I like to think that I have a healthy skepticism when it comes to the intentions of teenagers, a skepticism born of the fact that I was once one. Sure, they have good hearts and one day they will turn into people I would like to hang out with, but if I remember correctly, teenage years are generally defined by an extreme narrowness of vision and a sense of a self-centric universe.
But the kids of our recently-concluded environmental course (that of leech infamy) repeatedly defied my expectations. Not only did they sign up, and show up, for forty hours voluntary education, but they did so religiously: two-thirds of our students boasted perfect attendance. They stayed late on Friday nights and often showed up early to our Saturday activities. The course was a five-week marathon: ten 3-hour sessions, a four day field trip, a research project, and a final, full-day commencement ceremony. I am still exhausted, but their primary complaint on that final day was that the course was ending (“what do you mean I have to take my certificate and go home?”). I will remind you: this was their summer vacation. These students are, in short, mafana fo mianatra: hot to learn.
Allow me to toss. My supposedly healthy skepticism. Out the window.
For students that have come up through an education system that works largely against them and suppresses creativity at every turn, they never fail to impress me with their insight and willingness to grasp new, often difficult concepts. The whole point of the course was to teach these kids in a way they have never been taught and show them things that they have never seen. Sometimes this meant starting at a very basic level: rivers run to oceans, the earth circles the sun (a student puts on a headlamp and serves as the sun as our blow-up globe spins around him, seasons a-changing). But you build and build, and by the end they are watching “An Inconvenient Truth” and understanding the seasonal oscillations of carbon in the atmosphere.
It is amazing to see the world through their eyes, to see things that are so familiar to me anew. It is a thousand little revelations: the incomprehensibility of the formation of the earth, the radical meaning of human evolution, the scientific mystique of Madagascar, the incredible diversity of life on earth and the pace of its destruction. We show them photos from space and watch as they wrap their minds around the scale; then photos of their own capital- where few from Maroantsetra have been- and they are shocked to see the pollution, smog, and overcrowding of extreme urban poverty. They see pictures of American farmland and simply cannot believe that it is tany olo araiky fo, the property of a single person.
It is amazing too, to watch them make connections, to watch them use their minds in pressing, unfamiliar ways. “How long until this plastic folder decomposes?” we ask. One month, one year, three years! are the shouted responses. Everyone looks at the three-yearer like he is insane, until we say: basically never. Then they are thinking, where does all that plastic go? Looking at a photo of the Great Pacific Trash Gyre they suddenly get it. We see them thinking through the math of exploding population growth, counting their five six seven siblings, and recognizing what that could mean for their country. The last day of class we draw a chart of the interconnections between all the environmental issues we discussed and the students researched, and as the lines squiggle back and forth the volume of their participation grows until finally one kid shouts victoriously: TSISY DISO! There is no wrong answer, and he is right, they are all interconnected.
These are teenagers though, not a Hallmark commercial set to “We are the World.” Sometimes, admittedly, discussion devolved into “who makes airplanes?” and “an important issue of globalization is that the electric lights are killing all the bugs…” Um. What. Let’s refocus. When trying to delve into species distinction, asking the question “what is the difference between a cat and a dog?” and receiving the oh-god-please be joking answer of “only one is good for eating!” And finally, watching Wall-E struggle to sort a spork, a student yells: ratsy sotronazy, his spoon sucks! A maybe that is another revelation: a spork is pretty sucky on a planet made unlivable by mankind.
What I want to express about these kids is that I have thrown my skepticism out the window for good reason: they are genuine, they are interested, they care. On the first day of the course, we tried to teach them an exercise known as Props, in which students stand up individually to commend each other, on anything really: a good question, a concept well-explained. We thought, at the conclusion of this class, that Props was an utter failure: received with blank looks and non-participation. But as the course went on, the students warmed to it, thanking a classmate for translating our questionable Gasy, for carrying their bag up a mountain, for a presentation, for bravely picking a leech off their foot. On the last day of class, one of the students rose and said something like this: “We would like to give props to our teachers first, for introducing us to these new ideas. But we would also like to give props to ourselves, all of us students here, because we understand now that we must use this knowledge, that the future iankinatsika, depends on us.”