It had been around five years since I left Luang Prabang, so upon coming back, I was moved by the kind hearts of so many young people who remembered me. In restaurants, guesthouses and tourist offices, people greet me by name and remind me that I once taught them. I don’t remember everyone’s names, but some graciously tell me, “I know teachers can’t remember every student they’ve taught, but I remember you.” What makes my day is to hear them speak in rather fluent English and I feel assured that efforts do bear fruit.
I ask where I taught them since there were so many places. Next, I ask if I yelled at them. I remember those moments of exasperation when I would implore that they try to understand the difference between learning, and just sitting at their heavy desks waiting for a certificate. Some students would listen carefully, not because I was getting red in the face, but because they understood. “Do this for your future,” I’d say. “Look down the road, not just down at your feet. It’s worth the effort.” I remember one young woman who would sit straight in her seat and listen intently. It was as if nobody had ever told her these things before.
I ran into her years later in the airport. She greeted me gracefully with a Lao greeting and told me she was now a flight attendant. I’m sure it was a personal triumph for her and I couldn’t have been more pleased.
So much is at stake for these young people. For many, it’s not just about their future, but about their entire family’s future. I’m impressed with the generosity they express to their extended families. Many are the primary breadwinners and are sending much of their paychecks back home. I know of someone who skips lunch so that the money saved can feed his family. Another is drawing his own blood for transfusions for his sick mother. There are devotional efforts that would put many developed country children to shame. The stakes are high.
And for those very reasons, I still fret at the lack of educational opportunities for these young people. In my absence, schools have risen and fallen and some have folded. They still follow the old formula of using the same books and the same techniques. People stick to the cautious recipe they know best and don’t dare to add bananas to the pancake no matter how plain they may be. Consumers don’t complain because they’ve never tasted anything better.
It’s really a small town and a small world when people are content with what they’ve got simply because they’ve never ventured beyond the nearest hill. Actually, many have literally crossed enormous mountains to seek out an education in Luang Prabang, but that journey pretty much ends at what becomes the center of their universe. Build another guesthouse, buy a van, and deposit suitcases of cash in the bank. Life is good.
What kind of education will it take to prepare young people for the future? Not just the future of bigger hotels and more tourists but a future in which globalization is sniffing and scratching at the door. What kind of education can help young people see what’s around the corner rather than what’s at or under their feet? What kind of education can help us all?