Maybe School, but Learning is Not All About the “Benjamins”

You have heard that song before, It’s all About the Benjamins, from Puff Daddy (P. Diddy aka Diddy aka….) No Way Out 1996 album, right? Ok, forget all about the lyrics and let’s focus on the title, “It’s All About the Benjamins”.

Often when we talk about going to school and attaining an education, they are correlated with having “The Benjamins”. Not just the $100, but enough to get you a quality and rewarding education and post-graduation experience. Granted there is public education in this country, where we do not have to pay to go to school, thanks to the taxes dollars paid by our parents, relatives, local community, state, and federal government. Even then, parents have to make a financial investment into their children, providing school meals, school uniform (if required) or regular clothes, scholastic material, transportation to school or school bus, and fees for participation in school activities. Let’s not forget though that, most public schools require proof of address of abode in the school district where one is applying for her/his children!  Private education has similar costs, in addition to tuition fees and other optional costs for educational trips organized by the school administration. For both private and public schooling, many parents incur costs related to after-school programs or extra-curricular activities like sports, art, music and drama, or give-back-to community. In essence, there is no “absolute free education”.

For plenty of potential learners, financial obligations constrain access and participation in formal schooling. Quite often from Education Research on “Improving Teaching and Learning” and “Curriculum Design” reveals that money makes a big impact on whether, how and what students learn. The “when” are students going to learn is  also a vital consideration and determinants of learning. While some parents have the luxury to make choices about “when” they are comfortable starting off their children in school or defer school for alternative “sources of gratification”, like a paying job, travel opportunities and personal growth and social commitments, it is not true for every learner or parent of a learner.

Some parents defer enrolling their children in pre-school, if it is not publicly-funded, until they are of age to start the publicly-funded kindergarten. Parents, as well as adult learners defer school to when they have the financial resources and time, then enroll or resume later at a later age, work-study students, mid-career students or lifelong learners. In countries like Uganda, most low-income parents send their children to publicly-funded schools, which provide “Universal Primary Education” and “Universal Secondary Education”, even when the education is substandard. Others enroll their children much older than the normal school-starting age, when financial resources become available or when it is economically viable to let them go for a few hours of the day, when they can exempt them from providing family labor.

Still, it is possible that “Learning is not all about the Benjamins”.  Schooling, we could agree requires more financial commitment than learning. Learning, defined herein as the active comprehension of education material and study opportunities in a study environment. The environment can be in the form of homeschooling, in a formal school classroom setting, informal arrangements, online or on study tour. The power of money could become secondary to the attainment of learning. Just as not all school-going children from high-income households learn or excel in their education, not all children from low-income households learn nothing or fail.

Here are a couple of illustrations that, sometimes learning is possible ‘without the money’, and that learning equalizes students across many socio-economic divides, including social status, school district, international origin, racial composition and family background. A friend from Inglewood, California, raised by a single mother in a low-income and socially broken-down neighborhood made it into a Harvard PhD in Sociology. We have heard of Khadijah from LA homeless shelters and Liz Murray from the Bronx streets, both of whom made it to Harvard, by ‘churning their miseries into reading books and revising for school testings from public libraries within their geographical locations. In former western colonies of Africa (and in the Caribbean), schools still largely operate on a western education curriculum but in under-resourced school environment. Yet, school children excel in learning and go on to compete with students at western universities. These illustrations speak volumes about the determination to learn and excel, beyond one’s economic status or conditions. The challenge is to broaden the scope of strategies for improving learning [and teaching], not giving up on those without high financial status or access to learning resources but incorporating them and meeting them “halfway”.

Making an investment in our learners should not necessarily require enrolling them into expensive schools, buying all the books, electronics, spending every weekend, school holiday and summer vacation on education trips, an after-school full schedule of extracurricular activities- music recitals, dance, fencing, harp practice. Though, all of these resources and opportunities are highly recommended and appreciated for enriching the learning experience. Learning may require spending more time with your school-going or school-age children, listening to their excitements, reading with them, encouraging and participating in their fantasies and exposing them to the world through family, friends, neighborhood activities. Or taking them to the public library to read and participate in children’s activities and signing them up for community children learning activities.

Parental involvement in their children’s learning is vita to augmenting their school experience, providing emotional support, connecting and following their learning progression. Learning starts before the child is born, through reading to the developing fetus inside the womb. By the time s/he is born, books, words and sounds are already a constant in her/his environment, and a ‘default’ enforcement of their curiosity to learn on their own and with their parents. While we all agree that “time is money”, “money makes the world go round”, let us not lose sight of the power in decentralizing “The Benjamins” as the driving force in the making of learning.

Help Your Children Dream

I strongly believe in the power of dreams. They shape lives, build relations, mentor professions, restore hope and courage. They could be the keys to our personal and professional trajectories and success!

Just about every morning, my son wakes up with a dream. Either he is building a machine that will stop snow falling in winter, or he had Ninja powers or he was laughing with his cousins. Lately, he has had plenty of dreams about mommy getting married, to her [ex]boyfriend, who lives in another country. The first time, that dream made him sad and cry, because it meant, “mommy would leave him and go live with her boyfriend”. Since I told him, “I can never leave you, because I live for you, and you and I will go live with my PM when I get married,” he is now happy to dream more about mommy getting married. In fact he wants to dream about mommy getting married, as much as about mommy getting long hair! Never mind that “the dreamed for” does not exactly have marriage in her dreams or foresight. She has another dream, colored “green”. Yes! And it is part of that dream I would like to talk about.

Recently, I was coaching a fifth grader, and we were talking about traveling. I asked if she had been to her father’s country, Nigeria? She said no, and told me that she would never travel to Nigeria because there is Ebola. In fact, her father wanted to go to Nigeria, but she begged him not to go. I asked if she would go to other Africans countries, to which she responded with a vehement “No!” There are many diseases and people are poor! I asked her if my son and I looked poor, or her father. She said, No!

Yeah! That is the story about Africa, as told in America. I told her that Ebola is not everywhere in Nigeria, or every Nigerian would be dead. I told her my son and I took planes to come back to America, and while in “Africa”, we ate food everyday and did not catch or bring back any diseases. Then she told me that she would never got to place on a plane or boat or train. She will only go to places where she can drive or walk. She is not taking a plane, a boat or a train because she is afraid to die. Then I told her that one can die in their sleep or in the house or on the road. She said, “at least she would die peacefully”. I asked her, “how about in a car road accident,?” Well, she did not exactly have a response to that, but still no traveling, not to Africa and not by plane, boat or train. Life jackets do not work, planes fall in big oceans. Excuse after excuse!

I wondered, how a child of an immigrant from Nigeria could be devoid of a dream to travel and see the world? Didn’t “Tiger Mom” tell us that Nigerians are among the “Triple Package” aka  the “eight highly successful cultures”, thanks to their superiority complex! True, Tiger mom (with hubby co-author) mentioned something to do with “insecurities”, but in the sense of feeling inadequate or underaccomplished, instigating the strive to become and accomplish more. Not to shun traveling the world or getting on a plane!

I worried about this American 10-year old fifth grader, not having a dream beyond her fears. I wondered what may have shaped her fears? After all, her mom, many generations American has also traveled the world, including to Africa studying and learning about the world. Why would her daughter not wish to follow her mom’s footsteps, even if it were to board the plane to the world of California that is “without the African diseases”? Where is her curiosity about the world of her father, beyond the images and tale-tales from her news sources? Why can’t she compare herself to her parents who have been around the world?

Very often we are told that in order to be happy, we should not to compare ourselves to others. That is so cliché!  Plenty of my accomplishments are a result of comparing myself to others I have interacted with or got to know about. Watching, reading or learning about their accomplishments gives me the boost to keep going. Stories of folks who dropped out of formal schooling and built empires and lived large. Stories of people struggling worse off than myself, yet still afford a reason to smile, remind me to keep positive. Stories of my grandparents who never went to school but had the dream of educating their children. My paternal grandfather was not very wealthy, and could not afford to educate all his four children. So, him and his three older children agreed to send my father, the last born to school, with the hope that he would look after this family upon competition of his education, and got a good job. My maternal grandfather educated over 15 children while serving the church [unpaid] as a clergy, in pursuit of a dream that his children would never have to lack anything in life. They would afford to buy themselves clothes that he was never able to afford them.

In Africa where I was born, dreams are what childhood is made of! We are not afraid to dream! As a child, we often heard people dreaming about “going to Makerere”, the main university in the country and epitome as success. It was once the “Harvard of Africa”, so you can understand why many dreams focused and stopped at Makerere. Coming from a family that afford us a livelihood and decent education, not frequent flyer miles, I would say my dreams were not too far from Makerere either. Then as a little girl I went to Nairobi, Kenya with my mom, to shop for my first-born sister who was going off to secondary school. That was a big deal, where rich Ugandans resided, including my uncle and his family. Perhaps that shaped my love for adventure and travel, I cannot say so with certainty.

But I travelled the world, including within my own country. The more people I met and interacted with, the more my dreams widened. I thought of opportunities beyond my background, and seized them at a tender age. Nothing unique to me, but it is the characteristic of the African spirit. Little children dream of an education, they dream of becoming pilots, teachers, doctors, lawyers. Yes! Including dreams of meeting the US President and themselves becoming the US Presidents. Yet, we also know of the “American Dream” of getting rich and living large. Or as 50 cents said, “Get Rich or Die Trying”. Plus the Black struggle in America was sustained by the dream of freedom. Slaves, not allowed to exist as humans, to vote or to read and write, often found ways of ‘stealing’ the resources to learn to read and write and one day free themselves. Frederick Douglas, a slave, self-taught himself to read and write and publish, and went on to have a very illustrious and influential career. Political prisoners on Robben Island with Mandela during Apartheid South Africa told stories of ‘stealing’ empty brown cement bags and creating own writing tools that they used to write out their political strategies, which they tossed to each other over the cubicles in which they were detained. They also wrote letters and poems to their families and loved ones outside prisons. They had a dream to stay alive and sane by any means, and achieved it.

So, what stifles little minds like the one I encountered here in America, the land of “Big Dreams”, from dreaming? We as parents have a huge job of helping our children dream. Help our children live their dreams beyond the fears pandered by sources around them. Undo their [un]truths, to avoid them getting suffocated. Let them live a world of adventure, or risks, or searching and imagining. The world were impossible is nothing. Were careers and personal relationships are built on dreams beyond our wildest imagination. After all, dreams can come true. Haven’t they?