HAVANA TIMES — I just read the Havana Times article “Why So Much of a Fuss?,” by my colleague Kabir Vega Castellano. But prior to being my colleague, Kabir was the son of my best friend.
I’d describe him as a smart kid, but I’d have to take back, because in schools here a smart student is someone who tells teachers what they expect to hear when they ask, without questioning the truthfulness or the logic of things.
Here, good students are the ones who parrot slogans, who obey without looking up, who only care about getting good grades.
Kabir is a teenager who’s sensitive, profound and someone who doesn’t analyze things superficially. His long hair isn’t just a whim, and even if it were it would still be his right. I don’t think this time he’s going to let them cut it, not even if his mother tries to force him.
But when I think that he might kicked out of school, I think back to the time when I was a teacher at a tech school and I wonder if back then they would have also expelled him.
I graduated as an English teacher in 1999 and began teaching at a technical school. During the first year, my students were studying skilled trades in mechanics, electronica and business. The ones studying business were in their first year while the future mechanics and electricians were in their third.
The business students took English over the entire four years of their studies, while the mechanics and electronics students only had to take it during their third year. That was the year they’d have to suffer through it.
There were three classes consisting overwhelmingly of males (only one female was studying to become an electrician), who spent the entire class sitting around leaning back in their chairs and talking about any and everything other than the class.
They hardly ever took notes, each having only a single thin notebook for all their subjects.
They would give defiant or sarcastic looks whenever they were reprimanded. Sometimes there’d skip classes or take veritable vacations from them.
Notwithstanding all of that, there’s one thing that could be said of them: All of them had appropriate haircuts. They may have sometimes had their shirts un-tucked, or might have occasionally showed lack of respect for a teacher, but I can’t deny that they maintained their hair properly cut.
All this would have been fine — really! — if only they had been geniuses capable of passing their exams without studying or going to classes. If they’d been able to study at home (assuming they had their own English textbooks, which they didn’t) or had they been interested in studying at home (like Kabir).
But my students were only average seventeen and eighteen-year-old adolescents; possibly smart kids (one of them won the municipal chess competition) but ones with little interest in school.
Almost all of them failed their exams, with the lucky ones getting the most mediocre grades. Some managed to surprise me by getting nineties on their tests, though these exams were always extremely easy (my supervisor made it clear that these should always be extremely easy). Nevertheless, like I said, most of them managed to fail.
But did they flunk out of school? No. They couldn’t be forced out of school because of a course with as little need by an electrician or a mechanic as English. So why then was English even included in their programs? It’s because our students must receive a comprehensive education.
Would they flunk out of school for failing any other subject? No. “We can’t flunk students (the exact words of a senior colleague). It would be a waste of the money that the government has invested in educating them since elementary school so that they’ll eventually have jobs and not end up hanging out in the streets. The state can’t afford to invest that money and wind up with them not graduating.”
A student who attended school every day and didn’t miss a single class was almost guaranteed to pass a course. Even they knew it. One of my worst students in the group of trainee electricians (paradoxically, the chess champion) once told me that they couldn’t flunk him out because he hadn’t missed any classes and because, as he said, “I never miss a march for Elian’s return.”
Maybe that’s why it seemed logical for one of my colleagues to accept bribes from students to allow them to pass their finals. As he tried to explain, “In any case I have to pass them at the end of the course. This way at least it’s costing them something.”
I still find it incredible that a student like Kabir — who has gotten such good grades throughout his life and who’s so interested in studying and preparing himself — is about to flunk out of school for something as insignificant as the length of his hair. I find it incredible only because I’m naive.
Fortunately I can always rely on someone who opens my eyes. A friend of mine said to me on Saturday, “These days we don’t need that many young people going to college and graduating. Now we need people to graduate from technical school and trade schools.”
Maybe ten years ago, when we still cared about having our youth studying at the university level, when the leader said (two years earlier) that in ten years we would be the most cultured country in the world, maybe back then the length of Kabir’s hair would have gone unnoticed. Perhaps the principal wouldn’t have had the luxury of wasting the government’s “investment.”
I couldn’t say whether what they “invested” in my students at the technical was of any benefit. One time I witnessed one of them taking a practical examination related to electricity. All that I can remember is that it was something simulated and on a small scale – which was a good thing.
I say this because the teacher who was giving him the exam said that if it had been real, he would have left the community without lights. Nevertheless that student graduated, as did others like him.
Perhaps it’s fortunate that many of them didn’t try to become electricians. I’ve run into some of them in the street over the years. Many are working as security guards, bakers, food vendors and so on. They’ll greet me affectionately whenever we meet.
We ceased being opponents. Even back then we stopped when I realized that they were trapped by their parents’ aspirations for them to have some type of certification. We were no longer enemies when I discovered that almost none of them wanted to be an electrician or a mechanic, that they who only wanted to be free.
Some of them now regret not having taken better advantage of their English classes. I too feel affection for them, especially for the poor student who was a great chess player. The last time I saw him he was a baker.
What will happen if Kabir is finally expelled from school when he reaches 30 unexcused absences (though none of them are his fault)? What will be left of his dreams and aspirations? But above all, where will he be able to go to find confidence in justice and civil rights in this country?