The Principal

My respect for Mèt Anténor has only grow since I got here. As a full-time teacher and the principal at a public school with three hundred young children in it, he works almost constantly. Recently, several days into his Christmas Break, he was going into school again as he had every day of his vacation so far. A worker was coming to the school to do some repair work and he felt he had to be there, not just to supervise, but to lend a hand. He was a handyman before he was a teacher. This he views as one of his duties.

He spends a lot of his time wheezing his way up and down the mountain. The walk up is very visibly taxing; his asthma a constant burden. But someone needs to make the deals that will get the school the supplies it needs and get those supplies delivered, and someone needs to get down to Petyonvil to pry scarce resources out of the school district’s main office. These duties are also his.

The other day as I was walking downhill with him, a father of one of the children came up to talk with him. The man was angry. He explained in dramatic terms that his child, a first-grader, couldn’t go to school that day. The wounds his teacher had inflicted on him the day before hadn’t sufficiently healed. The father agreed that it was right to beat children in school, right even to beat the naughty ones with a belt. But you don’t beat a
first-grader with the belt’s buckle, and you don’t use the belt when it’s just a matter of a wrong answer in class. He re-enacted the event, removing his belt and demonstrating on an imaginary child in front of him how to whip with a belt (not with the buckle) and how not to. Mèt Anténor listened sympathetically. He agreed with the father’s outrage. He had been forced to hire a young, inexperienced woman to teach the first-graders this year, and
to pay her out of a combination of almost-nonexistent petty cash and his own pocket. He was short a teacher, and the State wouldn’t or couldn’t help. He listened to the father, and said he would reprimand the teacher. This too is part of his duty. As we continued our walk, he was shaking his head.

He has a lot of duties, but he manages them, some better and some worse I suppose. He has a degree from a school of education, twenty years of teaching experience, and almost fifty years of life experience on the mountain to guide him. I met another, quite different principal at our workshop in Lazil, though, and I’d like to talk about him.

There were almost thirty people at the workshop, some of them quite young. I assumed that some of the teachers and principals had decided to invite students, and I was glad of it. On the way back to the house we were staying in, I walked with one of them and we spoke. I don’t remember his name, but he looked about fifteen. I suppose that means he could easily be eighteen or nineteen. I asked him whether he was a student, and when he said that he was a principal I lost my breath. In fact, he had been a principal for three years.

What that means is that he runs a small, private school well out in the country. He has four teachers, including himself, and one hundred students divided into four classes. Primary school is six years in Haiti, so students who would finish have to go elsewhere for the last two years. The students each pay one hundred gouds for the school year, which leaves him with ten thousand gouds to run the school with. Right now, there are roughly 17.5 gouds to the dollar, so that amounts to a little over 550 dollars. With that, he must pay four salaries. The school year is nine months long, so he has about sixty dollars a month to cover all four salaries. That’s fifteen bucks a month for each teacher. This is without taking out whatever minimal expenses he has for school maintenance and supplies. Life might be cheaper in Haiti than in the States, but it’s not that much cheaper.

This would be bad enough, but he hardly could be old enough to have finished high school, and couldn’t really be going while he’s running his own school. The nearest high school is simply too far away. That means that he’s doing this work with very little education of his own. He can’t have much experience yet, either. He simply hasn’t had time. What’s more, he can’t really be doing much studying on his own. The money he could at best be making is not enough to afford him any leisure. A best case, and a very likely, scenario is that he lives with his parents, goes to school in the morning, and works his family’s land with his father in the afternoon. He can hardly have time and energy to do much more than open the text book that has his students’ daily lesson, and write that lesson on the chalkboard for his students to copy. It’s unlikely that they have copies of the textbook of their own.

Belose and I talked about the situation later that day. The region has no economy but farming. All the most promising young people leave to go to high school in Leyogann or Pòtoprens. The two high schools that are closer are each about a two-hour walk away. When they leave school, whether as graduates or otherwise, the young people they stay away. They look for work in the cities, where they can better hope to save some money for marriage, where they can hope, as we say, “for a better life.” The young people who cannot manage to get out of the area, whether because their families can’t afford to send them or because they weren’t strong enough in elementary school, have few options, very few. One of them is to teach elementary school. The pay is worse than bad, but any cash they can get their hands on helps a lot.

But this also means that the schools are bad: poorly educated teachers working in the most difficult of circumstances. As I was shaking my head, Belose explained why such schools are nevertheless a very good thing. They are cheap, cheap enough to be widely, if not universally, affordable even in rural Haiti. And Belose insisted that the brightest children somehow learn in them despite everything, that there are kids who go through them and then can continue their education in better schools. But these schools are good, she explained, even for the other students, the ones who never do get any education beyond what these schools can provide. In her region, there is nothing to do but farm.

The schools are better than nothing. They provide an activity, whether they are quality educational institutions or not. They’re a place where the children can come together for a break from their difficult lives at home. They represent the chance to spend a few hours each day freed from hard physical labor. They are a chance to chance to read a little, to write a little, to learn a little math, a chance to have however impoverished, however small a share in the life of the mind.