Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The first day of school

Last Monday was the first day of school for most students in Haitian schools.  Sidewalks filled up with little packs of matching children, bright uniforms perfectly pressed for the much-anticipated start of the school year.  The groups of kids outfitted in bright blues and peaches looked like patches of flowers bursting into bloom in a summer garden.  Each school has its own uniform requirements and color scheme, regulating the students’ appearance down to socks and hair bows.  In Haiti, looking sharp for school isn’t just a cultural norm, it’s a mandate—kids with the wrong hair ties or shoes have been known to be sent home immediately, no excuses.

I wondered what the children were thinking and feeling as they made their way down the street to catch a tap-tap to school.  They looked excited, to be sure.  After all, they are the lucky ones—before the earthquake, only half of Haitian kids went to school.  But, I still wondered what else was flitting across their minds.  Eagerness to see their friends again?  Those jittery nerves of performance anxiety?  Relief that their parents were able to pay for required backpack and supplies?  Worry that their family may not be able to scrape together tuition for next month?  Or maybe, chilling dread of what will happen to them if they don’t do well?

Because, you see, school is often not a warm and fuzzy kind of place here.  Of course there are exceptions, and some reforms being made.  But generally speaking, learning in most subjects is done by rote memorization and recitation motivated by fear of punishment.  As one of my colleagues put it, “Pain and shame—those are the main teaching strategies in Haitian classrooms.”  This passage from Jean-Robert Cadet’s memoir, “Restavek: From Haitian Slave Child to Middle Class American” describes these practices particularly vividly:

“During eighth-grade recess, I would watch Maître Jean-Charles with his rigoise* standing behind a student at the blackboard.  For every mistake the student made, Maître Jean-Charles would strike him on his back as he shouted, ‘Crétin! Cochon marron! [Idiot! Wild pig!]’  A student who arrived late to class would receive twenty lashes in the palms of his hands.  As he was whipped, the student alternated hands and counted aloud the strokes through clinched teeth.

“At the end of each quarter, Maître Jean-Charles called an assembly in the school yard to distribute report cards.  A he called the ranking, name, and the grade point average of each student, starting with the seniors, everyone stood silently at attention.  The grade point average was based on a scale of 10.0.  As he reached the names of those with a grade point average below 6.0, he yelled ‘Crétin’ at them...

“For many students, the goal was not to become educated but to avoid being savagely whipped and publicly labeled a crétin by Maître Jean-Charles.”

*  A rigoise is a leather whip, used since the time of slavery.

I shudder to think of the hot tears of humiliation and pain that may run down the bright faces of students that I saw that sunny Monday morning.  It breaks my heart to think that the eager anticipation of so many kids may be quashed and replaced by a cringing dread.  I grieve that the joy of learning is being stolen from another generation.  And I long for a day in which all kids here in Haiti will be educated in schools that value, above all, the needs of children.  By teachers who inspire, shepherd and challenge.  In classrooms that promote discovery, creativity, and thriving. 

It’s hugely encouraging to hear about grassroots projects that are thinking differently about education, like TeacHaiti, Haiti Partners and the Matènwa Community Learning Center (shown in the video below).  And it’s even more exciting to hear that their approach and vision is starting to spread.  May it be so.

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