An Accident of Literacy: Guest Blog by Edwidge Danticat

Saturday September 8, 2012 is World Literacy Day. We asked Haitian-American Author Edwidge Danticat, a friend of buildOn, to reflect for us on what education and literacy mean to her.

An Accident of Literacy

by Edwidge Danticat

This past June, my family and I were visiting a school in rural Haiti when we heard a loud scream. A young man who had failed his final exams was crying. This young man was so inconsolable that a few of his friends had to hold him up by his armpits to keep him from falling. My first thought was that someone in his family had died and he had just received the news and was heartbroken. But what had broken his heart were his grades.

Failing final exams for many Haitian students means that they have to repeat the school year and that their families must pay for everything all over again, including school fees, books, uniforms, and transportation costs, all of which had come as a result of great sacrifice in the first place.

In Haiti, as much as fifteen percent of a family’s income is spent on each child’s education. A family like my original family, with my three brothers and myself, would have cost my parents more than half their income in education costs. Not to mention the possibility that there might not have been any income in the first place.

In a country where one third of the population is under fifteen years old–and seventy percent under thirty–that leaves a lot of people to educate. This sometimes forces parents to choose which among their children to send to school, and girls, because they are needed for domestic tasks at home, often get left behind.

A few years ago, my husband, a former elementary school teacher, and I, spent a few days in Fort-Royal, Petit Goave, at Sant Twa Ti Flè, the Three Little Flowers School, a school that was founded by the renowned Haitian linguist Yves Dejean. The school is unique because its hundred or so students are taught in Haitian Creole, rather than French. Also the daily realities of the children’s lives are factored into the school’s scheduling.

On market days, for example, when parents pull their daughters and sons out of school to help them sell their goods at the market, classes start a little bit later or the children who have to go to the market are excused and are allowed to make up the work. These children, who might otherwise be habitual absentees, and eventually dropouts, are still able to attend school on a regular basis.

This is the kind of community-attuned education that not only builds the person, but the entire community. It is also the kind of education that Professor Dejean advocates in his book Yon lekòl tèt anba nan yon peyi tèt anba (An Upside Down School In An Upside Down Country.)

Aprann pa menm ak konnen”, he writes. Learning is not the same as knowing misses the subtlety of the Creole, but is as close as I can come to his original meaning. Professor Dejean offers the example of someone waking up from a dream to find three strangers standing over him. You know they are people, he wrote, but until you learn their names, you do not know who they are.

This is a very nuanced example in a passionate plea for educating people in a manner that takes into consideration the specific circumstances of their lives. A colonial-type education might have left my parents’ and Professor Dejean’s generation feeling alienated, but many children in rural post-earthquake Haiti are also getting, as part of their mission-sponsored education, sermons that tell them they are living in a country that made a pact with the devil, that their poverty is a result of their sin, and that they are going to hell.

Many parents see putting up with this as a necessary sacrifice for what they feel is the most valuable gift they can offer their children, which is, in whatever form it comes, an education. And with that comes the hope that every parent holds dear, that an education will open doors to a much better life.

There is passive love and active love, my father used to tell me when I first moved to the United States from Haiti, and was struggling with homework that neither my parents nor I understood. Passive love, my father said, asks only that you feel it, but active love demands sacrifice. Educating a poor child in rural Haiti demands just as much sacrifice as feeding and clothing and housing that child. And when even active love fails, choices become narrower, even as the world arrives via cell phones and motorcycles, and other things that sometimes seem down right futuristic on the same road that a small child, who has never been to school, is pulling a donkey loaded with wood fire sticks at the end of a long and arduous day. It is, as in Professor Dejean’s example, we know we are people, but we have not fully learned who we are.

Yet, every time I stand between the child with the donkey and the man on the motorcycle talking on his cell phone–the filozòf who became the motto taxi driver, or so the village folklore goes–I am reminded of the failure of even love, of a parents’ will not always being enough, of the crucial and fundamental support needed–after we build physical schools—by teachers and other educational staff. And I imagine my father, one generation away from pulling that mule, saying that the only reason some of us are not also pulling mules is because we were lucky enough to get an education, because we are accidents of literacy. And I think back to the young man’s screams this past June and the tears and moans of so many other children taking the long way home, hiding from their parents, because they have failed their final exams, and I wonder if when school reopens in October some of these children will even be able to go back. But when I fully understood why that young man was crying, it occurred to me that if someone who cares so deeply about a grade, if someone who is so utterly devastated by failure, if that kind of young person is also allowed to fail in life, then we will have all failed.

Edwidge Danticat is the author of, most recently, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist At Work.