I was talking the other day about the motivations of my students. In fact my pupils come in various kinds. I was referring there to the students of the Academy I run in the evenings. For several years I have also taught in a high school which is ‘concertado’, that is, privately run but largely publicly funded.
The pupils at the Academy, nearly all school age, between 5 and 18 years old, usually know why they are there and, and the older they are the more likely they are to know it. The younger ones are sent by their parents, and their motivation is more the atmosphere we create for them than any sense of the importance of what they’re learning, but older children know perfectly well what they are doing, even if they don’t always feel like coming to class. But this group is naturally self-selecting, as the less motivated drop out and parents with less appreciation of its importance don’t send their offspring in the first place.
The school is a different matter. I was a high school teacher for some years, but in private schools. These last three years in what is effectively a state school, for my purposes here, have not exactly been a revelation, but they have been instructive in many ways.
A lot of teenage children simply don’t realize that they could aspire to a life economically better than that of their parents, and that school is part of the route to that life. They expect to be what they see their parents to be. I am aware that we, at the school, also do a poor job of transmitting the possibilities, but it is a difficult task. By the teenage years the idea of what they are, of where they have come from and what they might become, is set in stone, and if they sometimes go beyond those limits in their imagination, they don’t see those dreams as a possible reality.
The school overlooks the main square of this little city of mine, a place where retired men congregate on warmer days, to put the world to rights and remember other times (we call that section the Moncloa), people like me congregate some evenings to drink beer and also put the world to rights. Children gather at weekends to just sort of be, recently there is a group of young lads has taken to practising break dancing in the evenings, to the delight of the younger children. Bats and birds flit throw the branches of the trees, faceless barmen come and go keeping things moving, and all of this fuses together into a fluid whole which is how we interpret life here. But I digress, I’m a polemicist here, not a narrator.
There have always been the gypsies, drunks, junkies and mentally incapable, begging or just hanging around. It’s one of the best places because it’s where the people are. But in recent years there has been a large increase in ‘normal’ beggars, people who are on the streets through no fault of their own, except that they placed too much faith in their ability to do one thing and one thing only. They are mostly tradesmen or workmen who found that what they had been doing for years, the means they had always used to keep their families and pay their bills, and to allow themselves to live, was no longer required. And they have nothing else to offer the world.
I sometimes ask a class to think about what they have seen in the square on the way to school, and to wonder about the people who beg in the square, whether they could ever be like them. They assume they will never be hopeless drunks or drug addicts or mentally ill, and they assume that they will have some kind of trade or skill. It is hard to make them see that many of those who are on the street through no fault of their own thought the same thing. They are not doctors and engineers and trilingual secretaries, these beggars, they only had one thing to offer and suddenly it is no longer needed. The mistake they made, they made at the age of the pupils I’m dealing with. It was not to take advantage of their chance to get a better education while they could. It doesn’t get through to the ones who most need to understand it, because their background does not allow them to see themselves as more than they are now.
Most of them will muddle through, and get along in life ok, with hard work and a few setbacks, but some will not, and the reasons will be the decisions they take now, decisions they were not aware of making, because they didn’t know they had a choice.