Grace Under Pressure

One of the most interesting stories from our time in England begins with our inability to find a plunger. Stay with me. It seems that toilet plungers aren’t a big thing in England. We couldn’t find a store that sold one. And when your toilet’s clogged, ordering online isn’t really helpful. After trying three places, and scouring the websites of several others, we gave up and called a plumber. But it turns out that sink plungers are quite plentiful (I had never heard of one before).

We’ve encountered a lot of home issues over the years, but the really galling thing about this backup was our inability to fix it. We knew how, if only we could have located the proper tool, but it remained maddeningly out of reach. Seems silly to call the plumber for a two second fix (which is about how much time it took to fix once they showed up). But on the other hand, we didn’t want the toilet backing up all over the floor.

So why the hell am I talking about a clogged toilet?

We had to wait about twenty-four hours for the plumber to show up and it was one of the most maddening twenty-four hours of my life. We take for granted, I think, how easy it is to fulfill our needs. When we want something, it’s almost always at our fingertips. And depending on where you live, you can flit off to the store at two in the morning to fulfill whatever need you happen to have. We don’t realize the extent of that convenience until something takes it away.

I was talking to a friend the other day about a planned water shutoff in his apartment complex. It reminded me of our inability to find a plunger, and our subsequent wait for a solution to our problem. The moment you lose access to something, you think of all the reasons why you need it. What if I can’t wait? What am I going to do? I need a plan. And a back up plan. And a back up for the back up in case all else fails.

The harder we try not to think about things, the more they crowd our mind. There have been several studies on this subject; all it takes to get someone to think about something is to tell them not to think about it. Even with a clear end to the problem in sight, a high-anxiety person (like myself) will spend much of the time distracted by the situation. Because what am I supposed to do until said time?

When the smoke (or rather toilet) had cleared, I started to wonder. If the inability to access a seemingly simple thing for a short period of time can throw a person’s equilibrium topsy-turvy, what’s it like to be forced to live without?

My husband is a school teacher. Throughout his training there was a lot of talk about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This is relevant because, if a child’s needs are not being fulfilled, they have an increased difficulty learning. Every day, even in first world countries, children go to school tired, hungry or afraid, lacking something fundamental to survival that many of us take for granted. If I can’t focus on my work when I’m worried about fulfilling my needs for a couple of hours, how can we expect these children to get an education on a daily basis?

In recent years, there has been a lot of focus on test scores. Schools, and teachers, are expected to prove progress. How do they do that? Endless assessments. Good homework scores and passing grades aren’t enough. A high percentage of the student body has to perform well on tests that, frankly, prove nothing about the quality of a classroom education. Parents pressure teachers and principals to increase their children’s grades whether or not they’ve earned the mark and, often, teachers are forced to capitulate. The children who consistently perform lowest under these circumstances are children with low socioeconomic status. Children who lack the fulfillment listed in Maslow’s hierarchy.

Some European countries have adopted different tactics. Instead of focusing on sheer numbers and statistics (which are unreliable in the first place), they’ve tried to ensure that every child in their school has their basic needs met. That every child has food, shelter, and access to counselling if they need it. And you know what? Those schools have seen a remarkable increase in the results of test scores.

Pretty deep thoughts from a small plumbing clog. So the next time you find yourself temporarily without something you often take for granted, remember how lucky some of us really are. And how unreasonable our society can be.

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