The Graduation

One of the things that makes Haiti an exciting place for an educator to work is the way Haitians value education. People here regularly make real sacrifices to go to school. I can offer all sorts of examples: from the kids who live in Bawosiya and Blancha, ten and twenty minutes up the hill from where I live in Ka Glo, who walk an hour or more to schools in Petyonvil, Delma, and Pòtoprens every day in freshly washed and ironed uniforms only to have to hike back up the hill that afternoon; to the kids from farther up the mountain who leave home every Sunday afternoon to live with relatives during the week, only to return home Friday; to families struggling to get by who invest money they don’t really have in their children’s education; to young people who will sign up for class after class at vocational schools hoping that this or that training will give them a way to earn a living down the road.

I used to ask children whether they like school. These are children who attend schools where they are asked to turn off their minds in order to memorize passages in a language they don’t know, schools at which customary discipline includes beatings and humiliation. They would invariably answer, with enthusiasm, that indeed they do.

But that enthusiasm for education can take surprising forms. One of those forms is the seriousness of graduations. And as yesterday’s graduation reached and passed the three-hour mark – after beginning two hours late – and as I saw through the hot, dank auditorium’s very small window that the rains had started, and as I realized that, from where I was in deep downtown Pòtoprens it would take at least two hours to get home, the Haitian enthusiasm for education seemed, briefly, less attractive than it normally would.

It was Titi’s graduation. He’s a young man, in his early twenties, but he has long been living by his own resources. His parents have never really been in a position to support him. He works in a wealthier neighbor’s home, does errands for me and for a couple of other foreigners who visit our mountain now and again, and raises a couple of goats.

Titi had completed a nine-month class in videography in downtown Pòtoprens. And the whole thing was striking to me in a number of ways. First, he was one of a class of 19 students, and it was stunning that his school – which is, by the way, relatively inexpensive – would invest in rental of a large auditorium and organize a three-and-a-half hour graduation for nineteen young people who had taken a nine-month course. Second, I wondered how one could spend nine months learning to use a video camera. This was not, after all, a school of filmmaking, but just a class for those who want to know how to use a video camera. This second point was especially perplexing because I know that Titi has no video camera, and I doubt that he’s any different from most of his classmates in this respect. I also know that the school’s video camera was stolen mid-way through the class, so the course must have mainly covered videography’s theoretical aspects. And I have a hard time imagining what those theoretical aspects might be.

I had been invited to the graduation as Titi’s godfather. This requires explanation. I was not, previously, Titi’s godfather. All my Haitian godchildren are less than four years old, acquired after I had been coming to Haiti for a number of years. And my oldest godchild, a wonderful Colombian girl named Catalina, is still a ways from entering her teens. Titi was baptized long before I got into the godfather trade. When I write, therefore, that he had invited me as his godfather, I am referring to one of several Haitian extensions of the most traditional meaning of that word.

Haitians acquire godparents at a range of occasions. Baptisms may be the most important one, but weddings and graduations require godparents as well. I’ve been around very few weddings here, but as far as I can tell Haitians don’t speak of having a “maid of honor” or a “best man.” They speak of having a godmother and a godfather, and each title comes with a range of duties that traditions here more-or-less fix. Graduations have godparents in two respects: A graduating class will have its godfather and its godmother, and each graduate will acquire a new set as well.

I had once been the godfather of a graduating class at an elementary school. This involved donning as suit, making a speech, and buying a couple of gifts for students who had earned special rewards. This would be, however, my first chance to acquire a new graduate as a godchild individually, and I had no real idea what my duties were. I asked Mèt Anténor, and he made the picture very clear: I was to attend the graduation, dressed suitably for the occasion, buy Titi a gift, and offer him such help and advice as I could down the road.

So I appeared at Titi’s house at 11:30. He wanted to leave by 12:00 for the 1:00 ceremony. Getting down the mountain, if we were very lucky, would only take 90 minutes, so we wouldn’t be more than a half-hour late. There was no chance that the activity would actually begin on time.

We waited in a courtyard in front of the auditorium until 3:00. Apparently, the auditorium is popular: Titi’s was the day’s second graduation, and the first was running late. We used the time to take photos and to talk. Titi told me that he had chosen the videography course because he had long been attracted to the role that camera people play at weddings, graduations, funerals, and the other occasions at which Haitians like to hire them. He had initially purchased an old, used video camera, but it had never worked properly. He eventually brought it to his school, hoping that it could be repaired, but when robbers hit the school his camera disappeared with the school’s own.

Nevertheless, he was pleased with the class and hoped that, eventually, he would be able to make use of what he learned. He was satisfied enough with the school that he had already signed up for its summer class in Driver’s Ed.

The graduation seemed endless: songs, sketch comedy, poetry, and speech after speech. These speeches were all in French, a language few Haitians speak really well, so they were stilted, formulaic. They did nothing to express the unique thoughts and passions of those who gave them. There was plenty of loud, piped-in background music, and an emcee who talked almost constantly, in French, through the entire event. About ten or fifteen minutes were reserved for handing out the diplomas. As each student stepped forward, the announcer read the school’s comments about her or him. We learned who had been punctual, who respectful; who had been quiet, who comical. One young woman was even described as perpetually tardy and difficult. It seemed an odd thing to say at her graduation.

It was past 6:30 by the time we were ready for the long trek home. The rains had stopped, and we had surprisingly little trouble finding a bus headed for Petyonvil. There, however, we got stuck, because the drivers for Malik had, apparently, called it a day. We headed home on foot, just as everyone from Malik, Mariaman, and Ka Glo had done before the road to Malik was built in 1999. The rains returned as we arrived in Malik, and I was pretty wet by the time I got home, but Titi had clearly been pleased by the day.

Part of me wanted to talk with him about the many more useful ways he and his school could have invested the resources that they put into the graduation. His case isn’t the only one that’s been on my mind. Another godson, Givens, has an older brother who’ll graduate from kindergarten this month. His parents will pay a graduation fee of over $150.00, over and above the steep tuition they already paid, and they’ll spend a fair amount on the reception they’ll hold for the little guy after that. It will, of course, be a very happy occasion, but his parents work hard for the little money they have. His father’s monthly salary is much less than the graduation will cost, so one has to wonder whether it really makes sense.

It does for the schools. These ceremonies are advertisements. The emcee at Titi’s graduation, for example, could hardly have said more than he did in praise of the school. And it must make sense to the Haitians who choose to participate. Something about achieving a milestone, any kind of milestone, must feel worth celebrating.