By Francisco Castro
I went to elementary school during the roughest years of the 1990s “Special Period” economic crisis in Cuba, in the midst of great shortages.
I remember notebooks with dark brittle pages, using pencils down to the last bit of lead, two or three children sharing the same book at the same time, the pieces of limestone chalk that sent shivers down our backs as they scratched the blackboards, as well as the beat up and largely outdated maps, the desks and chairs repaired with wire, and of course, not a single computer.
I also remember my cloth shoes with their inner tube soles, my backpack made from a sack, and our snacks of bread and water with sugar and a squirt of lemon.
However, I especially remember my teachers. They never failed us, except in a few isolated instances. Each was the heart and soul of their class. Without caring about the school’s lack of materials, they still managed to give enjoyable and interesting lessons.
Now I realize that the shortages never bothered me. Firstly, this was because I was a kid, and maybe I didn’t realize what I was missing. Secondly, and more important, it was because my teachers did everything possible so that those conditions didn’t affect our education.
These days there are few real teachers, at least not like the ones I had just 15 years ago. If I’m mistaken about this, I only ask to be shown my error with concrete proof as soon as possible.
My comment is based on the experiences of my cousins and the children of the families around me.
My little cousin is the one I worry about the most. Her second grade teacher, a young graduate of a crash course in elementary school instruction, is still an undergraduate herself.
While she “teaches” a small group of children, she’s taking her own courses – all at the same time. Clearly, unless she can cut herself in two, she can’t do both.
So what’s more important, that a group of kids learn how to tell the time correctly, or that she passes one of her university courses?
One afternoon I went to pick up my cousin from the school. When entering the classroom, what hit me was an enormous chart with a list of words that begin with the letter H. The last word was “hieso,” instead of “yeso” (plaster).
The young teacher responded to my demand to correct the glaring mistake by saying she didn’t have poster board that was the same color as the chart, and that she could not do the equally screwed up job of covering up the mistake with a piece of cardboard that wasn’t the same color.
My cousin – who is intelligent, but lazy when it comes to studying – was not getting the best grades. So, my aunt saw the need to pay a tutor so that she would receive the correct instruction for the subjects that the government offers her at the school for free.
Since my cousin began taking these private lessons, we’ve seen a remarkable improvement.