Yesterday, 21st January 2012, Laura Dekker reached the port of the Caribbean island of Sint Maarten, thereby concluding her solo sailing trip around the globe. Laura, who started her trip 21st August 2010 in Gibraltar, arrived at the Caribbean island aged 16 years, 4 months and 1 day old, and thereby sets a new record of youngest person to ever sail across the globe solo. An incredible achievement for a young but obviously very admirable and mature person, and even more incredible when the story behind the project is known. Almost everyone was against Laura’s plan, people were venomously venting their jealousy, and authorities tried to stop her. Laura held on to her dream and showed what belief in yourself and determination can do. The fact she remained mentally strong and brave despite all attempts to stop her, makes her achievement all the more admirable. It is not for no reason that I wrote a poem dedicated to her, in which I described the wish there’d be more Laura’s (more people like her, who refuse to let society put them in a cage and force them to conform, and who strive for their dreams no matter what). I wrote this poem about 10 months ago if I remember well, long before it was sure that Laura would finish her trip. But the fact she even started off and put aside all critics she had to swallow, would make her an admirable person, no matter if she would have reached her goal or not. The fact she tried and kept fighting for her dream, despite the attempts to stop her, was sufficient to in my opinion deserve all praise. Hence there was the poem. Now, early 2012, Laura truly has beaten the odds by having finished her project and set the record. Some people who tried to stop her are probably having problems now to control their frustrations.
Let’s spend only little time on the facts because those can be found at plenty of sites. Short summary: Laura wanted to leave on her trip around the world in 2009. Despite the fact she had been sailing solo for years and was experienced enough, the authorities tried to stop her. The authorities, ironically called Bureau Jeugdzorg (Bureau for youth “care”), prevented her to leave in 2009 on grounds that it would violate the law that states one has the duty to learn at her age (however, not the duty to go to school — learning from home or distance is fully legal). Then it was tried to place her under surveillance of the Child Protection. Protecting and caring for a “child” apparently means: trying to make her a number in the row, preventing her from chasing her dreams and make her part of the system. That while her parents made no objection to her project. In December 2009, Laura took off to St Maarten on her own and was reported missing. She was repatriated to the Netherlands but with some months of delay, in summer 2010, she could bypass the authorities and start her trip from Gibraltar. The rest is history.
This is not a website about sailing. Nor is it a political website directly. However, there is a reason why I am dedicating this article to Laura. Not just because of a poem, but also because Laura proved that not everybody fits in the stereotype that society tries to enforce on people. Not everyone functions well in conforming to what everyone else does and what society tries to portray as the only “right”. Still, the whole system is trying to do just that, and young people with a psychological disorder or who are neurodifferent are just as much victim of that system. Laura is to my knowledge not autistic, depressive or suffering from any other disorder. She however proved to everyone that there is a way out of that system that can feel very suffocating to those who just don’t fit in.
Let’s look at the first problem in this case. Laura’s case was a concern to an institute that is about child “protection”. Not only is Laura way too mature to be labelled a child (otherwise she would have not managed to succesfully complete this trip), I’d say she is a young woman and probably more mature than many legal adults ; but also protection includes more than trying to enforce someone into a system that is based on conforming and becoming part of a collective, thereby forcing to suppress personal development and individual delevelopment. Schools teach you to conform, to swallow certain rules as a dogma without encouraging to think for yourself and form own opinions, they too often (I don’t want to generalise) focus on making the students like thousands of others, a part of the masses without a strong individual personality. Someone wishing to chase his/her dream and doesn’t (want to) fit in that masses, is immediately suffocated by trying to force one into conformity. You’re an outcast the moment you’re different from the big masses.
One of the most heard comments during Laura’s trip, was “this child belongs in a school”. Why? Because ten thousands of other children do so, just because everyone else does it, just because the norm dictates it?? Laura chose to chase her big dream instead, she did not hinder anyone else during this process and probably learnt more during her trip than any school can ever teach someone. Laura learnt caring for herself, independence, courage and a very strong moral and belief in herself, and a lot of maturity without any doubt. This is more than any school could have taught her. There she would have only learnt to suppress her dream and become one of the masses. Luckily she was strong enough to resist and hold on to her dream.
In my opinion, education and knowledge are important. Education should not be a privilege but a basic right to anyone, regardless of their background. It should be open to all, free for all, and optional. Indeed, optional. Because I realise as well that not everybody fits in that system and that while it has been great for many students, it has also suffocated some who wanted to achieve something different in life. Hence we should never enforce someone to join such system but leave the door wide open to those who want to join and be educated. The problem is that society tries to impose unwritten roles, norms, on everyone, and thus rather trains young people into conformity than into developping their own way of thinking, their own way of life and personal development.
Also, let’s be honest. Of what we learn in school, the vast majority is knowledge we’ll never need again in later life and which we forget shortly after finishing education. The educational system as it exists in many countries in Europe, needs some big reforms. For example: religion, sports and arts (or “morals and ethics” for those who choose not to study a certain religion) do not belong in a school. They are parts of private life. Those who believe, who wish to be part of a sports team or be an artist (with many famous sportsmen and artists as role models, enough young people will spontaneously develop such desire), can go to a worship house, sports club or arts school outside of school hours. Enforcing it on young people only has the reverse effect. I experienced this too. I am very active with arts as we speak, but back in my youth I hated arts classes. Because it was forced on me while at that time the interest was not there. Sports classes had the reverse effect and only left me with a dislike of the idea of joining a sports club. At a later age, as an adult, I began to become more and more active in the artistic field, and I love it… because it was the result of my own interest, not of anyone forcing me into it.
Other than that, someone studying languages really doesn’t need to keep following mathematics until the last stage of his education. Or vice versa. Really interesting things to add to the school package would be intercultural exchange (learning about different cultures and religions rather than the current choice between which religion one wishes to study) , political science, and open debate. This would really encourage young people to form an opinion of their own rather than making them one of the masses. This would make a lot more sense than some scientific education which is, the minority purchasing a science degree at university excluded, rather pointless for most students. And it would certainly be a lot more educative than a camping week or field trip. Sometimes it really seems we want people to swallow the dogma from the masses rather than learn to think for themselves. I realise generalising is dangerous and some schools and teachers indeed encourage personal development, which is great. Hence I will not call the system indoctrination. Rather I’d say a lot of schools fail to encourage the development of personality, and that the school system needs some reforms. Now it mainly tells young people what to think and how to act. When someone refuses to do this and prefers to set a different goal, you get the type of reactions Laura had to cope with. I doubt those who spent that 1.5 years at school have learnt only a tiny fraction of what Laura has learnt during her trip. Heck, she probably experienced more unique moments in life than many people do in a lifetime.
And maybe that latter leads to the second issue: jealousy. Undoubtly some will have been really concerned if such a young person should be sailing the seven seas alone (Laura proved though she was mature enough for it). But also undoubtly, in some cases some jealousy will be involved. Some people called her a spoiled brat. What does chasing your dreams in life, not harming or hindering anyone in doing so, have to do with being spoiled? Those “child protection” officers who tried to stop her may be genuinely concerned, but somehow I’m a bit sceptic about that. And anyways, if the parents agreed to her plan, then it was time for them to step back. To call someone spoiled for having the guts and determination to chase her dreams, is missing the point and makes little sense to me. Not spoiled, but determinated and brave, I would say. Because few would manage to keep staying focussed and chasing that dream while having to swallow so much criticism. Now, aged 16, Laura already achieved something extraordinary which few realise in a lifetime. I think it is quite ironic that just that is being criticised. I think it’s fantastic to see her determination.
Then finally, we come to the “norms and values”, a term used frequently in the press. Think about for example the many times debates go on about the presence of expats from other cultures in society. Think about subcultures or people who do something out of the ordinary. Very often people refer to “norms and values”. But what does that term in fact mean? The criticism to Laura seems to indicate that this norm is: you grow up, go to school, settle down, have a career, have a family and the next generation will do the same. Again, I wish to not generalise and realise there’s enough people openminded enough for those who prefer something different in life. But still I find it odd that so often “norms” is used. Who creates those norms? I mean, my opinions and perception of what is normal or not, will vary a lot from the opinion of my neighbour, despite both of us coming from the same geographic and cultural background. Still, I’m sure 10 people will all have their own version of what is normal or what is good or bad. So who actually creates those norms? For sure my norms are not those of my neighbour or even those of my best friends.
Norms are unwritten rules that society dictates to set what is acceptable, what is good. In the end, I consider it a virtual cage society creates around people to stand in the way of developping their own personality. Society trying to push someone in a specific direction. Conform or be cast out. If you don’t feel comfortable in that mass and the set of rules they follow, you’re risking to end up isolated, an outcast (countercultures not included).
I do however believe strongly in one norm: “respect each other” and “treat one another the way you wish to be treated yourself” (two expressions that actually come down to the same thing). This one norm seems to be forgotten too often. Which I truly regret.
And now some people may make the remark: “you are strongly left-wing, so why are you advocating against confirming?”. Let me make it clear that socialism is a political and economical system and set of ideas. Within these teachings, one can have the religion, lifestyle, etc they choose. I wouldn’t want a society where everyone acts, dresses and behaves the same. It would be quite colourless. Left wing politics mainly deal with political systems and economical systems. This hence has no impact on one’s lifestyle, personal spiritual or religious believes, etc. (at least, when applied correctly. I will never deny that many leftist regimes failed and turned into totalitarian societies ; a mistake which should not be made again, and if not made again, personal development is definitely encouraged and not a problem at all. Quite the contrary)
Anyways, us –the people with psychological or neurological disorders– often find ourselves to be outcasts as well. Because we often find it hard to fit in in the system of education that is created for the majority, but still has shortcomings in how to deal with those who are different and don’t feel comfortable in that system. Some reforms are badly needed because I have seen to many promising and bright young people suffocate and in the end hide their true selves (and their diagnosis) because they somehow learnt it was a bad thing to be open about it. This attitude has to change.
But, I don’t want to make this a post of bitterness. Rather, I want to focus on the person who deserves the credits. Laura, you realised something exceptional. Your determination deserves a lot of admiration. Kudos to you and a big big congratulations!!