On Tuesday, around half-past-nine in the morning, my cat jumped onto the sink. An instant after I turned the tap, the power went out. Cue a three-day saga of landlord, electricians and plumbers clumping past my workspace and accusing glares from Teddy, the cat, as he nosed the unyielding tap.
Serendipitously, my three dry days coincided with reading from George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London with my students.
“It is altogether curious, your first contact with poverty,” Orwell writes. “You thought it would be quite simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring. It is the peculiar lowness of poverty that you discover first; the shifts that it puts you to, the complicated meanness, the crust-wiping.”
Replace ‘poverty’ with ‘no running water’, ‘no electricity’, ‘no food’ or any other noun phrase related to a basic necessity. The principle stands.
To lack something one requires for survival is complicated, squalid, boring, low, crust-wiping. Whatever one’s other resources, the absence, scarcity or precarity of water, food, shelter, warmth, etc. is destructive.
Deprivation makes education harder to attain. Moreover, it robs whatever education one has acquired of its value.
In the elegiac opening sentence of ‘On Being Ill’ Virginia Woolf writes, “Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed… it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”
For when the lights of health go down, let’s substitute: when you can’t flush the toilet, or wash your hands.
My first unnerved thought, when I realized the water wasn’t returning at the flick of a fuse-switch, was, oh shit.
Literally. I have had severe IBS for over a decade. Proximity to a clean, functioning, private convenience is high on my list of essentials. Higher, in fact, than food. Food, once consumed, rapidly becomes a problem.
Not having water turned the next three days into a pathetic war of attrition with my internal organs, which I’d rather think of as friends than enemies. Boiled white rice became the meal of choice to minimize digestive demands.
Disarranged eating and hygiene stress combined to drag my mind away from classes. And I’m the teacher.
Imagine how much harder it is for students to cope with scarcity, and the fatal effect on attention.
Education helps us learn to make good choices. We learn to think critically, plan, weigh options, critique, etc. (ideally, anyway).
Orwell was well-educated and possessor of a rare mind. He argues, “a man who has gone even a week on bread and margarine is not a man any longer, only a belly with a few accessory organs.”
Science bears out this observation: the brain is around 2% of body weight but hoovers up 20% of the body’s glucose-derived energy (Mergenthaler, et al., 2014). Depriving the body of the energy it requires disproportionately affects the brain; an effect for which the body attempts to compensate by purloining glucose from other vital systems. Nevertheless, subpar nutrition takes a crowbar to cognitive functions (Glucose and The Brain: Improving Mental Performance, 2013).
Other forms of deprivation, such as lack of running water, may not have the same immediate physiological implications, but they swiftly cripple good intentions.
Not knowing when the water would be back, I couldn’t plan dinner, much less anything in the more distant future. Clothes and dishes needed washing, cat bowls needed refilling, plants needed watering, but it couldn’t be done nor anticipated. I learned to live in the moment, in the worst possible way.
Working from home, my attire tends more towards casual than smart. But there is a huge difference between informal and clean and plan dirty.
I take the ability to be clean, and therefore socially appropriate, for granted; fortunate am I.
Day one was tolerable but by day two the BO was bothering me. The morning of day three there were some unavoidable errands. After slathering on deodorant and shoving my grimy body into clean clothes I skulked out, coat zipped to the chin and masked. During the brief exchanges that followed, I stood as far away as courtesy allowed, marrow curling with self-consciousness.
I need to start donating to clean water projects, I thought. Then thought of all the people who live in places clean water projects don’t touch: places like Spain, the United States or the UK. In developed countries, broad access to running water, hygiene products, etc. masks — and no doubt exacerbates — the trauma of those who cannot access these fundamental resources.
Not being able to wash and groom adequately is uncomfortable on a personal level. I was hyperconscious of my bodily fluids and functions. But it is fatal to the ability to interact with clean human beings on an equal footing.
If I were a student who couldn’t wash, stuck in a roomful of freshly-scrubbed peers, I’d want to crawl under the floorboards. Or maybe I’d act out, to distract from my discomfort. I was fortunate to not have the precise experience as a kid, but I can imagine.
One thing is for sure: my mind would not be on my studies. I’d be counting the minutes till I could flee.
Thursday night, the kitchen tap spluttered to life. Borderline delirious, I pulled on the Marigolds and scrubbed the dishes piled in the sink, wiped the counters, refilled the cat bowls. After a long, hot shower I put on clean pajamas, sat on the sofa and stared at the unlit furnace, unsure what to do.
The tiredness that gripped me wasn’t ordinary, end-of-the-week stuff. My energy and volition were sapped, like I’d run a marathon.
The argument of Mani, et al. (2013) that “poverty itself reduces cognitive capacity… because poverty-related concerns consume mental resources, leaving less for other tasks” made perfect sense.
Education is wonderful thing. There isn’t much I’d rather do than teach and learn. But deprivation is its undoing.
As a teacher, and an individual, I have a responsibility to work towards a more equitable society where people have the resources they need to benefit from education.
How can educators support a more equitable society? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments or Tweet @CilaWarncke