In a small village in Nicaragua on the island of Ometepe, I did an overnight homestay with a Mayan family. The family had four generations staying together, with Pamela, the youngest in the family at eight years old, was my guide for the day. We talked, and I learnt that she had ambitions to be a teacher because she loved learning and wanted to help others learn. When she was not at school, she helped her family with different chores and the farm. On other days, she helped the wider community. She was a very responsible eight-year-old. Millions of children live a life similar to Pamela in almost every part of the world. The tragedy for many is that their options are quite limited. Many end up getting married at a young age and having families. Some leave school as a result of economic realities and become unskilled labourers. It was a fact that was not lost on me when Pamela, very enthusiastically, talked about her teacher dream.
In Caye Caulker, Belize, I visited Ocean Academy, a school for the island’s residents. Ocean Academy aims to provide quality education to the children on the island. Many of the children don’t complete their education beyond the early teens. The academy works to ensure that children complete their high school. I was also pleasantly surprised that students have subjects such as mindfulness and entrepreneurship in their curriculum. There I met a ten-year-old girl, Marvela, who was my bicycle guide for the island. I never had someone this young who was confident, forward-thinking and extremely articulate in her conversations. She was determined to be a surgeon stating that she wanted to study medicine as soon as possible. She wanted to complete her education in Mexico so that she could, one day, serve others.
Everywhere I have been, I have met children. All of them welcome you with a beautiful big smile and a warm embrace. Some take a lot more time to warm up than others.
In Hue, Vietnam, I stayed, for three days, at a hotel run by a single mother and her five-year-old son. Her six-year-old niece, Na, was also staying with her. Both of them did not speak English well, though the young boy was learning. I did not know any Vietnamese. However, I engaged the children with the mother’s help, combining sign language and pictures or videos on my mobile phone. It worked.
The young girl, Na, was timid and hesitant when we first met. She hardly communicated directly with me, preferring to talk to her aunt, who then would try to respond for me. After a day, Na opened up to me. She invited me to a (make-believe) tea party where she made me some tea, and she took me through the process of tea making and the etiquette of tea drinking. It was a lot of pointing and a lot of gestures, resulting in a fair bit of misunderstanding and miscommunication. It was a lot of effort for a made-up tea party, but I think it was her way to show that she liked me. It was important to her that I had tea with her. That moment of trust and togetherness was priceless.
I have met many children throughout my travels, some of whom I have interacted with while with others, it was more of a smile or a high five. All of them taught me something.
Pamela and Marveli taught me the values of self-belief, community and dreaming big. A child can only dream and embrace everything that comes along. An adult is the one who stops a child from doing so. The childlike curiosity, innocence and enthusiasm are qualities which we all can embrace.
Too many times, I have given up dreaming big, trying harder at the prospect of failure. Children don’t see it that way. Marveli might never become a doctor. She might go to medical school, but she might have to study in Belize. It didn’t matter to her. She wanted to be a doctor, and that is all that mattered. Getting there wasn’t the issue.
It is a lesson for the adults: Dream big now. Worry about the solutions later.
Na took her time to open up to me, but eventually, she did. She showed a level of open-mindedness, communication and enthusiasm that won my heart. We couldn’t communicate at first, and we didn’t have trust between us, so we had to work at it. It was a lot of effort, but the hard work paid off. I had the profound honour of being invited to a tea party.
Na, in her childish way, showed me the importance of being open-minded and patient. She taught me to take my time and accept something new. My time spent with Pamela, Marveli, Na has given me a lot to think. They have, without trying, taught me valuable lessons on principles of self-belief, determination and open-mindedness. These three young children have convinced me that children indeed are the world’s greatest teachers.