From my room above the rectory I can hear children arriving at the school. It’s 7am. I’m up and ready for some strong Haitian coffee, waiting for us in the dining room. From the balcony outside my bedroom door, I see two boys in green uniforms emerge from their home, what appears to be a one-room cement box with a corrugated tin roof beneath the broad leaves of a banana tree.
Over the next hour, 1100 children stream to the school from the streets of Hinche, the younger ones in tow behind a parent. This school is considered one of the best, of not the best, and some students have even left their families in the countryside to come here. About half the students’ families pay a meager tuition, allowing others to attend for free. Those from the country come with what little money and food their families can provide, which is often not enough to get them through to the next visit home.
Upon entering the courtyard, the students go directly to one of 17 classrooms until the 8:00 assembly. At the appointed time, they file out of their classrooms and gather in their cohorts, filling the courtyard and sides of the buildings – preschool and elementary in green shorts and jumpers, junior high in blue pants or skirts with white pin-striped shirts, and the “terminales,” senior high students in their own more sophisticated navy solids. The girls have their hair braided and knotted with color-coordinated bows and baubles. We observers stand in a corner under the eaves, looking overly casual and somewhat unkempt in comparison. We are grateful for shade from the relentless Haitian sun.
Speaking on a portable PA system in his neat beige suit, Pere Noé greets the students and encourages them to work hard, work competently (that was about the extent of my French comprehension). They all sing a song and raise the school flag. Then they file quietly back to their classrooms, in a hiatus of calm before the chaos ensues. Suddenly the Kindergarten 1 children are crying, the elementary children are singing, the older children are reciting, teachers and students are shouting…just to hear each other over the chatter of the other classes. By now, I’m standing in the middle of the courtyard surrounded by the cacophony, feeling a bit like a helpless guard in a rioting cellblock.
This morning our plan is to visit the classrooms to get a feel for the learning environment—painfully evident before we have even begun. However, the lively din is just the surface of the true reality of life here: Our tour delves beneath the clamor and the tidy uniforms and smiles and lace socks and laughter and hair ribbons and tiny backpacks, revealing layers of discomfort and distress. There are no textbooks to speak of. Wires hang where light bulbs should be, or perhaps once were. The only light is what can shine through the door and slots in the walls. Kim, a nurse, detects signs of malnutrition and disease. Some of the smaller children are listless or cry inconsolably.
Four to five students squeeze together on wooden bench-style desks, amounting to some 36-80 students packed tightly together. The rooms have a doorway but no door, and slots in the concrete above the heads of the students provide a means of ventilation—except in the 10th grade classroom where a building next door blocks one wall of slots. Despite this attempt at aeration, we are all swimming in the same humid soup.
In the afternoon we visit an English class for the 10th grade. The teacher asks us to perform a dialogue he writes on the blackboard so that the students can hear native speaker language. Then he invites them to ask us questions. “Why are you here?” (To help develop the English language program.) “How can I come to the US?” (Study hard and get a scholarship.) “Will you help me?” (If you are a very good student, I will help you.) “What religion are you?” (Buddhist.) “Why did you come to an Episcopalian school?” (Because we are all one.)
A serious young man raises his hand. “What is the meaning of ravooonos.” I don’t understand his question. I ask him to repeat. But I’m at a loss. We ask him to spell it, and the teacher writes it on the board: r-a-v-e-n-… “Ravenous,” I say. He nods his head. “You know,” I reply. “It means very, very hungry.”