Class Differences in a Cuban Classroom?

Kabir Vega Castellanos

Jóvenes cubanos
Jóvenes cubanos.  Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — When I look back at how I felt in the classroom when I first started my English course, the changes I’ve experienced seem incredible to me. At the time, I would see so many people with touchscreen phones that I was embarrassed to pull out my MP3 player, for even something as insignificant as this is a status symbol.

Sometimes, I would worry about what they might think about me, who often wore the same clothes – and shoes – to school. I hated it when we were given exercises in which one had to talk about oneself. I would go crazy trying to come up with something – it seemed to me that my house, my situation and my life in general was simply too boring, while the lives of the other students struck me as very interesting.

When, in these class exercises, we were asked whether we took the bus to go to work or school, everyone answered: “No, I take a taxi.” So, I also came to think I was the only one who had to endure nearly three hours inside a crowded bus every day, where there isn’t even enough oxygen to go around from time to time.

At recess, I felt envy of those who ate apples, a hamburger or fruit juices as expensive as 3.30 CUC, in front of everyone. I was convinced I was the only one who couldn’t afford such things.

I recall that a girl who didn’t often show much interest in participating in class discussions anxiously put up her hand when the exercise consisted in describing one’s home – and it was simply to share with us that her house had fifteen rooms.

In another exercise designed to learn the past tense, we were asked to describe what we had done on our last vacation, and everyone answered they had gone to Varadero. It was so evident many people were lying that the teacher finally said: “If everyone went to Varadero, how come no one saw each other?”

One time, I went to Coppelia, Havana’s main ice-cream parlor, with two classmates. At one point, the conversation centered on the country’s problems. Among other things, they said that the country’s prices were conceived for about one percent of the population. This encouraged me, for I thought we were finally sharing sincere concerns, but the tone of indifference my classmates spoke with made it clear they belonged to that one percent.

It is said similar people are drawn to one another. The student who sits next to me in class began to notice I was different and began to use his MP3 player in front of me without any hang ups. During recess, when we went out to the street, he started buying cheap peanuts to assuage his hunger.

Little by little, people’s fears of revealing who they were disappeared. One day, a classmate I often talk to opened her coin purse in front of me without any kind of embarrassment. She only had six Cuban pesos in it.

I gradually realized that all of us started playing a certain character when the course started, as a defense mechanism. Like all lies, it couldn’t last long and, with time, these characters fell apart.

In the end, it came to light who we truly are, people saddled with all of the problems the average Cuban faces.

4 thoughts on “Class Differences in a Cuban Classroom?

  • Thanks for your revealing story! Whether in Cuba, the U.S., just about anywhere really, high school is a difficult and challenging experience. Since they are still trying to discover WHO they are, and are in the process of constructing who they are, most stuents try to play the roles they perceive as gaining the most acceptance. Only later comes the self-confidence to be yourself, and not to slavishly follow what is expected, or seems so important.

  • That’s an easy one. No car vs. Toyota is a greater difference than Toyota vs. Mercedes. Let’s assume everyone can benefit from having a car. The ‘no car’ family must make other changes to adapt to this lack and arrive at their destination on time. In the Toyota vs. Benz scenario, both families arrive at their destination at the same time, albeit the Benz family in greater style and comfort.

  • I don’t see it as a big class difference but I remember the times when communism in Cuba was at its purest phase, the sons of the generals, members of the Cuban Central Committee of the Communist Party and diplomats lived in houses with swimming pools, had cars ( they used to park two blocks from the school to avoid to be noticed) and were always the first one to have the first electronic appliance colour TV, video players, music player, etc.

    Now it seems to me that those who are not communist have their chance
    too and you only hope that they get more for their hard work (so they can
    afford to give their kids better conditions at school)

    In terms of the difference, you always have to wonder where the difference is
    bigger, in a country where one family has a Toyota and the neighbour two
    Mercedes Benz or in a country where one family has a Toyota and the neighbour has no car?

  • Thank you for an honest opinion.

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