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Giving children a future and a voice

 
Giving children a future and a voice
Andrew Wortham of La Vernia gathers his students at Shahe Elementary School in China’s Yunnan province to learn about other cultures.

Andrew Wortham, though his younger years belie the fact, marches to the beat of a different drummer.

A 2008 graduate of La Vernia High School, he was the Mighty Bear Band’s drum major during his senior year. Andrew also excelled at theater arts and won many awards.

After graduation, Andrew enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin for his Plan II and Asian Studies majors. In the fall of 2010 and spring of 2011, he got the chance to study abroad in India, where he learned Hindi and taught school in Delhi; Andrew’s students were from the slums of west Bengal. The school, Sshrishti, was founded by a non-government organization headed up by Sanghamitra Bose from India.

His students’ parents did not own houses or property; they lived in the slums and trash dumps, using the scraps others threw away to make their houses. The school where Andrew taught was made partly from cardboard. Many parents were migrant workers and others worked in the service industry as maids and other service-oriented jobs. One 11-year-old student had to quit school to become a maid like her mother, in order to help the family financially, Andrew said.

While in India, he also got to travel to the Himalayas, jungles, Agra, and the Taj Mahal.

His experiences in India got Andrew excited about education in other countries.

His focus became, “Why do people send their kids to go to school?”

Andrew also lived in Sikkim, a state between Nepal and Tibet, near Bhutan. Trekking high up into the mountains, he asked people there parents, teachers, and kids ...why they thought education was important and what they thought they would get out of it. His findings varied.

Most parents thought education was important, that it is an elevating force. Some children didn’t think education is important, because they could always drop out and work in service areas. The government would like people to be educated, to create a cohesive Indian society. Socio-economic and religious lines are more blurred when education becomes a factor, Andrew said. The government also used education to make money. For instance: If a child did not want to do regular schoolwork and was artistic, he would be asked to become a monk and go to painting school. The Thangka Tibetan paintings are then exported and sold all over the world.

Andrew returned to Austin after that semester in 2011, to resume his studies at the University of Texas.

In December 2012, he produced his thesis and presented a 10-minute speech at a symposium, where he also answered questions from a large audience. Andrew’s research earned him fourth place in the Mitchell award for excellence in academic undergraduate research.

He graduated and then worked in the Austin Independent School District in low-income urban schools. There he saw some of the same issues he saw in India.

He later applied to the Teach for China program, in the Teach for All network. One-third of the fellows are from America. The rest of the teachers are from China, from its best universities.

Andrew was accepted to teach in China for a two-year stint, where he lived at the Shahe Elementary School in the Yunnan province, close to Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar ...formerly Burma. He learned some Mandarin, so he could communicate with his students; their dialect is very different, however, because of their geographic location.

The parents of his students were migrant workers. They traveled great distances to the cities to work in manufacturing plants, and lived in company-owned complexes, sometimes sharing one tiny room with many different people. Usually, they returned home twice a year, leaving the children with their grandparents in the villages. The students lived at the school Sunday night through Friday afternoon, returning home each weekend.

Students must take the government’s final education test the GaoCao in 12th grade. It can be taken only once a year, and covers everything they’ve ever learned. All students must pass the English portion of the exam. Only the top achievers get to go to the universities.

Now that his two-year term in China has ended, Andrew will be moving to New York to attend Columbia University, where he plans to study the anthropology of education, pursuing his masters degree. He will be living in Brooklyn.

“I hope Columbia University will fund my research and I may get into a PhD program and go back to China,” Andrew said. He may teach anthropology and sociology at a Chinese University.

He hopes to see his students again. He misses them and he and they were very sad when he left.

“My goal is I really just want to learn more about these people,” Andrew said. “How does education benefit them? I want to bring their stories to the public and into policy and academics, to other professors and other thinkers.

“It’s difficult to be an outsider to make changes, but it’s important to understand them, rather than to judge or change them,” he added. “Hopefully, getting these kids’ stories out there will add their voices to the discussion.”

The spice of life

Andrew Wortham not only experienced new cultures, but new flavors, as he traveled.

“The food there [China] was very spicy, but very healthy,” he said so healthy that he lost 40 pounds while teaching there.

His favorite dish was Er Kuai, a noodle dish with spicy veggies.

“American food is not spicy enough now!” he joked.

“One local delicacy was wasp larvae,” Andrew recalled. “They are deep-fried and smothered with spicy sauce.”

And yes, he ate them!

One local dish he did not enjoy, but was served at Shahe Elementary School where he taught, is She’ Tong congealed pig blood soup.

Andrew also was able to travel all over China, including Xinjiang which borders Russia, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia where the scenery included deserts and snow-capped mountain peaks.

“The language is very different and the religion is mostly Muslim,” Andrew said, and the food there also is different. In that region, he ate kebabs, rice pilaf, naan bread, and Middle-Eastern cuisine.

 
 
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