HAVANA TIMES, May 17 — My son will finish junior high school (ninth grade) in a month and half. Wearing his sole uniform, with the shirt having been torn and mended several times due to its being washed daily, I watched as he went into his school. Its walls are covered with peeling paint, and it’s not allowed to take pictures.
Here, at least three of his dreams disappeared. He had hoped to be able to:
– Say what he thought (in this school or in any other one in the country)
– Earn respect without resorting to violence
– Find another teacher like the one he had in sixth grade, the only one for which he ended up feeling admiration and honest affection.
Three years ago I saw him crying in a hallway in this same building, frightened by all the abrupt changes of going from elementary to junior high school. The double session that was established a few years ago caused overcrowding and stress, generating a much more overcharged and aggressive atmosphere.
When I waved goodbye to him, I remember the comment a friend made to me: “He doesn’t have the look of a happy boy anymore.”
“The problem is that he’s not happy,” I responded, thinking of the phrase that would escape from him every morning from Monday to Friday: “Boy do I wish this was Saturday!” If he gets a fever he’s actually happy because that means he won’t have to go to school.
How different the world is from what he had expected when he looked at the school from a distance four years earlier. He leaned out over the railing to look at the students playing in the courtyard. During a long period of depression when he was in the seventh grade, he never got support from his teacher, a young woman from the provinces who didn’t have (and still doesn’t) the slightest notion of what it takes to teach. Nevertheless, now hers has become the methodology of the entire school.
One of the incidents that brought an end to the innocence of her students (and of mine) was told to me by my son and later reconfirmed by his classmates. According to them, one day during a televised lesson, they featured the children’s song “Estela, a Little Flake of Cinnamon.” When hearing the melody, several students began singing the words. As they had recently finished elementary school and still felt like school children, a wave of nostalgia swept over the whole group as they emotionally chanted:
Estela is a flake of cinnamon
Who doesn’t want what she doesn’t want
To fall into the pan.
With that, the teacher grabbed the remote control, pressed the stop button and unloaded on them yelling, “Don’t you think you’re too old to be eating all that shit?”
Like a bubble that pops from a prick, those children’s nostalgia vanished, and with it any expectation of a non-threatening transition into the confused world of adolescence.
A BETTER WORLD?
Now I’m remembering when I told the mother of my son’s friend about that incident. But she replied saying that that wasn’t anything in comparison to what her son had experienced when she and her husband decided to go out in the country to begin a permaculture project.
When their boy began elementary school out in Pinar del Rio Province, he had problems with his teacher who didn’t understand why the youngster refused to participate in a game with all the other boys in class. And what did that game consist of? – nothing less than touching the “tota” (the genitals) of a goat.
For many natives of the countryside in Cuba, ignorance is reinforced by institutional negligence. Animals are merely objects for consumption and even for sexual abuse. Therefore the reaction of this boy from the capital city came off to them as strange.
I can see how this incident was proportionally much more repugnant. Nevertheless I insist that any blow against innocence is just that. If Jose Marti was right when he said that people are divided into two groups — “those who build and those who destroy” — then it’s necessary to define what is the field in which each person is capable of building and where their capacity begins for destroying or being unable to prevent destruction.
It’s curious that so much is said these days in Cuba about processes of change while there’s such deep-rooted and crass neglect of those beings who will sustain the future…that “better possible world” that’s talked about so much.
One of the errors that most burden any society, slowly and quietly corrupting its solidarity, is to ignore that natural indicator that’s called one’s vocation. From what I myself experienced as a student in Cuba schools this is not only omitted but is actively discouraged. Even today in meetings that I attend each month, when touching on the issue of available careers, what’s emphasized is: “What the country needs most now are skilled laborers – not professionals. The options will always be adjusted to those demands…”
Doesn’t the country need people who practice their professions with sincerity? And shouldn’t people work in fields in which they have a natural ability? When I read the book The Prophet, by the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran, the part devoted to work had a real impact on me. This was to the point that I wanted to copy and share it with everyone, even if that meant handing it out to people in the street.
I have here a synthesis:
They’ve also told you that life is darkness
And in your fatigue you repeat what’s said
However, I say that life is truly darkness when there’s no emotion
And that all emotion is blind except when there’s no knowledge
And all knowledge is in vain except when there’s work
And all work is vain except when there’s love
Work is love made visible.
And if we cannot work with love
It’s better that we sit down to request charity from those who work happily
Because if the baker makes bread with indifference, he makes such bitter bread
That it will only halfway satisfy hunger…
THE ARE OF GOING TO RUIN
An acquaintance that I ran into a few days ago told me that his father, who had come from the United States after years of being away, commented to him with astonishment: “People in Cuba are going to ruin.”
I don’t want to make sly comparisons, nor am I interested in stirring up chauvinism. But I can say that I myself, looking at people in the street and without ever having left Cuba, I’ve thought the same thing.
One statistic would thoroughly and immediately demonstrate that very few people carry out their work happily. Of course in consumer societies, with unchecked competition and artificially induced needs, people’s vocations are sacrificed just as their identities are. But in this experience that I’ve come into contact with personally and that they call “socialism,” one of its most fatal errors has been ignoring the individual. In the sublimity of reclaiming the proletariat, this becomes a sea without faces, with no another identity than that social goal itself.
At one of my son’s schools, the vice principal made me sign a paper making me responsible for my son refusing to get his hair cut. The educator asked me emphatically: “Are you aware that his having long hair makes him different from the others?”
Yes, to be different (having long hair and being a vegetarian) has cost him dearly. But that’s now pretty much over with. What hasn’t stopped occurring is this sensation of limitedness, this apathy that makes him drag his feet when he goes to school, this thing that kills his happiness and even his appetite. It’s this simulation that consists of memorizing, repeating, learning how to ignore, and making one special in the subterfuges of lying, ratting and coercing.
With his seventh grade teacher there was no success at any attempt toward dialogue, and her ineptitude, insensitivity and even her insolence were justified time and time again by her supervisor, the head of the teaching level and the principal… because, imagine! – If were desperately calling for people to study to be teachers how can we give ourselves the luxury of laying off any of them.
The solution that I came to with much effort was that my son change his classroom. When he moved on to eighth grade with great hopes for his new teacher, which I still appreciate, not without pain did he soon discover that this instructor was an alcoholic. Over the months the habit that had been an open secret became so visible that the students would see him taking sips from a flask that he sometimes keeps on his desk hidden inside a carton of milk. Some people have seen him on the street completely drunk. His character has turned soured and at times rude and even aggressive with the kids.
My son avoids anything that might upset him, as he tells me about some incidents indignantly, sometimes angrily. His teacher appreciates him because he’s a good student, and that makes any judgment much more difficult.
I tell him that there’s only a little left to go, that only two months remain. I hide behind the hope of an abstraction like time, in the hypnotism of the nearness of summer break. What will happen in September, in the next school year, is still far off…