HAVANA TIMES, Jan 17 — Despite my having resolved to call a truce with regard to my articles concerning the issue of Cuban education, this is one essay that I consider vital.
Writing it was more difficult than I expected because it was so full of lurid details that it wore me down just thinking about them. Nevertheless it’s essential to break the inertia that has existed for such a dangerously long time.
It all started for me the day that my son Kabir, who was nine then, decided that to let his hair grow long. It was that simple.
I explained to his teacher that I wouldn’t force him to go to the barber, since I didn’t want to be the bad guy with respect to a convention that I considered absurd. She disagreed with me but didn’t have any arguments strong enough to convince me otherwise.
There was such a backlash the following year, when Kabir was in the fifth grade that the teachers’ hostility spread all the way to the second and third grades at the same elementary school.
Of course we didn’t find any support from within the administration. And the psychologist that I turned to out of desperation only advised that me to change my son’s schools.
What was also remarkable is that when I asked three of my son’s teachers if he had any academic or disciplinary problems, they admitted that he didn’t.
Of course I filed a complaint with the Office of Education in the municipality, but I only got the non-committal response from an inspector who assured me: “The teachers are under observation.” Yet with the current teacher shortage, they enjoy almost total impunity.
I confess that given all the harassment, I myself resorted to a lie that brought us four years of apparent relief. I explained to the principal that my son’s long hair was in compliance with a promise (a religious one) that was related to his health.
Of course this argument was met with much more respect. In sixth grade, the school administrators at that time only asked me to sign a paper indicating that I would take all responsibility for him looking “different” from the others.
AN ALLY APPEARS
While in eighth grade, Kabir another student with long hair began studying at the same junior high and grade level in the Alamar neighborhood. Readers may remember the Havana Times post by Regina Cano entitled “Sebastian and Long Hair in Cuba.” Yes… that Sebastian was the very same student. He too was admitted to the school after a long series of obstacles and battles that ended in victories for the same cause.
At the end of middle school, Sebastian’s parents had encouraged him to cut his hair so that at least his entry into high school wouldn’t create a scandal. Although he chose the career of a PGI (an Integral General Teacher, or a “fast track” teacher), while Kabir choose the college prep route, they both wound up at the same school: Lazaro Peña High, in Alamar.
Here there began a battle that was even fiercer than before. At this school they reinforced the Academic Policy with a long and detailed ministerial resolution that required not only military-style haircuts for boys but for girls to wear their hair drawn back in specific colored hair bands.
Likewise, the administration provided exact measurements for skirts and even for the widths of the sleeves of blouses and shirts!
On the second day they demanded Kabir show up in the principal’s office with us, his parents, but this time the administration didn’t accept any of our arguments. As I was already immersed in the bureaucracy surrounding my trip to France, I convinced him that giving in — at least for the time being — was the most sensible alternative.
It was a sad day. I remember he closed his eyes and left me clip off his long strands of hair with scissors. When he looked at himself in the mirror, his reaction was that of dejection, which caused him to isolate himself in his room and sleep for more than twenty hours.
My husband and I went to a psychologist friend for guidance on how to help him come out of this crisis. The imposed tonsure was for him a kind of baptism by fire: the experience left him convinced that he preferred his look with long hair and would defend it at any cost.
The time during which I took care of all of my travel arrangements was enough for his hair to grow back – just imagine! Though the Academic Policy seemed at odds with nature, Kabir and Sebastian were pulled out of the middle of their classes and were prohibited from returning to the school that they had been officially authorized to attend.
Sebastian’s mother — Lourdes Rojas, who has a degree in philosophy, and is a woman of iron conviction and overwhelming will — told me to go ahead with my trip with my mind at peace, assuring me that she would take care of the whole situation.
While I was in Saint Etienne, a city in southwestern France, thanks to the magic of the Internet I found out about the meeting that had been set up to resolve the “problem.” It was held at the main office of Provincial Education Dept., in Havana’s downtown Vedado district.
The first reaction (or strategy?) of the administration was to notify us that only one parent of each teenager could attend the meeting and that each of these cases would be dealt with separately. The reason? They believed that the institution was an “important” place since President Raul Castro has visited it …
Lourdes’ response was that either everybody attend or there would be no meeting. She maintained that the four adults needed to be present (though of course for work reasons I was outside of the country at that precise moment).
This time it was the institution that backed down. Since I wasn’t present I could only get the versions of Sebastian’s parents, my son and my husband… but all of them concurred that the discussion took place in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance.
The meeting was presided over by Marisel Rodriguez, the national director of the Pre-university Program of the Ministry of Education.
After the initial exchange of arguments, Lourdes asked Ms. Rodriguez if she had the legal authority to prevent students from exercising their right to study, a provision stipulated in the Cuban constitution. After several evasive arguments posed by the director, she was forced to admit that she didn’t.
Shortly after, Sebastian and Kabir were allowed into the meeting, where they were asked why they wanted to wear their hair long. Sebastian said he admired figures like Che Guevara and John Lennon, who both wore long hair, and that he tended to imitate people who he admired.
Kabir said he felt admiration for figures like artists who wore their hair long, but he added that his parents practiced a form of meditation and that he had observed all the great spiritual teachers as having worn long hair.
The conclusion was that students couldn’t be denied their right to study and that kicking them out of school was a poor strategy. The administrators noted, however, that the “right to let them grow their hair” had still not been ruled on but that the matter would be “raised” with the appropriate decision makers.
THE “YOU CAN’T DO’s”
Young people born in the 1990s aren’t familiar with the Russian cartoons that other generations of Cuban children saw on television over and over again. In one of those series there were two characters: “you can” and “you can’t,” who were guardians of the order but who ended up being proscribed and expelled from the city, with the result of their absence having been total chaos.
But my analogy doesn’t go that far. Rather, I want to note that it’s possible to defeat some “you can’ts” who have survived because of injustice, prejudice, opportunism…though they are the accumulation of many fears that can perpetuate an illogic that no one dares to question and that makes up this inertia for which all of us are responsible.
I’d like to do a survey of male children and teens in Cuba. I’m sure that the number of those who would like to wear their hair long would be high.
It’s abhorrent that the educational institution was more concerned about physical appearance than the psychological scars left by coercion and harassment at such a fragile age where any impression can create very deep roots and can cause serious personality conflicts.
According to Lourdes Rojas, Sebastian’s mother, when the school uniforms were instituted in Cuba, the design that was chosen followed the dictates of the fashion of that time (the seventies). In fact, she participated in what was a veritable fashion runway show — and attended by Fidel Castro himself — where students showed off their uniforms with sincere joy. I’m citing this comment because hair length was considered as an inseparable part of the uniform.
Throughout the history of humankind, long hair on men has been common practice, stemming from social trends to simple functionality. This was true since the long-haired Vikings up to our own indigenous ancestors and the revolutionary guerrillas of the Sierra Maestra Mountains.
Short hair came into vogue only after WW II thanks to the first war heroes in films, and this standard spread almost worldwide. Still today, the image of the beardless, short-haired executive has great influence, even in “democratic” countries, as the model of the successful man.
But we need to ask why this same standard imposed in Cuban schools as an almost a moral issue? Why, is it that though the design of school uniforms hasn’t changed since the seventies, students are prevented from adapting it to the style of today?
Why doesn’t the Ministry of Education help teachers to focus on the quality of their classes, how to motivate students to study and how to awaken their true human values, while fully relating to their psychological development?
Why do they impose this ridiculous limit on the colors of hair bands or on the lengths of hair or clothing, which were instituted “to prevent class differences between students?”
These class differences we all know already exist. They’re demonstrated daily by the quality of students’ shoes and backpacks, by some of them bringing snacks to school or the showing off their ipods, PSPs (portable PlayStations) and cellphones.
This ostentation is growing alarmingly and schools are teeming with body piercings, tattoos and clothing that the poor teachers are also required to detect and censure.
These things, along with low wages, must be one of the reasons teachers claim to be so exhausted. This has to be a reason for the exodus of them from professional education, where more attempts and restrictions are being made to stop them from leaving, now in the area of immigration.
Some time ago I heard a woman comment about a ceremony broadcast on Cuban TV which honored professionals from the Ministry of Education:
“Why do they give them medals and certificates? Why aren’t they rewarded with what they’ve produced? – a generation that doesn’t respect anything. They’re the ones responsible for these young people without values who we complain so much about!”