Our guest blogger this week is Director of Myanmar Development Chase Wooldridge. He has spent more than four years with the people of Myanmar helping break boundaries and helping youth discover their inner creativity.
After years and hours of schooling with little or no time for play, a seventeen year old in Myanmar is suddenly set free. They may attend college only if they are highly gifted in memorization. “What are they memorizing?” you might ask… and the answer is “Well, the test of course.”
Every section of the test is covered; multiple choice answers, math equations, and entire essays that they must rewrite verbatim in order to pass. It gets worse. The entire test is written in English from the time of the British rule over Myanmar! If they are unable to afford English classes from the time they are five until sixteen then too bad. They will still have to take the test and match the memorized words in their head with those on a test devoid of meaning. A student writing his or her own essay or answer would be unable to pass the test with high marks since writing your own ideas can’t be graded properly. The graders do not know the answers themselves. They have the test that the tutoring centers have been training students with for years. I have seen this test and it has some errors – students must write the incorrect answer in order to pass!
From this experience emerges a teenager unlike those we encounter in the west. They have been discouraged from playing, creativity, thinking for themselves, and dreaming. Faced with free time they usually just go home and watch TV. Those who can’t stand having nothing to do immediately find a training center or language school to fill their time (or their parents force them in to a program). Some people reading this might say “Good! Our spoiled little teens could use some more of that.” That might also be true. I think a balance or work and play is important. I would not wish the vacant stare of the teenagers of Myanmar on anyone. Do not assume from this that I mean to say Myanmar youth are less than intelligent, far from it. Anyone who can memorize hundreds of pages of Math, Science, History, and English has a big brain on their shoulders. After all, Myanmar was what South Korea has become to Asia at one time. It is only a result of years of oppression that Myanmar youth have become this way.
Fast forward to the present day in Yangon… We are witnessing a crack in the isolated and controlled teen. From crazy clothing designs to blue Mohawks and graffiti young people are screaming out. Expression, even when it is done on the side of your house with a can of neon spray paint, is a breath of fresh air in a country that once controlled everyone with an iron fist. I am witnessing students who want to play and they play, want to dance so they dance, want to go around town doing any and everything and do so. We have been working to encourage youth in all areas of their life since we first arrived in Myanmar. The change is incredible. Our school that we work at has allowed me to teach a wide array of classes to promote expression and community. I taught an acting class in which my shy reserved students came alive and discovered who they were and what they were capable of for the first time in their lives. One student told me ” I was supposed to jump around the room making noise and acting like a horse, and I did! I can’t believe I would do that. It changed my life and now I am not afraid to do anything.” He has become one of our most active students and often volunteers for LFM projects. Another class was about being a good citizen and how society should work. To teach such a class two years ago would have gotten me kicked out of the country. By the end of this class all of our students developed a community project and implemented them. It was a huge success and has placed in many of their hearts the importance of making a difference in Myanmar. We have taught dance and fitness classes and on and on we could go. In all of these we witnessed students come alive and a light come on in their eyes. The work is far from over. Every couple of months I have new teens show up at our school with the look of despair in their eyes. Surely they must think this class will be like all of the others they have ever known. I start with a smile, a quick introduction and tell them promptly to put away their books, move the desks aside, and stand up. We are going to play a game.