Do not eliminate hunger in this world. Do not. Hunger motivates.
I am not talking, of course, about literal food. I am talking about that burning in the brain that propels a person forward in the relentless pursuit of whatever he or she wants to achieve. That kind of hunger—or drive, if you will—is indispensible in the quest for knowledge.
For several years some years ago, I took students from my high school, McCutcheon, to Russia. We spent time in a Russian secondary school, even though it was June, because national exams were given across the country at the end of that summer month. We entered the school by mounting crumbling cement steps. Inside, cracked and curling linoleum covered the floor of the lobby; classrooms were equipped with cheap laminate desks, pitted window-sized blackboards, and old rags that served as erasers. The Pskov Humanitarian Lyceum, a top academic school in the region, was characteristic of Soviet-style school construction, and the accoutrements in the classrooms were common across the country. The Russian teenagers who hosted my students on those academic exchanges ten years ago were my students’ age but a year ahead of them in school. They spoke English, which they had been studying since they were seven, fluently; we struggled with the Cyrillic alphabet and elementary phrases like “Good morning” and “Good-bye.” They knew more about American history than we did, and the American students knew no Russian history at all. The Russian students were well acquainted with many American artists, musicians, and writers, but we had never even heard of Pushkin, their beloved, legendary poet.
What did these Russian students want? A better lifestyle than what they were living in Russia then. They had heard about the American standard of living, read about the material possessions that made us seem rich and that made our lives comfortable, and had seen it all for themselves when they finally came to America—and they hungered for it. They knew that education was what they needed to win a place at Russian universities, to complete a course of study and graduate, and to find the kind of work that would being them closer to our kind of comfort and prosperity.
I brought their teachers erasers for the blackboards, and for the students I brought pencils and pens with McCutcheon logos. I could not bring them new and shining schools. I did not need to.
Situated in Isiolo, Kenya, the last outpost before the long stretch of Sahara desert to the north, the Isiolo School for the Deaf is an aggregation of board shacks without windows, set in the middle of an open field: not on a foundation, not on a platform, but on bare ground that becomes mud in the rainy season. Cracks between the boards admit some light to the inside. When I was there, I saw children sitting tall in straight back chairs at wooden desks scarred from years of hard use, children from eight to fourteen, raising their hands excitedly, rapidly finger spelling answers in the air, signing the words they knew. At lunchtime, the students sat on the grass in a set-aside area under a roof to protect themselves, in rain or shine, from sudden downpours and the searing African sun. Their lunch, cooked in a vat, was rice and sometimes beans. There was no electricity at night, only a lucky few had mosquito nets, and the only clothes the children owned, they were wearing. No books, no paper, no pens, but exuberance and pride marked the children’s demeanor.
What were they without? Language. These children were born deaf or had lost their hearing at an early age. They were the lucky ones, deaf children whose parents had brought them from homes all over Kenya to attend this boarding school, to learn some language, to learn some method of communication. Language would bring them some measure of civility in the life of isolation that stretched ahead of them like the long, dry desert to the north.
I brought them alphabet banners for the classroom and a “Spill and Spell” game with hands etched into the sides of the dice to illustrate a, b, c in the manual alphabet. You would think I had brought the moon. Later, students at McCutcheon raised the money to electrify the school. Now the students could sign to each other in the night; they could continue to learn even after the sun went down.
In rural Rwanda, the scene of genocide not so many years ago, families in poor communities struggle to educate their children. For most children, secondary education is out of the question because the school fees are too steep. Secondary school students need to pay tuition to attend boarding schools. They must buy uniforms, purchase books, and sometimes carry mattresses with them to schools in remote locations. But in a few primary schools, an American organization, Every Child is My Child, has promised the elementary students a high school education if they study hard and pass the entrance exams—and they are driven to learn. Their classrooms are brick, not board, but there are no posters on the walls, no books, and few visual aids —just a teacher, a blackboard, copy books and pencils. The students write everything they hear from their teachers and everything they see on the board in their copy books—and they study what they have written. Against all odds, they are on grade level with students in the United States. And they are hungry to learn more. Hands wave in the air, answers fly in French and English and Kinyarwandan , and shy smiles cross the children’s faces when their responses are correct.
What do these students want? An education. I brought paper rulers and protractors—disposable learning aids gathered up after standardized tests—and National Geographic maps of Africa. I could not begin to equip their classrooms, and I could not feed their hunger. Only they could do that.
The hunger of all these children, the burning desire to learn that all of them have felt, has been essential to their achievement. Their desire comes from within—not from buildings equipped with the latest technology, not from the resources of their governments, not even from great teachers, but from within themselves.
We eat because we are hungry; we achieve success for the same reason. We have to do more than just want whatever we dream for ourselves. We have to burn to have it and then put our heads down and drill through the dark to attain it. “Wanting something is not enough. You must hunger for it. Your motivation must be absolutely compelling in order to overcome the obstacles that will invariably come your way,” said Les Brown, an American businessman and motivational speaker. He may have been talking about material success—I have no idea—but his point applies. Drive—the motivating force that makes a person, or a team, or even a country “go the distance”—is a hunger that is fed from within.