I'd bought Chris' book - 'An astronaut's guide to life on Earth' - a few weeks ago but I only started reading it last week. In the first few pages of the book a few paragraphs caught my eye and I wanted to read them to my Polokwane students. I got to do this on Saturday morning, before the start of our final event. As it turned out, my timing was more than perfect. I'll explain.
In this section Chris talks about being a nine-year old boy and walking to a neighbour's house with his family to watch the moon landing. It was while watching Neil Armstrong that he knew that he wanted to be an astronaut. Walking back to their home, Chris looked up at the moon - 'no longer a distant, unknowable orb'. He knew what he wanted to do with his life. And then he writes:
Roaring around in a rocket, exploring space, pushing the boundaries of knowledge and human capability - I knew,with absolute certainty, that I wanted to be an astronaut.
I also knew,as did every kid in Canada, that it was impossible. Astronauts were American. NASA only accepted applications from U.S. citizens, and Canada didn't even have a space agency. But... just the day before it had been impossible to walk on the Moon. Neil Armstrong hadn't let that stop him. Maybe someday it would be possible for me to go too, and if that day ever came, I wanted to be ready.
I was old enough to understand that getting ready wasn't simply a matter of playing "space mission" with my brothers in our bunk beds, underneath a big National Geographic poster of the Moon. But there was no program I could enroll in, no manual I could read, no one even to ask. There was only one option, I decided. I had to imagine what an astronaut might do if he were 9 years old, then do exactly the same thing. I could get started immediately. Would an astronaut eat his vegetables or have potato chips instead? Sleep in late or get up early to read a book?
I didn't announce to my parents or brothers and sisters that I wanted to be an astronaut. That would've elicited approximately the same reaction as announcing that I wanted to be a movie star.But from that night forward, my dream provided direction to my life. I recognized that even as a 9-year-old that I had a lot of choices and my decisions mattered. What I did each day would determine the kind of person I'd become.
Chris then went on to become a pilot and then a jet fighter pilot and a test pilot and then an astronaut. I'm only 25% into the book - it's really interesting. Still lots of goodies to come.
For a week I'd watched my group eating vast quantities of food washed down with Coke. When we'd stop at the shops they'd buy large packets of potato chips. This is hardly unusual and it is what they've been taught and probably everyone around them - friends and family - do the same. I doubt that they are in contact with anyone who is either vegetarian or has an interest in nutrition. And certainly no one is going to tell them that too much sugar is bad for you long term and that you don't need to eat >3000 calories a day.
Even something as 'simple' as nutrition is about making good choices and decisions.
On Saturday morning I read this passage to my group. What they experienced during this week at the event can be brushed off and put in a box, or it can be a motivator for decisions in their lives - to travel, to be active... to broaden their horizons. And then off we went.
A teaching point from this passage came up during the after-prize-giving lucky draw. The first of my students to be called chose a small bottle of Amarula Cream from the range of items available. For those who don't know, Amarula is an alcoholic liqueur.
To me, the most desirable items there were First Ascent hipbelts - double and single bottle options. Other items were edible - wine, chips, choccies. Considering that none of my charges have hydration packs or hip belts or anything even close to this, I'd assumed that they'd go for these. They're R200 retail. I actually thought that they were even more because certainly in other brands you can end up paying up to R500 for a hipbelt. Crazy! And products like these are just not around in the environment from which these students come.
And then another of my students was called - and he too went for the Amarula. I could have kept quiet but instead I decided to say something to them. I told them that Amarula will last for a few tots that can be shared but that the hipbelt can be used for many years - for orienteering, for walking, for running... any time. I told them that they could swap the Amarula for a hipbelt but that they'd better do it now. And I asked, "Do you want to be astronauts?".
Both young men got up and made the swap. A few orienteers leaned over, tapping my guys on the shoulder to say, "I'm really glad you decided to change for the hipbelts".
Another was called - he chose the hipbelt. And then I was called. I chose a hipbelt too and gave it to one of my students.
I had a sit down a bit later with my oldest student - the one with the most experience - and I explained why the hipbelt was a better choice. I also remarked on what I'd observed during the week - eating tons of food, buying crisps... Is money better spent on these things or saved so that they can come through to Jo'burg to participate in events... We (the Orienteering Federation) cannot always pay for everything.
Two children were not able to make it. Mary told me that it was too expensive for them. Surprised I asked, "But we've paid for everything - all they have to pay for is food!". It was only after the week that I knew why food was so pricey. If you're eating meat twice a day and vast, unnecessary quantities overall of food (including about 12 x 2l Cokes (R13 each), Nespray milk powder (500g makes around 3.5l of milk and costs around R45 - the students requested this as they prefer it to real milk), Cremora for tea and coffee (R20/jar), hot chocolate etc), of course it is going to be expensive. They spend a considerable amount more on food than I do! And they hail from a 'supposedly' low-income community about 40km South of Polokwane.
Later on the drive back to Polokwane the topic of hiring cars and credit cards came out. Things being what they were, we had a brilliant teaching point from incidents prior to departure about maxed-out credit cards. I explained how the money isn't yours, how the bank is like a casino (they always win) and how much you actually end up paying because of interest. Same with store accounts.
And throughout the week, being an anti-litter fiend, I had a few opportunities to rectify littering issues. Even when dropping off the students at their homes on Saturday afternoon an opportunity presented and I hope that my earlier comment of "Just because everyone jumps off a cliff, does that mean you should too?" and my departing reminder that "This is your home. If everyone tosses rubbish on the floor, your home will be a rubbish dump. Do you want to live like this and who must clean up after you? Promise me, please, that you'll always put your rubbish in the bin. Decide whether you want to be an astronaut or not."