Friday, January 17, 2014

Art Of Mario: The Story Of A Spanish Worker

Mario is a young, Spanish man in his early twenties from a small town. As many other young people in Spain, he is without a job, has no college education, or even a high school diploma. Notwithstanding, the fact that he does not have a college education does not say anything about his intelligence. In all actuality, he is an extremely lively and curious person. The Spanish education system, however, has the singular ability to drain that curiosity from young minds, due to the systems ineptitude to adapt to their educational needs, instead forcing these bright, young scholars to adapt to the outdated system. What good is there in punishing a child by making them repeat an entire course when they are only 6 years old? Or in forcing them to memorize long and tedious paragraphs that they have no interest in? Before long, simply going to school is going to become his worst nightmare. The key of learning lies in motivation, not in mechanical and tedious tasks. Only soul-less machines are capable of completing such mechanical and tedious tasks without complaint.


Mario is one of many victims of this system. I have known him for many years, and I have total faith in his ability to reason, his decision-making skills, and his creativity. He likes a well done job, but nevertheless, according to our institutions, he was a "bad student"- someone that is not worth wasting their time on. As is common in Spain, he had to repeat a course when he was in primary school. It probably had something to do with him not pay enough attention in class, per usual, and they made the easy decision to hold him back one year. An active and creative child is the definition of bad student in this broken system. Mario likes learning, but not the way the school tells him to. In Spain, it seems we do things wrong from the beginning.

The few times he had to take an exam, he asked me for my help and advice. "I do not know how to study". If they tell you that you are a bad student ever since you are a little kid, you end up internalizing it. Believing it. It is not about studying, studying is boring. It is about learning, which, with the appropiate motivation, can be one of the most thrilling things ever. What kid doesn't get excited when they learn to ride a bike or skate? Isn't it fun learning to drive a car or a motorcycle for the first time?

Mario belongs to that unlucky sector of the population that lost all their job opportunities very  quickly when the crisis hit in Spain. He started working as an apprentice building houses when he was 15. As he gained experience, he began soldering  metallic frames for windows. It was a time when the construction industry was booming and you could make a decent amount of money without any sort of degree. He has always been a very hard worker. He would wake up as early as was necessary, and he was always very attentive to the needs and demands of his foremen. He was a completely different person. He had a job, money, and a good car. He wanted to succeed.

He got to a point in his career when it made sense for him to quit working and go to trade school. He wanted to learn more about the industry so as to get better jobs that he would enjoy. he was ambitious and wanted to grow, intellectually and professionally. Studying would not be easy, but he could complete the course if he worked at it. The problem came when he realized that the jobs that he was looking for were not available in Spain anymore. The housing bubble had exploded, and we were up to our necks in the financial crisis.

He was confused at first, but confident that everything would somehow work itself out, and soon. "The crisis is not as bad as they say, people keep going to bars" was commonly heard. It was not a bad idea to take some time off. An unexpected vacation "I will keep looking for a job, or I can even keep studying more". Time went by, but things just kept getting worse and worse. On TV there we only saw bad news. Incidences of corruption, increasing unemployment, banks were foreclosing on home-owners, the situation was startling. In a final desperate attempt, Mario decided to move to Barcelona for a time. At first, he looked for jobs in his field, but there simply was no demand for construction at the time. Realizing this, he started applying to any and all jobs, but with his limited education, he did not have any luck.

Defeated, he moved back to his hometown, hopeless, just waiting for the storm to pass and hoping that the country would someday return to some semblance of its former self. After only a short time, there remained almost nothing of that ambitious worker, eager to learn and grow.  The crisis took away all of his motivation and strength. His future looked bleak and there was nothing he could do. The worst part of the crisis has not been the financial consequences, but the psychological devastation amongst the populace. Mario lost his perspective, and finding a job for him was more difficult than ever.

Presently, Mario has been living at his parents' house for quite some time, having completely given up hope of continuing his career. He no longer even tries to find a job because it would seem those jobs have simply disappeared.

One day while talking with him, attempting to animate him out of his despair, I brought up the idea that if he could not find anyone willing to give him a job, why not try to create one? He is an experienced welder, he is creative and has nothing to lose. I suggested that he could start an online business and sell metalic figures. After sketching up a small plan, making a list of material and tasks, and a quick prototype of a website, Mario was more excited than ever. I could barely recognise him. He cleaned out a storage room, set it up to be his workplace, got nearly all of the material that he needs to begin, and he already has ideas for some of the products. His business even has a logo and a name: Art of Mario.

We do not know what is going to happen with this newly hatched plan. There is still a lot of work to do, and the future is very uncertain, but he really wants to make it work. It is amazing how a guy who had lost all hope is now working as hard as he can to accomplish his dream. In all actuality, nothing has changed with his situation, but a whole new world has suddenly opened before his eyes. All because of that one, little conversation, full of optimism.

Perhaps, in the end, the most important fight is not the one against debts and mortgages, but against the collective demoralization of a significant part of the population.