Arriving late for class in Cuba is a futile exercise. The door will be locked, and if it isn’t the professor will wave away the tardy student with a non verbal dismissal.
Attendance is mandatory in all of our classes, and absences lower our final grade and can even keep us from taking the final exam. We are expected to be in class and on time.
A few months ago I was in histology class and about 10 minutes after starting there was a knock at the door. A few of us exchanged glances, wondering who could think they would be getting in late. Maybe someone with a justified excuse from a doctor?
The professor opened the door. A video news crew and a couple of Cuban workers from the school’s Office of International Relations peered into the classroom.
On seeing myself and another American student one of the Cubans said “ah! we have found them,” which was accompanied by that almost universal facial expression of someone finding something after an extended search.
Arrangements were made quickly. Our professor was replaced with the head of the histology department. We were told the news crew and their video camera would be filming us during class. Class began anew, with cameras rolling, and we stood to greet our new professor as if we had just arrived.
As the professor began presenting the material he asked us to answer the questions he was going to pose. A couple of students answered. I sat at my computer, frantically typing out my feelings and observations of my first encounter with foreign journalism in Cuba.
One of the international relations workers came over and told me to respond to the professors queries. I took the opportunity to ask her for her phone number. Quid pro quo. Of course I did as I was asked, quite enjoying my role in the affair. After class I was asked to present myself at the International Relations Office for an interview later that day.
There were two other students waiting when I arrived, and we all took turns being interviewed. We were not coached on what to say. We were not prompted as to what questions would be asked. For that, at least, exchange with the South Korean interviewer seemed spontaneous enough.
The second to last question was something to the effect of my previous activities before arriving to Cuba. I mentioned my anthropology and chemistry degree from Texas, and my studies at the University of Botswana. Upon hearing this the smiling interviewer jumped at the chance to point out that I must want to make a lot of money, since I have studied so much.
My response was no; that is not really my goal. Then I mentioned something about achieving a comfortable life style, my definition of that, and also pointing out that my Cuban professors have spent a good portion of their lives in education knowing that their careers will never result in a huge income, at least not in their homeland.
I added that trying to make ends meet in a country where you are paid in one currency and charged in another presents an even tougher set of challenges, yet we still have professors in all of our classrooms.
That last question seemed quite telling to how often higher level education is associated with getting paid. It might come as a shock, but there are a few of us that revel in knowledge and creating new ways to understand ourselves and our world.
It seems that despite the difficult conditions in Cuba, where I have thrown up my hands in frustration and abandon more than once, people still work hard to meet difficult goals in what some see as an impossible system. I want to learn how and why they do that. Maybe it has something to do with that class attendance policy.