A Visit to Havana’s Planetarium

Erasmo Calzadilla

The entrance to the planetarium located in Plaza Vieja of Old Havana. Photo: Abel Ernesto (AIN)

HAVANA TIMES — When I was a kid, my grandfather used to take me to the planetarium in the Sciences Museum inside Havana’s Capitolio building. I was excited about astronomy at the time, but I almost never got to enjoy or learn anything there.

The problem was that we would coincide with groups of hyperactive brats brought from nearby schools on field trips. No sooner had the lights gone out than a Big Bang of shrieks, howls, stamping feet and fights went off.

Unidentified flying objects whizzed by, close to one’s head, while the calm and serene cosmos was projected on the dome above us.

Despite these bitter experiences, I am still attracted by the study of the cosmos. This is why, a few days ago, I paid the high price of ten Cuban pesos (CUP) and went for the first time to the sophisticated planetarium in Old Havana (donated to Cuba by Japan).

Once inside, I was horrified to see a group of school kids, there on a field trip. The experience was also a letdown this time around, but not exactly because of the kids.

When the lights went out, the voice of a narrator, the kind that attempt to convey scientific enthusiasm, began to explain the images projected on the domed roof above.

The kids, bored of the televised lessons they’ve seen so much of back at school, I suppose, immediately lost interest and began chatting. The chit-chat gradually got louder and they had to pause the show so that the teachers could re-establish order in the theater.

This brief gibble-gabble didn’t remotely resemble the primordial chaos I witnessed decades before in the planetarium at the Capitolio.

In my opinion, and that of the kids, the show was extremely short and uninteresting. The truly unpleasant thing happened afterwards.

Outside, the teachers, furious about the “unruliness” inside, made the pupils stand at attention and began yelling at them with all of the rabble-like vulgarity one could come across in a street brawl. They yelled at them in front of everyone.

Vulgarity and roughness appear to be the control methods par excellence employed in Havana’s schools. Everything terrible that comes afterwards, from acts of incivility to totalitarian practices, begin with a teacher (or parent) insulting a child through shouting, threats and coarse language.

I would go as far as saying that the beatings and punishments of the teachers of old, though more painful and humiliating (for they were designed to inspire shame), were less harmful to one’s self-esteem.

Those subjected to the anti-civic training given at Cuban schools today later see nothing out of the ordinary in public officials who trample on them as though they were floor mops. Nor do they see anything wrong in trampling on others to become public officials themselves.

People’s true political education takes place at this level, not during the class that has this name in the official program of studies.

We should not, however, see this as an astrological inevitability. There must be a way to break the chain, whose main link is not even remotely the teacher.

I don’t know if we need to appeal to Nature or progress, to Jesus Christ or African deities, to our ancestors or to the ubermensch, to liberalism, anarchism or communism. The point is that we need to gather up the courage and beat away the conformity we’ve been inoculated with: the time to rebel is now.

If we arrange things so that kids at school today, that is to say our children, brothers, grandchildren, nephews, neighbors and others, are treated like subjects who ought to be respected, beings who cannot be denigrated with impunity by classmates or teachers, then maybe, just maybe, the next generation will again know the indignant Cubans of old, a symptom of good civil health.

If schools are unable to maintain a minimal degree of order without resorting to humiliation, to verbal or psychological violence, we should turn our backs on them as soon as possible. It will always be easier to obtain an education outside of school than to restore one’s dignity and damaged self-esteem.