Tuesday, June 4, 2013
The things I also packed
I first traveled to Haiti, after the earthquake. I knew very little about the country and was, like many people, going down to help after a natural disaster. It seemed like a good thing to do. I was told I would be working in a birth center that was located in a geodesic dome in Jacmel. I knew very, little else.
It was in August, during my brief summer vacation as a principal in Portland, Oregon. Summer vacations were not fully vacations, however, and I was expected to take phone calls at all times, even in post earthquake Haiti. I wanted to work as a midwife, I wanted to be helpful and I wanted to live beyond the endless negotiations and compromises of an American education system that was embedded in elitism and struggles for personal power. I did not know then, that I would come to see these struggles mirrored in Haiti's own inability to "build back better." I was boarding a plane to find some part of me that I had lost in a large, urban school district. Like many people, who went to Haiti, that year, we were looking for ourselves admist the piles of concrete and hoped no one would notice how broken we were. It was and is embarrassing to admit that our worlds were in spiritual and emotional crumbles, even when we had so much opportunity and material wealth. I like, many, hoped no one would notice my own fragile exterior. I was weathering a painful divorce after a 35 year marriage and my children were grown. The public school I had started to serve diverse populations had been reassigned to a district that could only accept neighborhood children. The borders were closed to the school. It felt like the borders being closed to Hatien immigrants. I felt trapped by the policy that excluded immigrant and poor children so perhaps that summer, I felt that if I could not accept immigrants and refugees in my school, any longer, I would go to them and Haiti was the first opportunity that came my way.
The school I started taught gardening skills and used the outdoors as a place to learn. We learned in and about the community we lived in. We were dedicated to service-learning and helping students to think of ways to make their own world a better place for themselves and others. I had been told, a month earlier, that poor children and children of color did not like nature or gardens or even being outdoors which is why I should be happy to serve a mostly, white, well educated population who gained access to the popular curriculum by buying a house in the neighborhood. The ability for a young family to buy such a house due largely to generations of inherited wealth and privlidge.
I was aware that for some higher level administrators, a different principal would bring the school more into line with larger district goals. I wanted us to live fully within each school day; creating a meaningful, healthy place for children to be. Like many principals, I was under an ever increasing pressure to perform better and better on tests. it was not enough for the third grade to all pass the test, I was told I should give it again until everyone exceeded. I knew they were all enthusiastic readers who loved books and writing stories about their own young world. Their feet could not even touch the floor in the computer lab where the test was given. I knew the testing and the accompanying prescribed textbooks were coming out of Texas and the Bush education policy known as "No Child Left Behind." Many people saw it as a way to keep a class system, that served the very rich in place. I had no idea how deeply embedded Haiti was in this plan. If you wanted good test scores, you could not have immigrant children in Florida. It was necessary to create some children and indeed some countries poor and beholden to empower the wealthy.
When I first went to Haiti, I packed all this along with sterile gloves, vitamins and syringes. I also packed a standard US education regarding my country's role in Haiti's poverty. I knew how to deliver a baby but little, little else about the country I was about to live and work in. I did not know that the complex social systems I was running away from was duplicated over and over again in all of the world's colonized countries.
I paid extra to get my passport renewed, bought a plane ticket to Port Au Prince and landed in an airport that was cracked and badly damaged. My own bags were thrown into a car and I made my way through the city and out into the countryside to Jacmel.