With or Without Walls
by Savannah Bowen
Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing all our newly sponsored students and taking fresh class photos for BRITE’s website. Though chaotic and tedious, this task is one of my favorites because it puts me face to face with each and every student at our school.
They are timid and cold with me at first. Some of them know and remember me from my previous time in Haiti, but most still require lots of warming up before they’re ready to flash their pearly whites for the camera. Yet with each conversation I have, I learn more about them, and more about the impact that Ecole Jeremie St Fort is having on their lives.
After snapping sweet shots of kindergartners and wrestling smiles from the stoic ninth graders, I took a walk around the property to stretch my legs. The sun shone brightly in the yard where some boys kicked up a soccer game. I remarked the small office building with a humble porch and a roof thatched with dried palms. Next to it stood a cement room full of pots and a stove where hot meals are cooked for students and staff daily. Across from these buildings were four long cement platforms separated by thin chalkboards nailed to wooden beams. Frayed drapes of fabric stretched over the sides of the rooms in a meager attempt to shield shiftless students from the sun and the distraction of other classes.
Just beyond the last school room was a plot of land marked off, and a handful of men shoveling dirt and breaking rock with pickaxes. The first signs of the new work to be done on our school grounds. Our beloved school is getting a much-needed makeover thanks to the Penshorn Joshua 21 Foundation. They’ve agreed to invest in the construction of a brand-new facility for our community. The building project will eliminate many of our present challenges, and accelerate learning in our classrooms, where teachers will be able to provide more stable and focused education.
After my stroll, I walked back to the main office and drummed up a conversation with our first-grade teacher. We discussed the challenges of the classroom, and the joys. Her eyes brightened with pride as she named a student who had been struggling for months. He’s starting to read! she said. She had spent hours helping this specific child. Gone to his home and offered lessons during summer months. She lives in the community, a fact that has a great impact on the way students feel when they come to school.
With picture day all wrapped up, I hopped on a moto and went to a town nearby to speak with some of our former students who have graduated and moved on to other high schools. Although EJSF is not yet able to provide high school education in Rodaille, we remain committed to our talented young folks pursuing education elsewhere. We help to sponsor them in their new schools and provide support where we can.
The two students were surprised to see me turn up at their new high school, especially since it had been two years since we last spoke. We sat circled in the school’s front office which the administrators kindly loaned us for our short meeting. I warmed them up by asking how they’d been the past few months.
How was the holiday? (fun). How were their families? (fine). How were their grades? (fair). How did they like their new school? …they didn’t.
They both sighed and gave me looks that said we wanna go home. The new school is not what they hoped it would be. They both admitted to struggling socially and not being so comfortable. They stuck together to make it through the days. When I asked what the difference was for them, the answer was clear.
We don’t have the same feeling we used to have, with the other students, with the professors.
There’s something missing.
But this school had walls. This school had rooms. This school had things we’ve never had at Ecole Jeremie St Fort and were only just beginning to build. On the one hand, it didn’t make sense for these two recent graduates to be so discouraged by their new high school.
On the other hand, it proved something about EJSF that I believe we should keep at the fore of our goals. As elder and educator Maya Angelou once reflected, people will forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.
In all these years, EJSF has been operating without the “basics.” Things that seem absolutely necessary for learning. Without doors, or walls, or full bathrooms. Without a cafeteria or a teacher’s lounge, or electricity. In the eyes of someone who didn’t know any better, they might only be able to see what was lacking in our school. But our teachers are passionate about the work that they do, and our students do the daily work of opening their minds to knowledge, a great feat when they are sometimes learning hungry, learning tired, learning without support or educational help at home.
The sunny school yard with platforms and thatched roofs for classrooms has no walls. But it has a special feeling. A space to play for our kids, a gathering place for our community, and thoughtful, dedicated people walking through the gates every day to bring knowledge and emotional investment to our children.
I believe these things are more essential than walls. They are the things that have kept EJSF running, growing, succeeding for over eleven years. I’m overjoyed at the prospect of building a school facility worthy of our staff and students. But I hope sincerely that our community school never loses sight of its community. That it remains a home and a bright symbol of Rodaille’s future, with or without walls.
3/2/2021 07:24:12 am
Lovely piece, Savannah. I was educated in a primary school that was in our headmistress’s home. The younger children did have a building at the back but the older children worked in groups under covered areas in her garage with lap pads and folding easel blackboards that we helped set ip each day. Out of that physical scenario with dedicated teachers and students have come doctors and lawyers, business people, civil servants and even the leader of the country where I was raised. So it is not the physical space that matters most.
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