My mom would reason with me, reiterating that my class was not meeting, my friends would not be in attendance, my teacher would not be waiting at the door for me. And I would reluctantly agree to stay home with my boring younger sister for another day.
My love of school and learning continued throughout my life, and I never doubted my ability to accomplish my educational goals. I attended grade school and high school and began applying for universities, certain that I would be accepted into any universities I applied to. Once I was in university, I took advantage of additional study options, like a month long language program in Quebec, a semester abroad in France, and auditing classes like choir in order to squeeze in more courses. In my third year of university, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to finish all of the courses necessary for my teaching certification, French major, and music minor in just four years, so I decided I would stay in university a fifth year. This decision also allowed me to take some English classes strictly for fun, classes that were not required by my education program, major, or minor.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression. University classes weren’t easy, and tuition wasn’t cheap. I worked hard to pay for my classes, getting help from my parents, the Ontario government, grants, scholarships, and student loans. I studied hard, often holing myself up in the library during breaks in between classes to fit in extra review time or work on papers.
Most importantly, though, during the 19 years of my education, from junior kindergarten through university graduation, I never doubted that I would achieve my goals. I never worried that I wouldn’t be able to complete my schooling for academic reasons. I never worried that I wouldn’t be able to complete my schooling for financial reasons.
And I kind of forgot that that’s not the story for many people around the world.
On Saturday, our final day of the CoEd tour, we got to meet scholarship students. CoEd’s scholarships are awarded to students who show academic promise and who want to go to school, but would not be able to without the scholarship’s financial help. This might be because families can’t afford school fees, or because keeping kids home to work provides another source of income that the family just can’t do without.
A group of (totally guessing here!) 40 or so scholarship students took buses into Antigua from their homes to come and meet with us for the morning. We had a chance to introduce ourselves and talk, some icebreaker game time, and some marimba music of course, and then we broke into small groups in order to have more in-depth conversations.
My small group was made up of 5 scholarship students, 7 tour members, and 3 CoEd staffers (1 American staff member who translated for us, and 2 Guatemalan staffers who work in the scholarship program, meeting and assessing possible scholarship students). Our conversation began with each of us introducing ourselves and telling a little about ourselves. We told about the work or schoolwork that we did, our families, a typical day. Then we began asking questions that would be answered by different categories of people in our group. For example, students asked the tour members, “Why did you come here?” We asked the Guatemalans, “What’s your hope for the future of Guatemala?”
One of the questions we asked was, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The girls in our group answered first. They had concrete, specific answers, like architect or English teacher. Then one of the boys, Juan Manuel, gave his answer. “I just want to be able to stay in school,” he said.
This was a shocking statement to me. First, I knew after three days on tour with CoEd that there were lots of kids who wanted to stay in school but had to drop out. But to meet one was heart wrenching. Second, Juan Manuel was in the scholarship program. Why was he worried about dropping out? Third, the girls were also scholarship students, but they had dreams they could hold on to, ideas of what their futures could be with the help of CoEd. Why not Juan Manuel?
After our small group session, I walked back to our group meeting room with Leslie. I mentioned how surprised I was by Juan Manuel’s comment, and Leslie explained more about Juan Manuel’s situation. His father has died, leaving his mother as the only income earner for the family. His two older brothers have already had to leave school. Juan Manuel knows well that this may be his future, too. As for the scholarship, Juan Manuel didn’t have an actual sponsor yet. He had been identified by the CoEd scholarship coordinators, and he had been invited to our scholarship day, but he knew that his programming for this school year was being paid for by CoEd general funds. If he did not get a scholarship sponsor this year, then he would not be able to continue school next year.
So of course, after that conversation with Leslie, I went next door to the bathroom and just cried. I could not imagine being 16 years old and hoping desperately that I would be able to stay in school while being unsure of whether that would be my reality or not.
My heart breaks for every child and teenager whose story is so different from my own – every kid who desperately wants to attend school but can’t. Every kid who is kept home from school to work. Every kid whose only dream for the future is to be able to stay in school while living with the uncertainty of whether or not that will be possible.
The stories, experiences, and realities of so many kids, both in Guatemala and around the world, who need help can be overwhelming. I wish regularly that I were capable of ensuring the continuing education of each child in Guatemala and around the world, but I can’t. But instead of despairing, over the last few days I’ve reminded myself of this quote from the Jewish text Ethics of the Fathers 2:16 – “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” It’s not my responsibility to fix all of the world’s problems. But knowing what I know, having experienced what I’ve experienced, meeting students like Juan Manuel who don’t know what lies in their future – I’m not free to desist from helping.
Would you like to help? Would you like to make a difference in the life of a Guatemalan student? You can’t finish the work of perfecting the world, but you can help in this small way.
Canadian friends, you can donate here. You can set up a scholarship donation, or you can make a one-time donation to teacher training.
American friends, you can donate here. You’ve got a lot more options that Canadians, so explore the website to find out what your options are!
If you’re curious about the scholarship program, there’s a lot more information on the CoEd website about their program. I opted not to include that information here since CoEd described the program so well on their own website!