Memories of Rural High School

Yanelys Nuñez Leyva

HAVANA TIMES, April 25 — Reading the novel El Mendigo bajo el ciprés (The Beggar Under the Cypress) by Cuban writer Humberto Vidal, I was reminded of the bitter moments of my time in the rural school we were sent to.

He describes the injustices to which the main character, William, was subjected to while living in his dorm in Havana. This all quickly took me back to what I suffered at my high school in the Sierra Maestra Mountains.

It’s hard to forget the violently cold temperatures in which we had to go work out in the fields at the crack of dawn, or the exhausting days collecting potatoes when the months of February and March came around, or how they canceled our classes to make us available for work one-hundred percent of the time.

To this I could add the small acts of tyranny introduced by certain students and teachers, those who were given power over the majority.

My mind was taken back to the poor meals, mosquitoes, power outages, theft, mistreatment by fellow students, expulsions, runaways, accidents in the shelters due to their substandard states, and the countless diseases contracted in the absence of proper hygienic conditions.

This goes without mentioning how we were each required to do monthly night-guard duty and clean the hallways and bunkhouses – even when there was a lack of water and/or electricity.

I was reminded about how the only medication in the school infirmary was aspirin, which was prescribed for whatever the ailment.

What also came back to me was the terrible fear we had for committing even the slightest act of teenage mischief (stealing guavas, mangoes or tomatoes from the fields or the orchards near the school, going into the dorms of the opposite sex, cutting classes or whatever…)

In short, life in high school wasn’t easy. What you learned from the difficult conditions was to be independent and to endure the most terrible pain in silence.

Now, five years after having gone through this experience, and having been one of the last generations to “enjoy the privilege of that work-study program” (rural schools have now been officially eliminated) I know that I’ll always be marked by the experience.

This was the same with Vidal’s character, who at one point in the book says: “Those memories are also a part of that burden, as is the guilt over this or that thing which you’re forced to pay, the common acts of humiliation, those that existed or will exist, as well as the disgusting traps and rationales that many called life.”

5 thoughts on “Memories of Rural High School

  • There are hoods in Cuba with same problems typical of USA hoods. Drug traffic and consumption, gangs, violence, prostitution, crime………. You take a walk by Songo or La Maya in Santiago de Cuba, El Condado in Santa Clara, La Vijia in Camaguey, Cerro, Los Sitios, Coco Solo, Pogoloti or Belen in Havana and you will have same % of probabilities to be victim of a crime than walking Liberty City or Florida City in Miami. Hood like neighborhood exists in any country. In Cuba always existed but some crime trends that made those places more dangerous are all new for Cubans. For example, drug traffic is a new thing for us. Cubans never knew drugs until MC department were dismantled in 1986 as part of the trial (cause #1) of General Ochoa and his men. Child prostitution is something new for Cubans too; we did not know infantile prostitution before 1990.
    But gangs, violence and all kind crime is part of some Cuban hoods since colonial time. The only difference between USA hoods and Cuba hoods is that gangs “solve” their difference in USA with AK-47 and other automatic weapons while Cuban gangs “solve” they differences in a more primitive way using machetes, stones and steaks…… like in the film Gangs of NY. What made hood phenomenon more “universal” in Cuba was the fact that castro regime tried to transform Cuba into a huge hood and brought the hood to the schools transforming the camps in countryside into small hoods with all characteristics of violence, insecurity and infernal stress one suffer in the hoods where some of us grew up.

  • Dear Landis
    I did my 7 years “School to the countryside” from 1971 to 1978 and I can describe to you same experiences Yanelis tell us……. there is no “good times” or “well done things” under castro.
    Now, how can one concile Yanelis experience with Elio Delgado fairy tale in this very pages “Cuba’s children, among the happiests”????????!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Cubans very often believe that hard work was invented in Cuba. Suffering too. My Cuban friends in Cuba often complain of how hard high school in the country was for them. If they only knew what most inner-city african-american teenagers must do to survive one day in da’ hood. Childhood in Cuba is Disneyland by comparison. Afterschool jobs are just the beginning. I am not trying to minimize anyone’s personal experiences. If they think had it tough, then it was tough for them. I do think that some of these experiences must be kept in proper perspective ‘lest they begin to unduly influence how the world and particularly Americans respond to Cuba’s changes in the coming years. We need not feel sorry for Cubans. They are largely responsible for their current and past condition and equally responsible for their destiny.

  • Hmmm! The conditions you describe suggest that such a system was based on that of the Spatans for their children. The conditions were so harsh that the children (in Sparta’s case, only boys) were forced, even encouraged, to steal–although they were severely punished if caught! Perhaps this whole system was preparation and training for the subsequent stealing from the state which now goes on! Up here there is a big campaign now going on to end bullying. Don’t know if this will be successful, though, since this habit is so ingrained in human nature, at least upon those with vicious natures. Yet, theoretically, the “School to the Countryside” movement had a beneficial premise: to combine theory with practice, to combine intellectual with manual labor, etc. In many places other versions are successful, such as in Japan, for example, where all children and teen-agers are expected to clean their classrooms, hallways, bathrooms, and work on the landscapes of their schools. At least in the first two decades of the Revolution these schools seemed to produce more successful results–but perhaps that was because before the Revolution so many of the students had no opportunity to progress beyond the first years of primary school, and during those two decades such experiences were withing historical–and actual–memory.

  • Cold temperature? In Cuba? Hahahaha!!! Do you want to work outside here in Austria?

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