I was excited when I learned the school in Little Haiti in which I was placed taught adult education classes at night and jumped on the opportunity to observe a classroom. I went there expecting to find people who wanted to learn English. What I found there was an experience that has changed me forever.
When I entered the classroom, I saw adults taking a test. I sat quietly in the back of the room, assuming they were taking an English vocabulary test. As I looked closer, I noticed it was NOT a vocabulary test; it was a math test- a basic math test consisting of simple addition and subtraction. I watched as a room full of 30-to 60-year-olds counted on their fingers, eyes squinted, their foreheads wrinkled deep in thought. I tried to let the fact that this was difficult for them sink in.
I watched in total confusion as wrong answer after wrong answer was written down. I saw some of them struggle to hold their pencils, fingers gripped so tightly their joints turned white, because they were still learning how to write. I did not know what to think. My mind could not comprehend what I was witnessing. I knew Haiti was the poorest country in the western hemisphere. I knew it ranked 194 out of 200 countries in dollars spent on education, and I knew people risked their lives to try to make it to the United States. I knew all of these things, but I still didn’t “get it.”
I sat there with such strong emotion, trying not to let my sadness show and hiding my guilt about how privileged I am just because of where I was born, holding back the tears of anger that burned my eyes. How could this happen? I looked around the classroom at faces tired from working all day. As I forced myself to look into their eyes, I saw something I did not understand. Under their heavy lids, I saw their eyes shining. They were bright and hungry for knowledge. Was this hope I saw? Determination? I had to ask myself, “How?” How can they have hope? I felt a rush of mixed emotions- not just the sadness, guilt, and anger I had felt moments before, but overwhelming inspiration and respect.
I asked myself, “If I were that age and in a similar situation, is this how I would be spending my time after working hard all day?” Not until THIS moment did everything sink in. I was wrong to pity them. I began to understand that Haiti may be poor economically, but her people were rich in spirit. I could not begin to fathom how much courage it must take to try to learn these things as an adult, how important it must be to them, and how thankful they were to finally have the opportunity to learn. I then understood it was this perseverance that led Haiti to become the first free black nation.
When the test was finished, I listened to the teacher ask questions. I smiled as a woman in a red shirt eagerly raised her hand to answer every single question. I watched her full lips smirk as she glanced back at me after correctly answering each one, as if she were trying to prove something to me. I saw the self-satisfaction on her lovely, dark face and I thought back about a little boy I interviewed at the school earlier that day. I wondered if his parents were in the room. I recalled asking him what he liked best about the school and he told me flag football. I searched my notes to reread his exact words. “Flag football is the highlight of my day. That’s what I do. I love football. When I score a touchdown everyone cheers for me and that feels good. It makes me believe I can make it. Football teaches me it’s about the whole team, not just me. That I can’t do it by myself. I can apply that to my life.”
At the moment, I remembered thinking, “Aw, how sweet. How cute.” Now his words took on a whole other meaning and they tore into my heart. I wish I would have told him he WILL make it. He WILL do something with his life. He CAN! I wish I would have hugged him and told him I was proud of him. I looked back at the woman in the red shirt and I smiled. I wondered if she was his mother. I had the sudden urge to talk to her. I wanted to tell HER I was proud of her. I had the words on the tip of my tongue but I let them die there. I couldn’t help but wonder if she would have thought I was being condescending. I was too conflicted to speak. How do you tell someone older than you, someone you have just met, that you’re proud of them? I let the moment pass and I will regret it for the rest of my life- because a better question would have been, “How could you NOT?”