Last week I ran into an Italian friend on the street who has lived in Cuba for a decade. It occurred to me to ask after his children, two teenagers born in Milan but now growing up in Havana. “Here I have them in a French school,” he confirmed, smiling. At first I did not understand why he had chosen this Francophone education, but he clarified for me. “What do you want, that I send them to a public school? With the terrible education here!” Inquiring, I learned that they share the classroom with the children of diplomats, foreign correspondents, and figures of our culture who have married an immigrant. For an annual fee of 5,550 CUC ($5,800 USD), both offspring of the rotund Italian are well cared for and educated.
The first impression of that encounter was that my friend was exaggerating, but I immediately reviewed my own experience as the mother of a student. I visualized the number of floor mops, bags of detergent, and brooms we had donated to make sure the hallways and bathrooms of the school were at least presentable. Also on this list was a lock for the classroom door we replaced on several occasions and a fan all the parents bought because the suffocating heat made it hard for the children to pay attention. Nor did I forget the infinite number of times that the exams were printed in our house because the school had no paper, no ink, no working printer. The snack that we gave to the teacher so many days, because the food in the dining room was simply unpresentable. I recalled the folios, tubes of glue, the tempura and colored paper that we also provided for the mural that would hang on the wall with an image of a magnanimous and smiling Fidel Castro.
I didn’t stop with just the high material cost of those school years, but continued connecting memories. I recapitulated those times when they implemented the so-called tele-classes, that filled over 60% of the teaching hours with television. The great teachers who decided to return home to paint nails, sell coffee, or relocate to the tourism sector, because the combination of high responsibility and low wages was unbearable. And I even took a minute to count all the primary and secondary teachers who had left their jobs. I enumerated, one by one, all the atrocities voiced to so many adolescents by the “emerging teachers” (they should have been called “instant teachers”): from the reason that the Cuban flag has a five-pointed start is because there are five Interior Ministry agents confined in U.S. prisons, or that New Zealand is in the Caribbean Sea. I also reconstructed the afternoon that a teacher announced in front of our son, that very nearby there was an act of repudiation underway against “dangerous counterrevolutionaries” and little Teo got a lump in his throat, since he knew that his mother and father were among the victims of the harassment. The teachers’ assistants with their tight clothes and their navels hanging out paraded in front of my eyes, or a teacher with a gold tooth and an eagle on his shirt criticizing the students’ long hair and not letting them into the classroom.
My evocative waterfall that afternoon didn’t lack the slogans repeated to the point of exhaustion, the endless and monotonous morning assemblies, the cult of personality of some men who appear in history books as saviors and in science books as scientists. At the end of my reflection, all this helped me to understand why my Italian friend prefers the “little French school” of Havana. But I also know that his children will grow up with a very different idea of what education is on this Island. They will believe that the bright and well equipped places where they receive each assignment, a balanced lunch, a caring teacher, and quality school materials, are characteristics inherent in our education system. I can’t rule out that some day — on returning to Europe — they will participate in some street protests so that their public education will look like ours, so that their children can enjoy what they “knew” in Cuba.