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First Day at School

October 4, 2011

Another breathless Haitian night.  Sweat beads on my body like dew, refusing to evaporate.  Emboldened by the darkness cloaking them from kicks and stones, scrawny Haitian dogs howl and yap, their quarreling punctuated by the agonized squeals of the losers.  I could set my clock by the night sounds.  This is predawn.  With the coming of the first hint of light the roosters will take the stage.

The tinnitus buzz of cicadas infuses my weary ears.  A sudden gust brings fruit rattling down like rain onto concrete and sheet metal.  Just as suddenly as it arose, the squall is gone.  There will be no relief from the oppressive weight of the stagnant night air.

The house is like a tomb, every sound reverberating in the hollow darkness.  Tiny vampires whine unseen, searching for a chink in my mosquito tent armour.  I bury my face into my scrunched-up pillow, hoping for a few more moments rest before I am summoned from my bed by the electronic reveille from my cellphone alarm, and reluctantly stumble through the early morning gloom toward another chilly shower.

I awake before my alarm, my nose running and my throat sore.  I have a cold.  Just yesterday I had been congratulating myself on having maintained good health.  I rummage through my suitcases for Kleenex.

My first day at El Shaddai School.  I slide open the high iron gate in the courtyard and pick my way down the hill through the rocks and the mud and the garbage that pass for a street.  The students are typical school children, playing, teasing, laughing, roughhousing as I arrive.  The school day starts at 7:30 with prayer and a single announcement:  “Creole will not be tolerated.  Your parents are paying for you to come here to learn English.”  I am introduced and assigned to a senior class.  The classroom instructor, Delson, immediately asks me if I am willing to help with subjects other than math.  I tell him I will do whatever I can and he is pleased.

The classroom operates on independent learning with the instructors providing assistance as needed and checking progress.  When a student has completed a section the instructor reviews it with him to assure understanding and then the student is tested.  Delson is very personable and makes me feel very welcome, moving me immediately into the work.

I am having trouble observing this morning’s announcement; I catch myself responding in Creole.

Helping the students draws upon skills I have not used in a long, long time.  I find I am questioning myself at times.  My English skills are excellent, and I am good at math but my algebra is a bit rusty.  In the real world most of us do not do things in the way we learned in school.

I begin to recognize my own skills.  I can see why the students make errors, and help them to avoid repeating them.  One of the top students tells Delson he likes the way I explain things to him, that it is very clear.  I also see that my patient gentle ways stand in stark contrast to the stern authoritarian approach of the Haitian instructors.   It is such a rush to see lights come on in a child’s mind, and to see his eyes light up and a smile break upon his face as he realizes he knows.  Instilling the love of learning in a child is nine tenths of the battle.  That done, he will learn on his own.

As I talked to a young man who is working at a fairly high level, I asked him if he likes school.  “Not really,” he replied.  “What are you interested in?” I asked.  “Everything interests me,” he replied.  A kid after my own heart!

I sincerely hope I haven’t bitten off more than I can chew.  I have volunteered to work one-on-one with one of the most difficult students in the school.  I see myself mirrored in him and I think I understand what does and does not motivate him.  Like me he will not bow to force.  He would rather endure unspeakable punishment rather than be anyone’s slave.  He is a bright young man, but he is taking a self-destructive path to making his point.  I pray that God will give me the grace to touch his heart.

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