I write this from China. From one of the many elite private schools that offer the “best of east and west” in education. The school has a clear mission: to get Chinese nationals into top universities abroad.
It takes nearly all the hours of a Chinese student’s life to achieve this goal. Their parents place them on the rails of this dream from birth and by the time they get into a private high school their rhythm is something like this: wake up before 6:00 am, classes all day, reading, memorizing, planning, researching, producing, uploading. When classes end, it’s highly structured extracurriculars to diversify their personalities, then supervised study until 9pm. During school sanctioned holidays they don’t rest much; they go to SAT prep school; prestigious summer programs at places like Yale and Emerson, where they hope to gain an edge in their university applications. They do hours and hours of homework set by their teachers, and the teachers who have not set hours of homework are considered “shuǐ,” like water: weak.
In the yoga class I teach after school, I see their bodies are soft from underuse. They can’t touch their toes; their spines are permanently bent towards a device that’s not there. Most have been wearing glasses for years, eyesight weakened at a young age by LED screens. They bear the bodies of their nation’s rapid progress. No moment undesignated. Study is All.
So when the list of acceptances and scholarships arrive in our inboxes and the students’ eyes glaze with joy, relief, and exhaustion, we know we have succeeded as a school. After years of monastic discipline and sacrifice, they have a bright future.
In the news, headlines about climate change become looming deadlines for climate catastrophe. We have 12 years to drastically alter our relationship to the earth before we are warring over water and food. Before millions will experience poverty, drought, famine, natural disasters. Is it true?
And if it’s true, what do I possibly teach that will matter?
At this level, a Chinese student’s life purpose is to get into university abroad. That the planet is dying is not relevant to this goal. Climate catastrophe, like the outdoors in general, is a vague blur on the periphery of their computer screens.
As a teacher, I feel I am failing them. At what point in their jam-packed day, in classes where we are forensically examining rubric criteria, when they are inundated with tasks, deadlines, assessments, do I find a moment to tell them that I’m worried for their future? Not only because of the uncertainties of climate change, but because there is no space to plant the seeds of activism in their young bodies. How will they fight for a planet that they have not yet learned to love?
I think about my own childhood in comparison. I was a latch-key kid, nannied by the local parks and ravines. My earliest education was from nature. By brother and I spent hours away from home getting dirty, testing the limits of our bodies. I remember climbing trees that were too high for me and figuring out how to get down, alone. I remember covering my body with clay from the river and then finding leeches on my skin. And then learning what leeches do, just as I learned the power of a bee sting from getting too close to a nest. And many, many times, I underestimated the sun and came home red and blistered and defeated by nature.
And of course, I learned that nature is beautiful; that grass will stain your skin green and dandelions, yellow; that water feels like velvet if I walk up the river and drag my fingers behind me; that the sun sets in the big blue unpolluted sky, and the stars come out in shapes that I can trace with my finger, and that it happens every day and yet each time it’s magic.
I realize now what this education has meant for me. I was chosen by nature—stained, scraped, scarred–initiated into the environment as a child: tribal marked. So the violence we are perpetrating on the planet, and all the impending catastrophe, feels personal. As it should.
But I have not passed this on. I was recruited to China to share my western expertise, and I have failed. Because I didn’t find the way to share the best aspect of my educational experience, this truth I have taken for granted: we belong to the earth and the earth to us, and we have a duty to protect it as we would our family and our nation. With the same fire with which we pursue getting into top universities. I didn’t find the way to teach my students what I learned from the natural world, so that they might feel curious to seek their own experiences with the planet.
And now I wonder how to begin.