Thursday, February 20, 2014

What school is like

When you walk into the Otilio Ulate Blanco school, you can tell that it’s old, but well-maintained, though many of the classrooms could stand with a coat of paint.  It sits on the southern edge of the central plaza in Zarcero, Costa Rica with two-way traffic on both streets.  The floors are large ceramic floor tiles from the 1950’s and the gym is a covered concrete area in the middle of a Spanish villa-style building, with classrooms around the central courtyard. 

The classrooms are spare.  The desks and chairs look to be vintage 1950’s materials, no plastic anywhere.  The walls are largely bare; each room as one electrical outlet, a chalkboard, a whiteboard, and a desk and chair for the teacher. 
It’s not bad though, it just seems to harken back to a different time in the progression of American public education, which may not be a bad thing seeing as how our standards and demand for “the best” have continued to deliver ever more dismal results despite the accrediting bodies swearing that assessment is the panacea for all pedagogical ills, billions thrown at the problem, and politicians and administrators getting in the way with required and common-core and a myriad other kind of faddish curricula.  I’ve seen bad schools before in the USA; I’ve seen them in other countries (e.g., Honduras), but I can’t imagine a school in the US doing so much with so little. 

The teachers are happy, energetic, well-dressed, and all business.  They dedicate their days educating cheerful, jovial, and respectful kids; the contrast between Costa Rican elementary students and the kids at the elementary schools in Darlington County, South Carolina is striking.  Here you’ll see none of the posturing and sassing that often abounds in the United States of 2014.  The students line up and give their teachers a kiss on the cheek before leaving each day.  Jack’s teacher worried that she’d done something wrong because the first time Jack didn’t kiss her, and she kissed him on the cheek, he tensed up badly.  When I explained to her that a teacher touching students, especially kisses, was completely forbidden in the States, she frowned and said, “Debe ser porque los gringos son así,” and she’s right.  We are that way.  We can’t be this way, but it’s nice to be somewhere where it can be this way, even if for a season, so that my kids can see that there are multiple ways of being and doing.  Marley told me yesterday that she would live her in Zarcero forever if she could.  The kids don’t mock, or make fun, or laugh at each other, except in amicable jest like friends do.  Everyone in her grade knows each other and gets along pretty well.  The petty ambitions and labels and name calling don’t happen here.  Wherever the British got their hands on any part of the educational system, we see the bullying and abusive behavior that we recognize as our own.  Here in Ticolandia, at least in this corner of it, it’s absent.   

I think the uniforms, required of every school in the country, help make them feel more equal and part of a community.  The rhetoric of their large meetings is definitely Christian Socialist rhetoric.  The Catholic Church and the Patria are the reasons why they are told to do what they do.  The nationalism is unlike other countries because it lacks the bellicose nature of ‘Murica and ¡VIVA MÉXICO, CABRONES!  It takes me back to a time and a place I never inhabitied but have read much of, and I like it and I’m also glad that our Constitution forbids governmental establishment of religion.  Not that I mind them teaching Marley to persignarse or morals to Jack and ethics to Calliope.  I dig it.  But, unlike the USA, Costa Rica is fairly homogenous and hasn’t had to deal with the upheavals and shocks and waves of immigration from all over the world like we have.   The America of yesteryear looks nothing like ours of today, but we are still America.  Costa Rica, demographically, other than marginalized Nicaraguan Otherness, looks the same as it always has.   

Since we aren’t citizens, and we don’t pay taxes, we felt like we should give back in return for our kids being allowed to attend there for free.  We’ve done what we’ve been able to, but there is still more that could be done.  If you’re willing to help, recognizing that it won’t be tax-deductible, let me know.  It’s easier to buy things here than to deal with the charlatans in the customs department here. 

There is a need for copy paper (locally $6 a ream), printer ink, and other supplies that the teachers pay for from their own pockets (as almost every teacher I’ve ever known does).   If you want to Paypal some help, I’ll put it to good use and send you some photographs of what we got.  I’m thinking some classrooms could use some paint, some walls could use some pencil sharpeners and some posters to liven up the place, especially maps.

Maps tell us where things are in the world.  I’m in a tiny insignificant corner of the world right now, not seen on most maps.  No matter the size of the place, I like to roost where I lay my head and make it better.  If anyone else wants to help folks you’ll probably never meet or see, I can make that happen without showing you photos of abject poverty and doe-eyed kids sitting in the dirt.