Thursday, 23 April 2009

Preaching To The Converted

It is a beautiful, sparkling spring day. The university gardeners have just turned on the sprinklers which are making a refreshing tsk-tsk-tsk sound as the water sprays out in crystalline arcs; the mimosa trees are in full bloom, drooping branches groaning under their weight of tiny yellow flowers, the ground beneath them already speckled a bright gold. The temperature is just right, the grass is as green as grass gets, every flower shines like a jewel. But nothing's perfect: the boy and girl in front of me, two stylishly dressed teenagers who have Spoiled Rich Kids practically written all over them, have stopped to light up cigarettes. Even as I watch, the boy takes the empty cigarette pack and throws it over a low wall, right into the middle of the perfectly landscaped university gardens. It lands in a lantana bush and sits there, garish and ugly, among clusters of multi-colored blossoms.

And nobody bats an eye. Nobody runs up to him, outraged and red-faced, demanding that he go back and pick up his piece of trash. He and his elegantly coiffured girlfriend continue their stroll, flicking ash and blowing out smoke.

If I were the Jolly Green Giant, I would grab this boy by his ankles, dangle him over his discarded cigarette pack, and make him eat it. While I was at it, I'd warn his girlfriend to keep a sharp eye on him. I'd be tempted to tell her to go easy on the make-up and not to wear such form-fitting pants too. But I'm a middle-aged teacher who can't get her own teenagers to keep their rooms tidy, so I just walk by, thinking disapproving thoughts.

But this stays in my mind. The beautiful day, the rolling green grass, the scent of lemon blossom drifting across the sun-warmed campus -- all of these are lost to me now as I remember this thoughtless action. The careless way the boy did it showed how little it meant to him. It was one of those tiny things you do so often, you don't even think about -- an automatic reflex, like shifting gears or pouring another cup of coffee. I'll bet if I'd said anything about it, he'd have been surprised.

By the time I've entered my classroom, I'm full of righteous indignation. What if these kids do, by some miracle, manage to graduate, complete their degrees, and enter the World? What then? What if, say, that cigarette pack flinger becomes the owner of a construction company? Do you think a kid who flings his cigarette pack without a by-your-leave is going to think twice about dumping old building materials? What if he is ever in charge of a factory that uses toxic chemicals? So what if all I teach these kids is English; they've GOT to learn that tossing their junk around is wrong.

As it happens, the classroom is in its typical dire state. Some idiot has put a bottle of coke in the waste bin without making sure the lid was on tight; the waste bin is not lined. A quick look around the classroom shows me the usual detritus: shredded paper on the floor, scattered candy wrappers, empty or half-filled water bottles on half a dozen tables, balled-up Kleenexes peeping out of every corner. And it isn't just the students, either: once again the last teacher hasn't bothered to erase the board: every square inch of it is covered with squiggles, figures, diagrams and fulsome explanations in Turkish. Noting my reaction, Özgür and Ahmet -- two of my best students -- leap to erase it, but I wave them back down.

After I've erased the board, I give my students a little lecture. Using easy words. I describe how important it is to clean up after yourself, how anyone can make a difference just by doing their own bit. I point out how irritating it is to have a sticky floor; I draw a picture of a wasp on the board, then a fly, then a cockroach. No one admits to liking these insects. I finish up with a picture of a big smiling world. "Today, after class, we'll all leave this room clean, okay?" I say.

Looking me straight in the eye, they all nod.

But after class, only Özgür and Ahmet remain to help me tidy up. "I hate mess," confides Özgür, who is thrilled to have learned the word. "My room friend big mess, every time."

"My room friend too," mutters Ahmet, lobbing an empty bottle into the waste bin.

So once again, my preaching has failed to reach the right ears. The only people who are committed to helping me are the ones who'd have done it anyway.

Together, my fellow converts and I finish cleaning the room.


Kim Ayres said...

Maybe if you got them to tidy the room before the lesson started, so they're cleaning up the mess left by the previous occupants, they'd become converts to snarling at people who don't bother with bins.

And if they have to name each item they pick up in English too...

Bish Denham said...

Having worked with my share of unconscious kids I sometimes asked them if they threw trash on their livingroom floors? No of course not. I asked them why? Well, because...and all the usual reasons. So I asked why it was OK to trash the earth, our only true home? I asked them to think of the earth as a big livingroom and to treat it the same way they treated their home. This would at least get them thinking. (Of course there will always those who are thoughtless, remain unconscious, and for some reason live like pigs.)

J.A. Palermo said...

I have two boys in high school. I swear they do not see the mess they create. It certainly doesn't bother them one bit. I try to stay out of their rooms as much as possible.

Anonymous said...

This was initially one of the hardest things for me in adjusting to life overseas. But I have a vague memory of learning about littering in school and joining Smokey the Bear and Woodsy the Owl clubs (Give a hoot! Don't pollute!) as a child. My parents were also firmly convicted that all littering was wrong, but I remember my husband's grandmother attempting to litter before we stopped her. I think it takes a whole generation to change, and they have to get the message nonstop as children, followed by some hefty fines as adults.
Also, there's a different way of thinking. I picked up a bit of litter on a Moroccan street and was told, "If we all did that, we would take away a street-sweeper's job." I explained that no we wouldn't, but wasn't convincing.
What a long comment! Sorry. And after 8 years in Africa, I'm still not used to the littering! It makes me so mad.

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- Sometimes I do this, when it's a slow morning and only a handful of kids are there. The problem is, it's always the most conscientious kids who are there first and I hate to penalize them. I love the idea of sensitizing kids to resent other litterers, though, and naming the stuff in English. "Crisp packet! Empty water bottle! Sneezed on Kleenex, ewww!" Sounds fun.

Bish -- I always ask the kids if they do that in their own rooms and they look surprised. "No, tee-cha!" And I've asked them to think of the classroom as their own living room, but they just don't get it. I suspect they're lying about how they behave in their living rooms, though I'll probably never know.

J A -- Thank you for commenting!

My kids' rooms are no-go areas too. But some kids are naturally tidy, and I can't help but feel a little wistful about them. I wonder why I didn't get a couple of kids like that myself.

PN -- My parents were passionate non-litterers too, so you're right: this is something that we instill in our kids. My teenagers are hogs in their own rooms, but they never litter. Good for you, telling your husband's granny not to litter, too: you're never too old to learn!

Apparently, the British expatriates who live here have complained about how bad the litter problem is, and that alone has made a lot of people notice the problem. Every time we go to the beach, I collect a couple of shopping bags full of plastic bits: bottles, lids (I get many dozens of these, in particular), shoes, cans -- all sorts of junk. No one pays me the least bit of mind. They probably figure I like picking up other people's garbage.

adrienne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
adrienne said...

(Oops. I need to learn to proof before I hit publish...)

It seems like a sense that some people have and some people don't. I think my son and I have some sense of order, and my husband and daughter don't. Like J.A. Palermo commented - I swear they do not see the mess they create.

Robin said...

Slovenly behavior appears to be a universal phenomenon. I'm so sad. I was hoping salt water washed it off as you cross the ocean.

My kids are weird (in sooooo many ways). Their rooms look like scary disaster areas, but they'll call the police if you pollute the environment. They think litterbugs should get the death penalty. Other litterbugs, that is.

PI said...

Don't despair Mary. I'm so glad you tried and sometimes it takes a while for it to sink in.

Mary Witzl said...

Adrienne -- I think you're right. It's odd, though: I wasn't born with my sense of order, but I've definitely acquired it for good. My husband has a different, generally inferior sense of order. (He would dispute that, but this is MY blog...) The kids tend to take after him. I'm hoping one day they'll acquire a proper sense of order, too.

Robin -- The awful truth is that there are countries with worse litter problems than the U.S. And almost every 'developing' (for lack of a better word) country I've been to or heard of has a litter problem that makes ours look ho-hum. Even so-called 'developed' countries like Scotland have litter problems. Sad, isn't it?

My kids haven't made the connection with trashing their rooms and littering, either. They think it's okay to trash the house, but not okay to trash the streets. At least I know now that it's not just mine!

PI -- Thank you -- I'm telling myself that too. And I haven't given up. I believe in pester power, or nagging, or whatever you wan to call it. They haven't heard the last of this!

Eryl Shields said...

If it helps any most of the teenagers I have known were hideously untidy and unthinking about trash, but almost none of the adults I know are like that and a lot of them are the same people. The only person I know who is still as bad as ever is the one I married, and even he tries.

Anne Spollen said...

Son #1 has an unbreakable habit of putting the empty ice cream cartons inside his desk drawer. I mention this in front of his friends and they're like, "So, what's your problem with rotting dairy products anyway?"

I say that, but I also remember returning home from my first full day of classes as a college freshman and I was shocked, even a little outraged, that my wet towel was still on my unmade bed, the laundry was still dirty, and no one had left me any snacks or notes on my desk. I think at that moment, I got at least some of what my mom had done for me for a very long time.

kara said...

i go off on people for littering. if one does nothing else for this planet, they can at least keep their shit off the ground.

the above are my true larry david moments and i'm not even ashamed:

Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- Come to think of it, I'm a vast improvement, cleanliness wise, on my adolescent self. It's good that some things evolve the right way, isn't it?

The untidy people I live with try too. And none of them ever threw an empty cigarette pack on the grass...

AnneS -- I've promised my kids not to post what I've found in their drawers on this blog. Let's just say that it easily rivals your son's ice cream cartons, and I'm sure their friends would have the same reaction.

When I was living with my cousin in Miami, I can still remember being shocked at how quickly trash and crud accumulated, and how fast things like bread and milk got used up. Like you, I'd never really considered who was doing all the work. Isn't it fun to imagine our kids having the same wake up calls?

Kara -- That is exactly how I feel: not littering is your basic lowest common denominator, the very least you can do to be a Good Human Being. It's hard to watch someone litter and retain any respect for them at all.

(I can't watch all of that blue-tooth thing! My computer won't let me -- I'm going to have to call in one of my kids for technical assistance...)