a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
The 2018 World Happiness Report named Costa Rica the happiest country in Latin America - not all that surprising when Costa Rica has for years topped global happiness rankings, alongside the usual Scandinavian suspects of Norway, Sweden and Denmark. The same year, though, the UN Development Program named Costa Rica one of only three Latin American countries that has seen a rise in economic inequality since 2000. In 2018, the income of the richest 20 percent of Costa Rica's population was 19 times higher than that of the poorest 20 percent. Currently, around 38 percent of Costa Rica's total income goes to the top 10 percent of the population, leaving around 20 percent of the population in utter poverty.
"Okay, everyone, have a great afternoon. Remember: tomorrow, everyone should bring a whole piece of fruit to class," Chester declared, squeezing a few words in before everyone shuffled out of the classroom into the sun.
"Yes, don't worry! Thank you so much for the lesson," some students echoed while struggling to open the door, falling on the ground, frantically lifting themselves up and waving "I'm okay" with their arms, and finally making their way out of the classroom.
"I'll bring the longest banana you've ever seen!" a student shouted from outside the room, causing Chester to erupt in laughter.
I was born in Brookline, Massachusetts. However, only a few months later, I moved to São Paulo, Brazil, where I attended school until I was 10 years old. After th Jose, Costa Rica, and lived a couple of years there before returning to Brookline. In San Jose, I attended a small Catholic school named Saint Francis, where students referred to teachers by their first names, and teachers addressed their students as their friends rather than as their inferiors. Although the school's main building was grey and windowless, the people inside it were as bright and colorful as a Keel-billed toucan's beak and chest. Every Monday morning, the other students and I would march inside the Church's chapel, wearing our checkered, navy blue uniforms, and sing the country's national anthem. And as we did so, we would feel the magical vibration of our voices, bonding us to not only one another, but to the teachers listening to our very own chorus.
That same vibrant energy persisted in every classroom. In science class, we would work together to explode a paper mâché volcano, as peacefully and quietly as one can imagine, never ever screaming due to their excitement — not! In Biology class, my teacher once brought a frog for us to dissect, and we did just so, as peacefully and quietly as one can imagine, while definitely utilizing our inside voices and never expressing any disgust towards the poor creature — not!
Therefore, nobody was that surprised when my math teacher, Chester, told all of us to bring a fruit, rather than a book, to class the next day; after all, we did interactive activities in class every day! In fact, nobody doubted where he was going with this assignment for even a second, trusting his pedagogical methods completely.
The next day, all of the students showed up with a piece of fruit to class, as instructed by Chester. Some brought soft, juicy, and bright orange mangoes. Others brought pineapples: tough and leathery on the outside, but sweet on the inside. And others brought ripe, tender papayas, among other local tropical fruits.
"Hello, everyone! How is everyone doing today?" Chester pronounced unusually eager to begin class, even for his naturally perky self that somehow always was able to smile, from cheek to cheek, at 7:15 in the morning when school started.
He gently placed the only banana brought to class, which happened to be very, very long, on his desk. He lifted a plastic knife from his jeans' front pocket and sat it on the desk beside the very, very long banana. The very, very long banana looked at him. He looked at the very, very long banana. Everyone erupted in laughter. He then picked up the knife and held it still inside his left palm.
At that point, he could have cut the excitement in the room with this feeble knife. Everyone sat on the very edge of their chairs, eager to see what would happen next. Not a sound left the room, an event almost as untypical as students bringing fresh fruit to class on a random Wednesday in the middle of the year. Some were so exhilarated that they couldn't even breathe!
But instead of cutting the enthusiasm in the room with his knife, Chester angled it on top of the banana and uttered, “Right now, the banana is a whole..."
Chester then sliced the banana right in its middle. “Now, though, we can observe two halves of the banana."
He continued slicing, "and this is one fourth, and now this is one eighth, and now this is one sixteenth..."
Chester applied this same slicing process with all of the fruit brought to class that day, with the biggest smile on his face I had ever seen. During the last few minutes of class, he even touched on lines of symmetry and the reflection on both sides of that line. Therefore, that morning, we all left class feeling decently satisfied with what he had learnt.
That same afternoon, though, when I was walking my dog on our usual path, I encountered something that surprised me. I spotted, through the homeless shelter's open window, Chester sitting down, quietly eating the fruit we had brought to class earlier that day. At the time, I did not think much of Chester's situation. It was only a few years later that my mom told me that Chester was, in fact, homeless when he was my teacher, as he had spent the entirety of his (meager) teacher's salary on his sick father's hospital expenses. I then realized that the reason Chester asked us all to bring fruit to class that day was not just to teach us fractions. It was to provide him with something to eat, as he had likely not eaten anything but rice and beans for days.
After learning about this part of Chester's life from my mother, however, I had many more questions than before this truth was revealed. The one question that I simply could not get out of my mind was: how was Chester always so happy then, given that he had so much less than I had previously inferred?
I thought about this unanswered question for years. Now, I finally know its answer.
In the Western world, especially in the United States, happiness is often linked to materialistic possessions. In these countries, people generally believe that a new house, or a new car, will make them happy and satisfied in life. However, this notion could not be further from the truth. What will truly make us happy in life is bonding, forming true connections, with those around us, like Chester did daily in the way he greeted his students, smiled from ear-to ear, and created unforgettable activities. In fact, a high level of reported happiness in Latin America is not an anomaly. It is explained by the abundance of family warmth and other supportive social relationships.
Income inequality is undeniably a horrid issue that must be solved as poverty kills millions of people per year globally. And, although the happiness of people in countries with high income inequality never justifies their poverty, it is important, especially for people in the "first-world," to understand that large measures of inequality and happiness can, in fact, coexist. Take the case of Chester with his very, very long banana, for example!
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