Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Teacher Don't Forget Me...

My first trip back to the states is coming up on Saturday.  Over the course of the past couple weeks I have been preparing my students for our short sojourn from English classes, and here are some of the reactions and responses I have received--

“Teacher Cat, you are not allowed to go for ten days.  You can ONLY go for five days because we need you.”

“Teacher Cat, you are going for so long.  What will we do while you are gone?”

“Teacher Cat, don’t forget me when you leave because I will never forget you.”

“Teacher Cat, we will miss you so much while you are gone.”

“Cat, we need more people like you here.  Haiti needs education to be a better country”

“Will you bring more dictionaries and books back for us when you come back because we need to learn more?”

“Can you search for a book by Gandhi while you are in the states.”

One would think an inflated ego would come from all of the comments and questions.  Instead, each subsequent comment and question humbled me even more than the proceeding one.  I honestly cannot wrap my head around the responses to the new opportunity for education here.  How do I even begin to understand a desperate yearning for something that I’ve never had to go without, something that was simply expected of me in my youth?  I’m trying desperately to see these educational opportunities through their eyes.  I have left a system of compulsory education, a system that says everyone is guaranteed an education, a system that has started to breed apathy among some students because it is so compulsory and have come to a place where education is a rare commodity, a place where education is for the elite, only for those who can afford it.  The opportunities to impact change here through education are simultaneously inspiring and overwhelming.  I can see so much potential for change through education, but there are also times when I look at the situation and shake my head overwhelmed by it all.

As I sit and ponder and reflect on the task I have been called to here, and the existing situation in front of me in this small country village, I search through the words from other minds in response to the institution and opportunity of education:

Thomas Jefferson said, “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people…They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

Aristotle said, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”

George Bernard Shaw said, “ Education can and should do much to influence social, moral, and intellectual discovery by stimulating critical attitudes of thought in the young.”

Edward Everett Hale said, “Education is a better safeguard of liberty than a standing army.”

And finally…

Kofi Annan said, “Education is a human right with immense power to transform.  On its foundation rests the cornerstones of freedom, democracy, and sustainable human development.”

Yes, these are just a sampling of thoughts regarding education, and not all thoughts regarding education are positive ones.  Education does much good, but at times it can also stifle, convolute, and harm.  It is extremely important for the mind to have an opportunity for a quality education, but the heart and spirit need educating as well.  To paraphrase and expand on what Aristotle said regarding education, if we fail to simultaneously educate the heart whilst we educate the mind, what an empty attempt at education that would be.  I do not take this opportunity placed before me lightly.  In fact, the immensity of it all, education of the heart AND the mind, scares me most of the time.  As I sit in my classroom here in Haiti while my students work diligently or stand before them during instruction, I carry the weight of the task.  This weight is not a burden though.  The paradox of this weight is in how freeing and light it truly is.  Haiti brings with it its own set of frustrations, but interestingly enough the frustrations here do not always weigh me down in the same way the frustrations of the classroom did back in the states.  As I look back on the past three years of my time in the classroom, I’m beginning to realize I was treading water, and that constant, redundant activity was becoming oppressive.  How freeing it is to be in the middle of God’s will and purpose instead of trying to make do with MY status quo of comfort and ease.

So…in response to the title of this entry, “Teacher Don’t Forget Me,” my dear, sweet, enthusiastic students, my heart will never forget you.  It will certainly not forget you in these ten days away from you, and it will not forget you even when my time here with you has reached its end, whenever that may be.  You have rekindled in me the passion for teaching.  Your enthusiasm and desire have reminded me of why I love being a teacher.  You may say thank you to me on a regular basis, but it is to you that I owe the thanks!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Dreams Deferred, Caged Birds, and Freedom

The lines of poetry from Maya Angelou's poem "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" keep running through my head after a long conversation with my Haitian friend Peter last night about educational opportunities in our respective countries.  His life long passion and dream has been to be a doctor.  He is in school right now (in an institute not a university) studying communication and French because the necessity to work and the schedule of classes coupled with the higher cost of the medical program does not allow him to chase his dream at this time, but because education is so important to him, he is still studying and learning even if it is not in his field of choice.  As we talked through all his possibilities for the upcoming school year, Maya and Langston's words were playing in my brain.  "A Dream Deferred" by Langston Hughes was on constant repeat for most of the conversation.

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

He has dreams.  He has hopes for his future.  He wants to see and impact change in his country.  He, like so many of my friends here and so many of my students in my English classes, wants to make a difference, but it seems like reality just keeps slapping them in the face.  I come from a country where people who didn't have a voice fought for a chance to have one--taxation without representation from an oppressive and distant monarchy that led to revolution, abolition of slavery, women's rights, The Civil Rights Movement, gender equality, marriage equality, immigrants, the poor and marginalized.  I have to work hard to remember times when I looked at a situation and thought, "I can't do this.  It won't work."  There were times when the work was hard and incredibly challenging, but I was never taught to live in a realm of impossibility because opportunity was always around the next corner.  The most heart breaking aspect of the whole conversation for me as I just sat and listened to him talk through his dreams paralleled with his responsibilities was the fact my life truly looks like a charmed fairytale in comparison, and my heart aches because of this.  My favorite quote from the whole conversation was when he said, "I know this will be difficult, but I will not say it is impossible."  In that moment I saw hope.  I know that nothing is impossible because I have a greater hope given to me by God that through Him all things are possible.  Peter has that same hope and sees that possibility lies within himself because God is in him as well.

The conversation continued.  We talked through possibilities and ideas.  The biggest difference was in perspective.  In my life I was taught to fight through obstacles to make things happen in my life.  Americans by nature (okay not all, but most) have that Puritan work ethic and spirit rooted deep in us.  We are taught not to back down from a challenge, to look for opportunity, to chase hard after our dreams.  We live by the American Dream.  We are called the land of opportunity.  We are like the free bird Maya Angelou talks about.  

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
Maya Angelou

The free bird leaps

on the back of the wind

and floats downstream

till the current ends

and dips his wings

in the orange sun rays

and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks

down his narrow cage

can seldom see through

his bars of rage

his wings are clipped
 his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings

with fearful trill

of the things unknown

but longed for still

and his tune
is heard 
on the distant hill
for the caged bird

sings of freedom

The free bird thinks of another breeze

and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees

and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn

and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams

his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream

his wings are clipped and his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing

The caged bird sings

with a fearful trill

of things unknown

but longed for still

and his tune is heard

on the distant hill

for the caged bird

sings of freedom

So there we sat last night, a free bird and a caged bird, and the conversation continued.  We tried to see through each other's lenses of perspective.  I think that is the biggest challenge for me here in Haiti.  Although we both come from histories of revolutionary actions and thoughts, 1776 and 1804 respectively, we don't think the same, and we are constantly trying to look at the world through each other's eyes to gain a better understanding.  I feel like the revolutionary spirit has not been quenched in America, but in Haiti it has been buried so deep in oppressive dictatorships, lack of education, handouts, and poverty.  It is still here.  I know it is!  The spirit of what made Haiti Haiti, the revolution of the slaves, the first and only free black republic, that spirit is still here somewhere! 

Before I continue, I'll be the first to admit that I have not even come close to wrapping my brain around the educational and higher educational systems here in Haiti.  There are similarities, but the organization and the differences of the whole system are so immense that it is going to take some serious research time to figure it all out.  I want to try though.  I see in the eyes of the children and the young people (even the older generation) here the desire to learn, to expand their knowledge base, to have opportunities through education to make a difference in their country.  I have had the world at my fingertips my whole entire life.  I have had access to just about any book, poem, play, story, movie, documentary, etc. I have ever wanted to watch or read.  I wake up each morning and pray for guidance and strength to carry out the awesome responsibility God has given me here to educate.  I know that responsibility carries along with it the responsibility to be an example of Jesus lived out for them too. Guidance spiritually is of just a great import as guidance educationally, if not more!  I sometimes feel overwhelmed by it all, but then I walk into my classroom and see the smiles of my students and the eager looks on their faces.  I know then that we will walk through this together, and we are each walking through all of this with God by our side as well.  I don't want their dreams to be deferred, and I pray that they have opportunities to find their voices through education and His guiding spirit and then go on to educate others!  Right now I see in their eyes the eyes of caged birds, but my prayer is they will one day know what it is like to soar!