A friend shared this picture on Facebook this morning and I began to share it and write a little commentary. I quickly realised my rant was too long for a medium which is only slightly better than the 140-character Twitter medium. So I’ll write it here instead.
This picture isn’t just about teaching kids to grow food (or cook or budgeting or a host of other important skills which aren’t taught so well or at all in schools). It’s about what we consider in our societies to be important and worthy.
I believe our societies will remain corrupt and morally wrong until we equate farmers with doctors.
It sounds outrageous and it is a principle I’m advocating – not ignoring all the other important jobs out there – that we think intelligence, qualifications, money and power are honourable and admirable qualities to be pursued at all costs.
In the UK foreigners are blamed for taking all our ‘low-paid’ jobs. Just a day or two ago it was headline news on BBC Radio 4 – the ‘Guardian or New York Times’ of the British airwaves – that immigration was up greater than Government targets and more foreigners were taking our ‘low-paid jobs’. But the fact is that it is the other way around – employers just can’t persuade British people to clean toilets, stack shelves, clear our rubbish and so on so they go to people abroad who don’t have such snobbery.No one believes it is a good thing for their teenager to go into farming, waste management or working in Tescos. Their child is ‘better than that’.
For the last couple of years when I taught in a UK school I would go out to the playground most break times and pick up the rubbish our students were throwing away. I’d been inspired by visits to LAMB in Bangladesh and seeing how kids and staff cleaned the whole school every day after school – even the oldest teenagers had roles – and no one considered it ‘beneath them’. Even the chief Medical Director’s daughters cleaned floors like everyone else. I was also inspired by Danny Wallace’s Random Acts of Kindness. So, without a song and a dance about it, I’d go out every break time I could manage and clean up the masses of rubbish the kids dropped nonchalantly every day as they munched through sweets, crisps, chocolate and cans of coke.
Some thought I was a ‘dirty bugger’ for doing it. Others – including fellow teachers – were horrified that I was being so disgusting. General opinion was that a teacher shouldn’t do things like that and that it should be the cleaners who do it. As though I was better than a cleaner! I was told by one of my older students that I was ‘demeaning’ myself. Thankfully, I enjoyed a damned good reputation among the kids and those who would have tried to spread rumours about me and generally castigate me found themselves alone and muted. I continued to be well liked by most of my kids.
But almost none of the kids joined me. Some, sheepishly, would take their own rubbish to the bin and put it there but most carried on dropping rubbish on the floor even though they could see me cleaning up and I could see them dropping it.
I didn’t tell them off. That wasn’t the point of the exercise. It was about showing that all of us are equal and share responsibility to look after our environment. I wasn’t too ‘high up’ to get my hands, literally, dirty.
Even by the age of 11 or 12 (the age these kids started at my school) the idea that some things are ‘beneath dignity’ had been ingrained in these young minds. How appalling! How disgraceful that we teach our children that dignity and respect comes from the power you wield and not from how you conduct yourself in life. Honestly, I think we have ‘demeaned’ our children by allowing this to happen. It needs to stop but I fear it never will.
I want to see our schools teach gardening and a host of other skills because I want children to learn that all jobs are important, all skills to be honoured and that dignity comes from your care for others, your society and your environment and not from your annual salary. Doctors might save lives when something bad happens to our bodies but farmers save lives by producing the food we need. Bin men keep our streets clean so diseases can’t spread. Supermarket staff enable us to obtain the food we need so we don’t starve (which most of us would do if we had to live off our own ability to grow food).
Forgive me if I’ve not mentioned your job. Nor have I praised mine – because that’s precisely the point. How can we have a genuinely equitable society, free of corruption, while we put one person above another?
I’ve written many times before on this blog that the woman I most admire in the world was the woman who was our family ayah – housemaid, cook, cleaner and nanny – who looked after us for more than five years in Bangladesh. Surola was a quiet and humble woman and there was nothing special about her using any of the world’s standard ways of measuring importance. Yet the way this woman conducted herself led me quickly to consider her one of the most influential people in my life. I would hold her estimation of me more dear than all the accolades in the world.
Let’s teach our children gardening – and in doing so, teach them self-worth and to honour and respect all.