The Horror From the Sweetness

In one of life’s random events I came across Letters From Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi in a Havana bookstore. I didn’t find it in one of the individually managed stalls selling used books, but in a local State store that sells colorful editions in convertible currency. The small volume, with a photo of her on the cover, was mixed in among the self-help manuals and recipe books. I glanced to both sides of the shelves to see if someone had put the book there just for me, but the employees were sleeping in the midday heat, one of them brushing flies off her face without paying me any mind. I bought the valuable collection of texts written by this dissident between 1995 and 1996, still taken by the surprise of finding them in my country where we, like her, live under a military regime and strong censorship of the word.

The pages with Aung San Suu Kyi’s chronicles — reflections on everyday life mixed with political discourse and questions — have barely touched the shelves of my home. Everyone wants to read her calm descriptions of Burma, marked by fear, but also steeped in a spirituality that makes her current situation more dramatic. In the few months since I found the Letters, the vivid and moving prose of this woman has influenced the way we look at our own national disaster. The thread of hope that she manages to weave into her words instills in them an optimistic prognosis for her nation and for the world. No one has been able to describe the horror from the sweetness as she has, without the cries overwhelming her style and the rancor being reflected in her eyes.

I can’t stop wondering how the texts of this Burmese dissident made it into the bookstores of my country. Perhaps in a bulk purchase someone slipped in the innocent-looking cover, where an oriental woman tucks some flowers, as beautiful as her face, behind her ear. Who knows if they thought it might be from some writer of fiction or poetry, recreating the landscapes of her country motivated by aestheticism or nostalgia. Probably whoever placed it on the shelf didn’t know about her house arrest, or the richly-deserved Nobel Peace Prize she won in 1991. I prefer to imagine that at least someone was aware that her voice had come to us. An anonymous face, some hands quickly placing the book on our shelf, so that when we approached it we could feel and recognize our own pain.

The Instant Creation of Emerging Teachers

Cuban schoolchildren repeating slogans at the morning assembly.

Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, 11 February 2010 — It was a sober meeting attended by several representatives from the municipal Ministry of Education. A murmur passed among the parents, seated on the same plastic chairs used by their children in the morning. The date was approaching for the announcement of who would continue their studies at the senior secondary school; it appeared that at this meeting they would tell us the number of pre-university or technical school slots assigned to our school site. Thus, the news at the end about “comprehensive general teachers” took us by surprise, because we had come to believe that their existence would be extended until our great-grandchildren reached puberty.

Educating adolescents – through accelerated courses – to teach classes ranging from grammar to mathematics, turned out to be a categorical failure. Not because of the element of youth, which is always welcome in any profession, but because of the speed of their instruction in teaching and the lack of interest many of them had in such a noble endeavor.

Faced with the exodus of education professionals to other sectors with more attractive earnings, the emerging teachers program was developed; with it the already ailing quality of Cuban education fell through the floor. The children came home saying that in 1895 Cuba had lived through “a civil war” and that geometric figures had something called “voldes” which we parents understood to mean “edges.” I particularly remember one of these instant educators who confessed to his students on the first day of class that they should, “Study hard so you don’t end up like me, someone who ended up being a teacher because I didn’t take good notes.”

On top of that the tele-classes arrived, to fill a very high percentage of the school hours from the coldness of a screen that cannot interact. The idea was to make up for the lack of training of those standing in front of the students with these lessons transmitted by television. The tele-teacher substituted in many schools for the flesh-and-blood version, while teacher salaries increased symbolically, but never exceeded the equivalent of 30 dollars a month. Teaching became, even more than being a priest, a sacrifice.

Thus, standing in front of the blackboard were people who had not mastered spelling or the history of their own country. There were young people who signed a pledge to become teachers, but who already regretted it after one week of work. The incidents and educational deformations that this procedure brought with it are written in the hidden book of failure of revolutionary plans and ridiculous production goals that are never met, with the difference that in this case we are not talking about tons of sugar or bushels of beans, but about the education of our children.

I breathe a sigh of relief that this long experiment in emergent education has ended. However, I do not envision the day in which all those people with preparation to teach leave the wheel of their taxis, come out from behind the bar, or exchange the tedium of working at home to return to the classroom. At least I could feel more relaxed if, in place of a television screen, Teo could receive all his classes from a corporeal teacher with a mastery of the content. I think that in this case we will have to wait for the great-grandchildren.

Adios to Schools in the Countryside / Yoani Sanchez

gallo

Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 24 July 2009 — The idea of combining study with work in high schools looked very good on paper. It had the air of an immortal future in the office where they turned it into a ministerial order. But reality, stubborn as always, had its own interpretation of the schools in the countryside. The “clay” meant to be formed in the love of the furrow, was made up of adolescents far away—for the first time—from parental control, who found housing conditions and food very different from their expectations.

I, who should have been the “new man” and who barely could have become a “good man”, was trained in one of these schools in the Havanan municipality of Alquizar. I was fourteen and left with a corneal infection, a liver deficiency and the toughness that is acquired when one has seen too much. When matriculating, I still believed the stories of work-study; at leaving, I knew that many of my fellow students had had to exchange sex for good grades or show superior performance in agricultural production. The small lettuce plants I weeded every afternoon had their counterpart in a hostel where the priorities were bullying, lack of respect for privacy and the harsh law of survival of the fittest.

It was precisely one of those afternoons, after three days without water and with the repetitive menu of rice and cabbage, that I swore to myself that my children would never go to a high school in the country. I did this with the unsentimental adolescent realism that, in those years, calms us and leaves us knowing the impossibility of fulfilling certain promises. So I accustomed myself to the idea of having to load bags of food for Teo when he was away at school, of hearing that they stole his shoes, they threatened him in the shower or that one of the bigger ones took his food. All these images, that I had lived, returned when I thought about the boarding schools.

Fortunately, the experiment seems to be ending. The lack of productivity, the spread of diseases, the damage to ethical values and the low academic standards have discredited this method of education. After years of financial losses, with the students consuming more than they manage to extract from the land, our authorities have become convinced that the best place for a young person is at the side of his parents. They have announced the coming end of the schools but without the public apologies to those of us who were guinea pigs for an experiment that failed; to those of us who left our dreams and our health in the high schools in the countryside.