As I slowly made my way through the crowd in Chatuchak Weekend Market, one of the largest markets in Thailand, something grabbed my attention. I saw an old woman — probably my grandmother’s age — sitting between the footpath of the sky train station and the entrance, making and selling handmade cartoon keychains. Yet, what startled me was not the old woman, it was everyone else walking past her.
No one seemed to care or even notice her existence. Everybody went on about their lives casually as if she was not even there — or at least, they were pretending to. The sun was blazing hot and the air was suffocating. The old woman had nothing but a rough placemat to sit on and a basket to hold her keychains in. As I watched, people walked by one after another, I realized: what ignorant, selfish creatures we are.
Writing this, at this moment, right now, I feel ashamed. I feel embarrassed. I feel disgusted. Not just at what happened that day, but at what I know is still continuously happening everyday.
I hope you are feeling something too. Perhaps your body is becoming a bit heavier and your mind a bit cloudier. Because it really should. And if it is not, maybe we all need to start questioning the kinds of citizens we are putting out in the world. What are school institutions really teaching students? What is Woodstock teaching us?
After about five minutes or so, I walked up to the old woman and asked her how much the keychain was for. She said fifty baht (around 115 rupees). I picked two keychains I liked and handed her the money. She said thank you and smiled. Through her eyes, I could feel benevolence, compassion, and love. I smiled back — hoping that she would receive half of the happiness I got from her.
Everyone walking past her could have done what I did. Money was not the problem. Empathy, selflessness, and understanding was. Even though these people may have their own opinions and reasons, they were not willing to give in the time nor effort to interact and talk to her. They did not understand the importance of helping others in need. They cared more about themselves and what they were up to. They were ignorant of inequality and kindness.
Here, at Woodstock, we are offered and blessed with intensive community engagement programs which we can get involved in. CARE passages, such as DOST, Sanatan Dharam, and Kaplani, offer amazing, meaningful experiences for students to interact with underprivileged local communities. But the question is, is it enough?
Instead of making community engagement passages selective in order to look for individuals who are genuinely passionate and devoted to helping others, why don’t we focus our attention on teaching each and every student to value service and understand empathy? Why are there no classes devoted to service when, in reality, it is what the world needs most?
School teaches us math, history, science, English, religious education, and health. But what about compassion, selflessness, and humility? These values are life skills that are often not taught or emphasized enough in schools. According to Vanderbilt University, service learning is defined as: “A form of experiential education where learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection as students seek to achieve real objectives for the community and deeper understanding and skills for themselves.” Service has many positive impacts on students. It pushes them out of their emotional comfort zone and allows them to see themselves and the world in a different light.
I believe that in some way, shape, or form, my involvement in various community engagement programs over the years had ultimately influenced me to walk up to the old woman and help her. When I looked at her, I saw the faces of the children and the coolies walking around in the bazaar, here in Mussoorie. I see faces with dreams, families, responsibilities, and hope.
According to a survey conducted by Joseph E. Kahne, a professor of education at Mills College, and his colleagues, students who participated in community engagement programs during high school are more likely to be involved in service and volunteer work later on in their lives. If Woodstock takes action and further emphasizes the importance of service in our community, maybe students — and staff — would act with more compassion the next time they walk into the bazaar, let alone, in life.
Institutions across the world need to start putting more emphasis on values and qualities that they want to see in future generations. The present world lacks kindness, empathy, love, and equality. By teaching children to appreciate and accept differences and unfairness in the world, through community engagement programs and service classes, we are empowering them with a life skill greater than any standardized tests or classes could.
Doing service should no longer be optional, it should be something that is required of everyone.