Saturday, May 18, 2024
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HomeEducation / CultureTo thrive or just survive

To thrive or just survive

By Johnny Coomansingh

My dad deserted my mother when I was just about five years old. Even before he left, I knew that we were homeless and penniless. Undaunted by this demise, I started on the trek of life in the town of Sangre Grande, Trinidad. The daily struggle for food, shelter, clothing, and social acceptability reminded me that somehow I must rise from the quagmire of misery. In light of this, my trust and dependence on what I term the Invisible Hand became more and more a reality. How I made it to this stage in life is a sheer miracle.

Education was seen as the way out of the labyrinth of poverty and destitution. Discouragement was not part of the fabric of my mentality. I reasoned that where there is life, there is hope. There is no magic in success – only the right choices. No one is born a loser or a winner but we are all born choosers. It was not my style to grovel to the light at the end of the tunnel. I began removing the tunnel so that we could all have light, and the real light is so wonderful.

I found excitement in the classic guitar, the cuatro, singing, camping, fishing, woodcarving, woodwork, art, home gardening, and creative writing. My gregarious nature forged lasting friendships everywhere I went. Nevertheless, I avoided snobbish people; those people who sought to constantly deride me. I could sense those who reeked of snobbishness. Maybe I was endowed with a modicum of spiritual discernment. Many of the professionals with whom I came into contact are still ‘up’ there, hung up in their personal Sycamore Tree…it’s time they come down to help those who are struggling with their very own tunnels.

As a youth I found myself island-hopping in the Caribbean. My visits to Tobago, Grenada, St Vincent, Bequia (The Grenadines), Barbados, and Jamaica afforded me the opportunity to assess various cultures and lifestyles; the day-to-day struggles of people who underwent the process of colonialism, slavery, emancipation, independence, and now neo-colonialism.

My poetic and sloganeering talent won me an all-expenses five-day paid trip to Venezuela, our next-door neighbour. What I noticed on this visit was that although this country is a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), there were still very potent signs of poverty among the masses, evidenced by the multitude of people who resided in the squatter settlements (barrios) on the hillsides of Caracas.

My first visit to the United States of America (USA) was in 1988. Although there was no snow, I spent a very cold holiday in New York City during the Christmas season that year. I wore two pairs of socks and my feet were still freezing. The next stop on the trek of life was Hays, Kansas. Although it was cold and extremely windy, Hays, an ‘All American City,’ gave me a better understanding about what it was to be truly ‘American.’ I made many friends in Hays and even the little towns of northwest Kansas. Sometimes you hear people remark that Kansas is a “flyover state,” and that there is “nothing” in Kansas. I think they are incorrect. I guess that such people are too busy to appreciate a wonderful sunset on the High Plains, the sheer and simple beauty of the Konza Prairie, the wildflowers that bloom in the springtime, or the power and majesty of a thunderstorm.

With respect to the High Plains, I visited southwest Kansas and witnessed the quantity, and quality of economic development made possible by the ‘underground rain’ pumped up from the Ogallala Aquifer. In Kansas State University (KSU), I had the privilege of attending football games with funding made possible by my friends from southeast Kansas. And yes, I now understand the game of baseball. One of my sweethearts took me to my first game in Kansas City to see the KC Royals…how exciting. The Royals won that day. I have a better understanding of the culture of football, baseball, and tailgating; some activities that most Americans live for.

Travelling to and fro is part and parcel of being a geographer. My travels took me to 47 states in the USA on vacation trips, field studies, and professional conferences. I looked at mass tourism consumption in Florida when I visited Disney World and Universal Studios. My trips to Vail, Steamboat Springs and Aspen Colorado illustrated the presence of ‘White Gold,’ the snow that initiated and propagated immense economic development in such areas.

In the American West, visits to the Grand Canyon, the Petrified Forest, Joshua Tree National Park, the California La Brea Tar Pits, Venice Beach, The Grand Tetons, Jenny Lake, the Mormon landscape in Salt Lake City, and the Great Salt Lake were intensely fascinating.

I also visited places such as Rattle Snake Creek in Missoula, Yellowstone National Park, Chaco Canyon, Hot Springs and Pea Ridge, Clemson, South Carolina, Maui, the Badlands of North Dakota, and Branson.

All these venues afforded me a window to visualize American cultural values. I was ‘just’ a bystander, a passerby who was looking into a huge showcase. The presence of the tourist industry was quite apparent in almost all the areas I visited. Highly visible on the landscapes I explored was certainly what the American Dream constitutes.

The thirst for knowledge drove me to equip myself for the many stations I encountered in life. This was evidenced by the many areas of study I undertook including agriculture, education, technology, communication science, and geography. Geography completed the circle. The Tao verse I love so much will elucidate my endeavours:

Thirty spokes are made one by holes in a hub

Together with vacancies between them

They comprise a wheel,

The use of clay in molding pitchers

Comes from its absence;

Doors and windows in a house

Are used for their emptiness;

Thus we are helped by what is not

To use what is.

As an educator, I saw myself as an exemplar to my students and my community. I believe in the statement: ‘Wherever you are, be there.’ Reaching out to the student with concern, and words of hope and encouragement, is a strategy that’s worth its weight in gold. I came to the United States in search of intellectual stimulation and development. The state of Kansas gave me this opportunity and I am extremely grateful. Just ask.

Yes, just ask…American orator, Roy Alexander, once said, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get, if you ask right, you get more.” A certain sage a long time ago also spoke similar words: “Ask, and it shall be given, seek, and you shall find, knock, and it shall be opened.” I have asked, and I received, I have sought, and I found, and I have knocked, and many doors were opened graciously unto me in the United States, especially Kansas.

So far, every day was a good day in Kansas. During my sojourn, I was never left hungry, destitute, or cold (except my apartment that was branded as the “Icebox” that remained at 65 degrees F, year-round). People have their ‘ups and downs,’ but how will they understand ‘up’ without the ‘down?’ I call them challenges, seeing the solution within the problem, and understanding that we could turn our problems into opportunities.

It’s a situation where one has to focus (follow one course until successful) and make a decision; to thrive or just survive. Gibran said: “If you wish to see the valleys, climb to the mountain top; if you desire to see the mountain top, rise into the cloud; but if you seek to understand the cloud, close your eyes and think.” I am still climbing. Maybe one day I’ll eventually get to the mountaintop.

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