By Liz Perelstein, president of School Choice International
“I was delighted to see caring teachers,
motivated and happy students.”
In early January I had the extraordinary opportunity to take a cycling trip in Northern Thailand and Laos. Although I travel whenever I can, this experience was unforgettable for me. We rode alongside people working in rice paddies, tackled dirt roads (with only one set of broken ribs) that lead to remote villages consisting of a handful of shacks, and stopped our bikes at factories where manufacturing took place laboriously, by hand.
The poverty we encountered among hill tribes in both Thailand and Laos was eye opening. We observed people who still live without electricity, cook over an open fire and brush their teeth and wash their hair in the Mekong River. Children as young as three years old knew enough English to beg for money, reminiscent of Fagin’s gang in Oliver.
Girls dancing at a local school
For those of you who read Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, we visited Hmong villages and found the Hmong tribe to be extremely entrepreneurial and pragmatic. The women, who customarily marry around age 14 and have as many children, are responsible for making and selling their exquisite handicrafts. Sadly, too often men spend the days in their huts without windows, smoking Opium while young children parent those even younger than themselves.
“Of greatest concern was the absence of
uniform guidelines for safety or sanitation.”
I visited many local schools and found them surprisingly similar to local Western schools in certain respects, although they were as different as can be imagined in others. Of greatest concern was the absence of uniform guidelines for safety or sanitation. But I observed many lovely practices such as children growing their own vegetables and taking them to market. We had the good fortune to come upon children preparing for a dance contest between schools and were treated to a demonstration of local dances and tribal costumes. I was delighted to see caring teachers, motivated and happy students, and classrooms equipped with desks, books, musical instruments, and at times a computer, revealing that education is valued even in relatively poor communities.