I have been overwhelmed here by the complexity of the problem of education. It seems like a vicious circular highway where there’s an entry ramp every mile or so but very few exits, all with extremely high tolls. Because the local school is overcrowded, the kids come in two shifts, One for the first few hours of the day and the other after lunch. Every Friday the whole school has off for the teachers to “meet” and plan out curriculum. In total, kids in elementary school and middle school are getting 8-12 hours of school a week, and not even that if they don’t want to go to classes. Every morning at the youth center we work with four or five kids who, for whatever reason, haven’t gone to school that day. Never once have parents visibly checked up on this. There are 10 year olds who can read and write and are able to use the keyboard on the computers we have in the youth center with some alacrity. Typing away with one finger on their right hand as they makeamashofwordswithoutspaces. With a little coaching, these kids are able to copy out paragraphs from books, and I’ve even gotten a few of them email accounts and have them corresponding with Americans who came here to help build houses.
But for the vast majority of children and teens here, they don’t even know their own alphabet. They can’t write their own name, and they certainly couldn’t write down a sentence for you like “the dog is black”, in Spanish or English. It’s been an eye-opening process to begin teaching English to these kids. I’m less teaching English than I am trying to overcome a lifetime of wasted opportunity and learning that their parents, and the community around them has missed.
The schools themselves aren’t just ‘prisons’ in the sense of the American kid feeling bottled up and wanting anything but to sit inside on a warm May day. They are built by the same company that builds the prisons here. The 7 foot concrete walls surrounding the compounds are topped with barbed wire. The blocky inspirational art painted to the outsides of these walls does little to assuage the sense of blanked and bottled hope when the buildings inside are a bleak assortment of square concrete surrounded by trash-covered ground where kids spend more time at recess throwing rocks at one another than they do in class. The biggest benefit to school here seems to be that a few years ago they started providing lunch to the kids. This is incredible, but since they seem to not be feeding their minds, it’s still not all that good.
I have heard many an adult decry how “little kids are devils” or in Spanish “Los niños son Diablos” and then act as though that is the end of it. When you are being outsmarted, outwitted, and outdone by a 5 year old that seems less a matter of education to me than a matter of culture and parenting. In my first few weeks here, I was struck several times by the crying toddlers wandering the streets. When I would stop and try to help them out and give them care, I would invariably fail, and once a mother poked her head out of her front door to tell me to stop because the child’s mother was at work in a different town so there was nothing to be done.
These kids are all crying out for love and attention. There are quite a few who I have gotten to know in my 6 weeks here so far who come every day for simply a high five, and to use me as a jungle gym for a few minutes. I will ask them how their day is, and perhaps play them in a quick game or two of connect 4. The culture of letting children raise themselves here results in a continuation of the vicious cycle of poverty, ignorance, and blight. When a 14 or 15 year old girl is pregnant with her first child, and before that spent most of her childhood raising her little siblings, it’s hard to imagine anyone breaking out of the cycle.