More and more often, I spend time in the evening sitting in the pantry with Madanm Anténor and her three children. Mèt Anténor himself eventually joins us, but not until Frenel gets home. Frenel, his youngest brother, is our next-door neighbor. He commutes daily to Pòtoprens to his job as the inventory and shipping manager at a small export-oriented factory. He leaves for work by 5:30 AM, and might not get home until 7:30 or 8:00, but Mèt Anténor waits for him patiently on the front porch of the decaying structure, now uninhabited, that sits between the ones in which their two families dwell. This house-between belonged to their parents. It is where they and their middle brother, Mesenn, grew up.
Mèt Anténor doesn’t like to go inside for the evening without talking with his brother. They chat about their respective days, about community gossip, about national and international news – such as either of them might have heard. Or they share a joke or two. Neighbors might join them: their cousin, Bòs Jean-Claude, a retired stonemason, or Toto, the 20-year-old I hang around with, or Casnel, the oldest son of Bòs Castra, Jean-Claude’s older brother. But whether others join them or they talk alone doesn’t seem to matter that
much. The brothers want some time together every day. It’s a habit I’m intensely jealous of.
I myself have been leaving these chats on the porch to go into the kitchen earlier and earlier to watch Mèt Anténor’s three children doing schoolwork around a single table by the light of a small kerosene lamp. This can be quite a spectacle. Much of the work that each of them has to do is the memorization of texts in French.
Now, none of them knows French very well, so they don’t much understand the texts they have to memorize. But even if their French was better, understanding the texts would hardly be to the point for them. In class, they will be expected to recite what they have read, not to analyze, discuss, summarize, or explain it. Mistakes are punishable offences.
Last night, little Valouloun told me that she has a test on ten vocabulary words each day. Students receive one hard stroke across the palm with a ruler or a crop for each wrong answer. Such beating and humiliation is par for the course.
So the children don’t think about their assignments too much. They chant them. Not surprisingly, the mundane prose texts they are working on turn into a kind of poetry. Just as English speakers can tend to slip into increasingly regular iambic pentameter when they recite syllables without attending to meaning – Eva Brann once suggested that flight attendants, when they thoughtlessly recite pre-flight safety information, are examples of this – just so, these children turn their assignments into verse, non-sense verse, as they recite them over and over again. With Kasann, Ti Papouch, and Valouloun all reciting at once around the small kitchen table, the music turns post-modern: atonal, a-rhythmic. Cacophonous chatter.
But it’s beautiful chatter, because they’re beautiful children, and because each is reciting with all his or her heart. They are positively insist that they like the work. Their reasons might not be very good; they might be complicated; they might take a little reflection to put together, but they insist they love this uncomprehending memorization nonetheless.
When their father finally comes in, Valouloun lunges for him. She’s the youngest by far. At six, she’s four years younger than Ti Papouch, and she is very much her daddy’s little girl. I’ll give an example of this. Mèt Antenr eats separately from his family. He is served, as I am, in the formal diningroom that doubles as my bedroom. The rest of the family eats in the kitchen/pantry where the children study, too. All except Valouloun. She alone will presume to cling to her father’s side as he eats, preferring any tidbits he might feed her from his plate to anything that might sit on her own.
Valouloun lunges for her father, because he sits with them to help them study, and she expects first shot at him. She’s just learning to write, and she sits on his lap as he teaches her to write words. French words. As she successfully copies each one, she laughs with delight, and gets up and walks around the table showing off what she’s done. Everyone, including Papouch, who’s only ten himself, knows well enough to admire her work. As she nods off to sleep, her father will turn to work with the other two, drilling them with math problems, checking the work in their copy books, listening to the passages they recite.
Madanm Anténor helps them as well. She went to high school as a girl, and must have been a good student. She seems to remember much of what she learned back then. I try to help with English, beginning Spanish, and with math if I have no work of my own that I must do. I can’t do much: My eyes don’t hold up to work by lamp light very well.
While we work, Madanm Anténor also finishes the day’s housework. She washes dishes, or makes us ginger tea. She might get a start on the next day’s work – by ironing the children’s school uniforms, for example. Or she’ll sit behind one or the other of the girls to fix their hair: brushing, braiding, turning, twisting. It means a lot to her for them to look just right. She irons the ribbons that she uses for bows.
For a middle-aged bachelor/scholar like myself, the domesticity of the scene is still unfamiliar. I’m still more used to books, dictionaries, student writing, e-mail, the occasional telephone call, and my beloved espresso machine. But I have to say I rather like it. Just as I love the sense of community that develops in a good class, I enjoy sitting with my new family, knowing that it makes me part of something much, much larger