There are 77,600,000 girls around the world who do not attend school.
Not 77,600,000 children or adults or people all put together.
Just the girls.
That means that there are 77,600,000 girls who are uneducated, illiterate and unprepared for almost everything that could and will come their way.
It's not that they don't attend school by choice; if they had the choice, they would most likely be first in line at a new school if one were to open close enough to attend.
But in most cases, the school is miles away; a distant, far-off dream of wood or brick or plaster that holds all the knowledge of the world in poorly-bound stacks of paper called books.
Sometimes the school is on the other side of a river, coursing fast and deep with rocks and fish and who knows what else.
Sometimes there's a bridge, but it could be hanging on by a thread, broken and rotten and in desperate need of repair – but who's going to waste their time and money to rebuild a bridge to a school?
Sometimes there's no bridge, only a rope. A single, rough rope to crawl across, the river rushing underneath it in a way that always reminded hopeful students to watch where they placed their hands and feet.
“Don't fall off,” is what the river would say if it could speak, but it'd be in a mocking tone. It's not like the river would help someone if they'd fallen in. It'd just swallow them up and say, “I told you not to fall” and continue coursing through the land, cutting down rock and wearing away at the muddy banks.
But some of them do make it to school. Some of them get to spend the day in the classroom, reading from the dirty, worn pages of old books and writing in the dirt with twigs, copying down whatever their teacher told them.
Some barely get a mile down the road before they are sexually assaulted, kidnapped or even murdered.
Some set off for school, knowing the road before them is long and that the day would wait for no one, and they never return home.
Sold across borders into the sex slave trade, or violently assaulted and then killed, left on the side of the road or in bushes or dumped in rivers, these children never make it to school.
And it's not like the school can just call up their parents and ask them if they were headed to school that day. The teachers don't know if a student is going to be there and the parents don't know if their child is going to make it or not. But they hope.
They hope that they make it safely to the crumbling, yet solid, walls of the school. They hope that they have everything they need for the school day. They hope that they get fed at least once that day so they will not have to go hungry. They hope that they will return to them after school is over.
Sometimes they do. And sometimes they don't.
Education is more than just learning how to write your name in cursive or learning that “moon” and “June” rhyme, even though “ant” and “want” don't.
There is so much more than learning about the original American flag and why Romeo and Juliet isn't a love story.
We forget the very basics of education, the things that we grew up learning that are so natural and automatic for us that we can't begin to imagine that others don't understand it.
Sanitation is education. We were taught to wash our hands before we eat, to cover our mouths when we cough, to wash out our cuts before we put a band-aid on them. We were taught to bathe at least twice a week and to brush our hair daily and to wash behind our ears.
We were told to wear shoes outside so we didn't step on anything and we were given shots before we entered school. Every year we're exposed to millions of allergens and toxins and diseases, but we rely on our doctors and over-the-counter medications and vaccines to make us better. We were taught to take pills when our heads hurt, and to put ice on our aching limbs.
We were educated about how to make ourselves better at such a young age that it is thought to be common knowledge. But there's nothing common about it. It's not globally known how to cure a toothache or how to rub out cramps.
Through education we prosper. We always hear, “Learn from your mistakes”, but what if you didn't know that what you were doing was a mistake? If you are not educated on it, then how could you possibly know that drinking 5 sodas in a row won't get rid of your cavities?
Sure, you might say, “Of course it won't!” but that's because you've been educated about your teeth and what causes cavities and how to prevent them.
But there's even more to it than that. I'm not here to talk about free dental insurance or raiding pharmaceutical companies to get their allergy medicines or anything like that. I'm here to talk about the fact that the less-educated a girl is in the Third World, the more likely she is to be a child bride.
The fact that the less-educated a girl is in the Third World, the more likely she is to have several children and die in childbirth. The fact that she is more likely to live and die in poverty and so will her children. The fact that she is likely to contract AIDS or HIV from her husband and pass it to her child who will die, because she is not educated on the symptoms of those STDs.
Or the fact that two-thirds of the illiterate people in the world are women, and sixty-three percent of uneducated children are girls.
A higher education means that a girl is less likely to be married young; to have several children; or to contract HIV. A higher education means that a girl is more likely to immunize her children and her children are more likely to live past infancy.
We complain about having to go to school. We roll out of bed and ask “Why me?” as we angrily step inside the air-conditioned, well-lit solid building that houses anything and everything we could ever ask for. We are fed, we are clothed, we are given an opportunity that a huge percent of the world is not.
Education is not free in over 50 countries. We cry about our free education while secretly envying private schools. We fail classes, we drop out, we try to graduate early just to get out of school while others halfway across the world are literally dying just to attend one day of class.
We think we should envy Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs because they made millions upon millions after they dropped out of school. We think we should be like them; forgo all sorts of education and opportunities to sit on our computers and hope that maybe someday we will become as rich as they are.
There is so much more and I could talk forever about it, but it wouldn't change a thing. If you want to change the world, you have to do something about it. I cannot simply type up this on my computer and send it out, hoping it reaches some of you and sparks a notion that, “Yes, we should do something about this.”
I have to do my part in this as well. I will not sit back and assume that the elusive and mysterious “someone else” will come along and clean up the world. I cannot do that. The world has done it for far too long and we have reached where we are today because of it.
Maybe I cannot start on this cultural and educational revolution today or tomorrow or maybe even next week, but by the time I am finished with college I will have all the tools I need to go out into the world and fix this problem we have with education. I will spark desire and want and need for knowledge in everyone I meet and bring new interests to the students in my classrooms. I will teach and be taught and reach out to those who need it most.
I will no longer stand on the sidelines and let the world step on the uneducated, the illiterate, the poor and the sick. I will no longer allow them to be treated as less than human because they have not been given the same opportunities as me or my peers.
I will not allow boys or girls to be harmed on their way to and from school. I will make sure that they not only feel safe, but are truly and honestly safe, in their homes and in their schools. I will make sure that they are all reaching their potential, because they all are bright and wonderful minds.
I want to be in the crowds of unwashed, worn and tired bodies housing minds eager to learn. I want to be there building schools from mud and straw and plastic bottles filled with sand. I want to hold the hands of children as I walk them to their homes to make sure they are returned safely to their families. I want to see the light shine in students' eyes as realization dawns on them and I want to hear their excited voices as they call out answers to questions I've barely even asked.
The world is too beautiful to let it go to waste because we simply don't want to put in the effort of teaching people simple things like hygiene. The world is too beautiful to think so lowly of it. People are too beautiful to trample on because they cannot read or write.
Being literate does not make someone more or less “useful” or “purposeful”, but it does certainly help elevate them to a place where they can make more of their lives if they so choose to.
It all starts with education.