Feelings of Guilt / Miriam Celaya

Caesar and his fellow students on their first day of classes

These last few days a deep feeling of guilt keeps gnawing at me. Caesar, my oldest grandson, told me, in a strong tone of accusation, that I had lied to him. He said, and I quote, “Grandma, you lied to me, school is not at all as you said it would be”. The worst part of it is that he is right: I unwittingly shortchanged him when I set out to prepare him for his initiation into the world of school. Let me share this with you.

Cesar is 5, and he started preschool this year in a Sevillano Development school, municipality of Diez de Octubre in Havana. Members of the family around him had begun to prepare him during the summer months for this new phase of his life where whole days of play and cartoons at home in the company of his mother would soon become a thing of his past, as he would start to spend long hours sitting in a classroom, subjected to the discipline that learning and the socialization process would entail, surrounded by classmates of very diverse personalities. We had also all contributed to his complete school wardrobe and materials.

The school would be -we told him- a wonderful learning experience and he would learn new games, make new friends, the teacher would instruct him in very interesting things, and he would learn new songs which he would sing along with the other children. He would make clay figures and build houses, ships and rockets with the construction games in class. We wanted, with the best of intentions, for our kid to sail smoothly and devoid of trauma through this necessary rite of passage that is crucial in a life of a child. I, especially, have great influence on him and tell him many stories he always listens to, spellbound, of my own happy childhood and that of his father. I described the school in a world of color still alive in my imagination, immune to the destruction and sham of the system.

I didn’t lie to my grandson when I spoke to him about the school universe I discovered when I was four years old in September, 1963. Back then, my father worked at the sulfo-metals plant in Santa Lucia, Pinar del Rio, where I attended the first of my 11 elementary schools throughout most of Cuba. My preschool teacher, Nela, is truly an unforgettable character to this date. In that small town’s classroom there was a real piano played by the same teacher to accompany the many songs I still remember in all their details. There were balls, toys, puppets, modeling clay and coloring pencils. We learned with little effort, singing and playing, under the guidance of that sweet kind lady whom we all loved and respected.

I didn’t lie to Cesar when I told him about the school his father, my oldest son, attended. I was more excited than he was when he started school in September of 1984. We lived in Old Havana, my home town, and though his preschool classroom also had an old upright piano, the teacher was not able to play it (by then teachers did not know how to play) and there were not as many toys as in my classroom 20 years before, but at least there was the traditional modeling clay, construction games, and children learned through song. In addition, Hildita was a loving teacher whose small frame was full of tenderness and patience, and whose warmth and imagination replaced, to some extent, some of the material shortages at the school. I know my son remembers Hildita with the same appreciation and affection as I remember Nela.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the night before the start of school Cesar was not able to get to sleep at his regular time. He would recheck his backpack to see that nothing was missing, he would put on and take off his uniform until his mother had to put it away so it would not get dirty, and he would keep asking how long before morning would arrive. At 6:30 AM he was already up, nervous and excited, and earlier than 8 o’clock he was already at the school yard with many of other preschoolers who were as happy and proud as he was.

In the classroom, full of expectations

That was two months ago, and Cesar’s teacher has been in the classroom for a total of one week. They say that she “has personal problems”, “a diabetic sister in Camaguey”, or “an elderly mother”. This may all be true, but it does not excuse the school administrators for not having sought a substitute teacher. Instead, a teaching assistant tries to keep up appearances, putting the kids through one task and then another. It’s the only way to report officially that the school curriculum is being met, and that all children are getting an education in Cuba.

In the meantime, however, Cesar’s preschool is far from the expectations I planted. No games and songs, no modeling clay or toys. No one can say with certainty when the teacher will return, or how long she will be in class before once again she has personal problems that are more important than her job. Teachers are an endangered species in a country that has seen the destruction of a long educational tradition dating back to colonial times. The ethics of a profession, beautiful by its very nature, has been lost.

So my grandson Caesar no longer wants to go to school, and holds against me what he considers my lies. I explained to him that everything I told him before was true, so he has proposed a solution: “look, grandma, you’d better take me to your school and have your teacher teach me”. I thought about Nela, who by now is probably dead, since she was already no youngster in 1963. Her memory may have made clear the idea that surfaced: “I’d better teach you right here, at home”. It’s not as crazy as it sounds, because my first profession was teaching. So for a time now Cesar wastes his time at school Monday through Fridays, and on weekends I teach him the alphabet, numbers, we review the colors, draw, play with modeling clay, cut out geometric shapes and recite and sing my old preschool songs. We also have storytelling sessions so he will soon become interested in learning to read, and we put aside an afternoon to take relaxing walks. This way, I make sure that he’s learning, and at the same time, I will try to overcome my terrible feelings of guilt.

Note: All names and situations referred to in the text are strictly real.

Translated by Norma Whiting

November 2 2012