This past summer, the BB&N Fund sponsored summer programs for teachers related to global education. As part of this program, Lower School teachers traveled to Bolivia for a course on climate change.
In reflecting on our group trip to Bolivia, I am struck by how differently we processed the events of that trip, and yet I am also aware of how each of us walked away being profoundly impacted by the experience. With the elementary grades, much of the work in global education comes from how the teachers frame conversations with students, how we build in opportunities for our students to explore actual world problems, and how we ourselves alter our lives and classrooms base on our understanding of global citizenship. For me, much of the value of our experience has come from the fact that we did our work as a fourth grade team, and our students will be able to benefit from the different perspective we each bring to our classrooms.
For myself, there were two moments that defined my experience in Bolivia, and are the ones that sit with me weeks after our departure. Every day we spent in South America was rich with learning opportunities, and many moments when we were forced to realize the full impact of consumerism, as well as our identities as citizens of a highly developed part of the world. While it is so often said that children are the future, I am now more aware than ever of the future I am handing them, and what my role as a teacher can really be.
Bolivia is where I had the most horrifying experience of my life, and it is one that lingers, reminding me of my own privilege, and indeed my ignorance. We spent an afternoon visiting a working silver mine, one that was old and depleted. Clad in our miners coveralls and helmets, we descended into the mine on a makeshift elevator, four at a time crammed onto the narrow platform. There was a constant hum of activity as we moved downwards, and a sulfuric odor that clung to us.
We descended further than I expected, passing several levels that had already been mined to their fullest. In a single file line, we crawled our way through the tunnels, finally arriving at an actual worksite, fifteen minutes of laborious spelunking from the elevator. The heat was unbearable, the smell adding to the general discomfort, and our guide explained cheerfully that the workers spent twelve hours a day down in the mine, mostly without food or water. Many started as young as 15, and the life expectancy was 35. As we crouched in the sweltering heat, consumed by the odor, the tightness of the space, and the general brutality of the lifestyle, each of us struggled to stay, and struggled to understand the life Don Wilson explained with such pride.
We crawled back, many in tears, several finding it challenging to move forward, and all with a heavy sense of despair. As we took turns heading back to the surface, we were told by the miners of the deities placed at each entry, because in mining, you pray everyday that you will survive. Later that week, several of us were in a market where there was a beautiful display of silver jewelry. We looked, as the pieces were certainly beautiful. And yet we each turned away, the unspoken agreement that it was not worth it. The price of silver had become shockingly high.
The second particularly momentous experience was spending a day hiking to a glacier with a Bolivian glaciologist. An avid hiker, I enjoyed the chance to explore different terrain, note the variety of animals, and chat with our guide with my limited Spanish. I find it hard to express the majestic beauty of the glacier, rising high above us, reflecting so perfectly in the lake at the base.
Faced with such a display of pure awesome nature, it was all the more painful to hear about how much of the glacier has been lost, and how so much of that had been in recent years. I sat admiring the snow and ice capped mountains, only to hear that the loss of that ice meant less water for communities, especially in parts of the country already struggling with access to usable water. What brought this even closer to home was when one of our leaders explained that he had moved from Bolivia to New England, as he had realized he needed to be somewhere where there was a reliable water source in the future.
While it is easy to assume that the changes in our climate will impact us in the future, it is a chilling moment when you realize how false that is, and how close we are to being forced to make difficult, if near impossible, decisions.
There were many joyful moments of our trip, and these made all the difficult realizations easier to process. There was the warmth of the different communities we visited, the innovation of the cable car public transit in La Paz, and the relationships built within our group of educators. I came back feeling passionate, feeling inspired, and feeling fearless. When faced with beauty and horror in such a short time, one realizes the wonder of our world, while also finding the determination to protect what we value.