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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: From the donkey to the birch


Mejs Hasan

I’m reading a book about pastoral England in Queen Victoria’s time. The village of Haworth was in revolt because its minister had just died, and by tradition, the churchgoers ought to choose the heir to the office. 

Instead, distant authorities rammed their own pick of preacher into the pulpit. During a Sunday sermon by the new preacher, a drunk man rode on a donkey, backwards, down the church aisles with a pile of hats on his head. The imposter preacher fled shortly thereafter.

Why can’t we do that?

But I suppose activism is just as effective, though less spectacular, if constant and patient. Like through education. I used to tutor kids after school. I would go with the hope of inspiring them with their math homework; their goals were more in fidgeting and getting distracted. (Too late, I realize their fidgets deserved higher priority than fractions).

They always say: Go volunteer! You’ll make a difference! And here I was, failing even at that. The final stroke came when a girl, with a confidential air, whispered that she thought one of the other tutors had a crush on me. I was scandalized at the degenerate musings of fifth graders; I didn’t tutor for a long time after that.

When I finally resurfaced, I had spent years following one of the best teachers I know. She always left kids shrieking in amazement when they unspooled a tape measure to discover just how big a blue whale is.

Now it was my turn. I decided to visit a school. I wanted to tell the students about water pollution and how crucial the monitoring of water is. Then I’d show them how to make an animation about the topic — a pleasing imitation of Disney sure to impress them. It was to be my greatest triumph ever.

But nothing is ever so obliging as to go to plan. My laptop wouldn’t hook up to the school projector, though I’d spent a harried morning biking to buy the necessary cable. My laptop screen was too small, we ran out of time and the boys in the back started talking while a girl in the front kept whispering, “I don’t understand!” What a disaster.

In the end, I snapped at one of the boys. It really helped because it spurred half the class to talking, and in that rapturous state the school day retired. The boys shot out of the classroom like someone was chasing them with fire; the girls all stayed, and we finished the animation within 20 minutes (see it online at

Afterwards, I was so tired I slept twelve hours. If I had not, I think I’d have dropped beneath a birch tree and cried.

Our world is crammed with huge problems, many beyond my control. I try to do the tiniest thing to steer our sinking ship, but it doesn’t work. In spite of the fact that I was exhausted, even though I’d tried so hard to engage the students, the most notable occasion of my school visit — at least for the boys — was me snapping at the kid.

Compared to the ease with which people destroy, it feels near impossible to build anything.

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