News about major changes that Finland will be introducing into their education system, in order to evolve to a much more interrelated learning system than the one they have today – and theirs is considered to be one of the best education systems in the world – has led me to some reflexion about this.
I’m certain many of you who are, like me, raising teenagers, have felt at a certain point that they are not motivated to study at all, that they have no interest in what they are studying – in fact they find school incredibly boring (I mean classes, of course, not the social part of it!). And even if my position has never been one to make things easy for my boys in that aspect, urging them to study and work hard, I cannot fail to think that teaching methods have changed little in the forty years since I was in school – and how the world has changed! Young people learn in so many different ways – and school should be more adapted to this new reality and the new ways of learning. But it hasn’t really adapted, and more and more young people are drifting further away from school.
Still, when I read about children who desperately want to study, out of curiosity or simply to improve their chances for a better life, I have to concede that our children are really very privileged to be able to go to school until they are 18 – and this is not something they are entitled to, but an obligation society has created – a 12 year mandatory school for our young.
All over the world many children are denied education because of poverty or sex (in many countries it is believed girls do not need an education). Many have to work from a very early age and many are sold into slavery by their own parents . But some of these children manage to survive these terrible conditions and access education, thus ensuring a brighter future.
In Portugal in the last decades many children and young people gained access to education, but back in the thirties this was a very different country, where life was harsh and access to education was not for everyone. But, precisely in those days, a boy was born whose story I find one of the most inspiring I have ever heard. It’s a story of overcoming difficulties, of hard work, of great sacrifice, focus and ambition, and, ultimately, a story of great success.
This boy was the eldest of six brothers and sisters. He lived with his family in a remote village in the Portuguese countryside. His parents lived off the land and they also had some sheep, and all the children helped with whatever was necessary.
Even so, the parents felt their children should learn to read and write and this boy attended primary school. It was far from their house, and he walked for several miles there and back every day, under rain or sun, freezing winds or stifling heat. He never failed one single day because he was anxious to learn. When he got home he still worked hard to help his parents. After that, he would study and read – he had very good marks and he was an avid reader of the books he managed to borrow from the itinerant library that sometimes came to the village.
When he was finishing primary school he became very sad, as he knew it would be impossible for him to continue studying. There was no high school in his village nor anywhere near – only in a large city more than fifty kilometres away from his village. He knew it was utterly impossible, but still he dreamt of a day when it would be possible to continue to learn and prepare for a future that would include more than farming land and tending sheep.
But miracles happen and dreams do come true: one day his teacher came to see his parents. He told them their son had a brilliant mind and that it would be a huge sin not to let him continue with his studies, however difficult this might prove. He told them that, as a teacher, he had never seen such an intelligent, hardworking boy – if he had the chance to study he would certainly have a bright future and what parents would not wish this for their son? At first, his parents were very doubtful, they said the city was too far, where would he live, how would they pay for his bed and board (even if public school was free). But then the mother thought of something: the boy’s godfather, a priest, lived in the city, and they would ask him if he might take the boy in. This was a beginning.
And so the boy’s predictable life changed. His godfather happily took him in and so he went to the city to attend high school. He continued to have excellent results and soon he was giving lessons to younger children so that he might help his parents pay for his expenses. He was a source of great pride for his family and a few years later, after having completed high school with brilliant results, he went to university and graduated in Management; immediately he found a job. As soon as he had some money he paid for the education of his sisters and brothers, as he knew they had been sacrificed so that he might go and study in the city.
The boy had become a man who pursued his career always keeping very much alive his hunger for learning – not only through further studies in some of the most reputed universities in the world, but also, and mostly, by teaching himself, by reading many books about many subjects and always keeping updated.
This man, this little boy who walked for miles to school, became a very successful businessman, building an “empire” that is today one of the most important in our country. He became very rich, but he has never been arrogant or conceited, on the contrary, he is much beloved by everyone working in his companies and more than loved, highly respected; and he continues to invest in what he believes most – the education of young people, especially those who would not have the means to continue their studies, having created a foundation for that purpose.
When I think of this young boy, for whom nothing was easy, but who had a strong purpose in life and who never faltered in his will to study, to learn, to know more, I really think that maybe some young people have a life that is too soft: they don’t feel the need to fight for anything, as they have it all. As parents we must encourage them to give value to what they have, because it’s the result of our hard work. But, most of all, we should tell them these inspiring stories of young people who have to fight for education – something they take for granted and do not take seriously enough. Take Malala, the incredibly brave Pakistan girl who was shot only because she would not accept the fate of girls in her country – she felt she had the right to learn, to have an education.
As for this boy, he is now an elderly gentleman, and has been very active until recently. But, even if retired and far from sight, he will never be far from the hearts of the people who have had the privilege to know him and his inspiring story. He is a reference to us all, and worthy of all our respect and admiration.
He was a winner, against all odds. And it was all about fierce determination and, ultimately – about education.