I was given an assignment. I was to take a walk down into the area below and find some children who had no way to go to school and learn their story. Marie France, one of our National Staff was asked to go with me. She immediately said she had neighbors who would be great to talk with. We set a time for 10am the following day. We were going to meet with Jeff.
To get to his house, we took a partially paved path that led up between a building on one side and some trees on the other. We left the pavement and traveled another 20 feet or so on a dirt path. We arrived at this house, which was set back about 15 feet from the road on a small embankment. The foremost part of the yard was covered in thin grass, some small trees and, a few leaves. There were steps that had been carved out of the soft compacted mud and the roots that jutted out among them helped give us a place to put our feet. It had rained the night before so the mud was soft but we managed to climb without falling. Marie called out asking if anyone was home. Jeff’s mother responded and in a minute or so she emerged from the house carrying a baby and beside her was her three year old daughter. She explained that Jeff wasn’t there.
We were told he would be back just after 1 so we agreed to come back to talk to him at 1:30. We asked if we could sit and hear her story. We sat in white plastic chairs on the neighbor’s front porch under the shade and talked with his mom. The youngest child, a girl of 1 year old climbed into her lap, whining so she sat and fed the baby as we chatted. Emily is 37 years old and has six children, ranging from 1 year old to 16 years old; Jeff being the oldest. She was born in an area called Pestel but spent most of her life in Port au Prince. It’s the chance of a job and a better life that draws so many there. Six years ago she had trouble with rent. She couldn’t pay it. So she left Port au Prince for the quieter, less expensive Cayes. She has family here. When they moved from Port au Prince she had hoped the new place would give them a new start. She said in reality, it has only brought her more suffering. Her tone of voice was matter of fact and the look in her eyes was soft and resigned. A look that spoke of her obligation to accept her life as it was. She never once asked for anything and only politely answered any and all questions I had.
I don’t know whether the man she calls the children’s father really is the father of all six of them but that’s how she referred to him. He is in their lives but not a part of their lives. She has chosen to follow Christ and her husband has not. For a time he helped with the rent. They rent a room in the house; a space all eight of them share. He hasn’t helped her with rent in months. She said that they are behind on rent and if it isn’t paid up in 20 days they will be evicted. She is also solely responsible for providing food and clothing for all the children; and schooling when she can.
Jeff wasn’t there because that morning, like many other mornings, Jeff had gotten up, put on his uniform and headed off the school. He was hoping this would be a day he wouldn’t get sent home because he hasn’t yet paid. That’s not an unusual thing. Children, in hopes of being allowed to stay, will often get dressed in their uniforms and go to school like all the paying students, hoping to make it through the day without being sent home. When they are eventually sent home, that day or some other, they may wait several days or sometimes weeks and try again, hoping to learn something, hoping to catch a break, and in the meantime hoping to find a way to pay for school. Jeff had an exam the following day and was hoping he would be able to stay at school to learn the material. He had no assurance he would be allowed to take the test, just a desperate hope. That’s why we weren’t upset when he wasn’t there at 10am and agreed to come back later. It seemed that on this day, he hadn’t been asked to leave. In fact, all four of Emily’s kids that are old enough to go to school live in this cycle. Some of their school debt has been paid for, some by her and some by Jeff who goes fishing and tries to sell the fish to earn enough money to pay off some more of the debt. Other days he fishes and gives it to his family to eat. I didn’t see the two other schools aged children. I didn’t ask where they were. His thirteen year old brother was at home, on an off cycle. In a few days he will try and go back.
Marie France rents space in the building next to the family so she was already there when I arrived at 1:30. School usually lets out at one and Jeff comes straight home because there is a show on television he likes and the neighbors that share the house with Marie have a TV. I arrived and climbed a different set of stairs to get to Marie’s house. The houses are side by side. In her front yard stairs have actually been carved out of the stone and the compressed mud starts a little higher up. I walked beside and almost under the roof of the house that was built directly in front of her building. I greeted the neighbors who were outside and slid a bit in the moist mud that was their yard. I greeted Marie France, who had put out a white plastic chair where I could sit while we waited. Jeff had yet to arrive. Jeff’s mother had gone down into the village just below but his thirteen year old brother, and the two youngest were there. After a little scurrying and some conversation back and forth with Jeff’s brother and some of the other kids there watching TV, trying to figure out if anyone had seen Jeff he came running up to the door out of breath. “Sorry they kept us late at school today”.
His uniform is a bright pink and white gingham short sleeve button up paired with bright green pants. Before we started he asked if he could change out of it.
Jeff is sixteen. He is tall and slim and a serious kid. Sweat beads formed around his mouth and forehead as we started. He sat, leaning slightly forward with his hands clasped together and elbows resting on his knees which is how he stayed for most of the conversation, often shifting and then returning to that same position. I asked him a lot of questions. I asked him what his favorite things about school were. He loves math and wants to be an accountant. I asked him if there was anything he didn’t like about school; his response? He didn’t like when there was nothing to do. He prefers learning. I asked him if there had ever been a year when he had been able to finish a grade in a year. Once, he said, when he was in second grade. I wanted to know if it ever frustrated him that this was how it was, or if he had just learned to accept it. His answer was a definitive, “It doesn’t matter how long it takes or how old I am. I AM going finish.” But coupled with that determination is the fear that he is getting too old to find good work once he finishes. We talked a lot about his future and hopes for a better life. It was evident that his heart was heavy for his mother. He said he wanted to be able to get an education so that he could get a good job so that he could get his mom out of the place she is and into a better life where she didn’t have to suffer any more. I asked him if there was anything he wanted to share with me that I hadn’t asked. He sat thoughtfully for a minute and said not really. His brother had been sitting with the two youngest there in the hallway where we were, listening in. At this point, he jumped in and said he wanted to talk.
Jeff got up and Janel eagerly took his seat. Janel is thirteen but very small for his age. I would have given him nine or ten. He was dressed in a plain white tee and khaki shorts. He was a bit more playful than Jeff has been. I asked him many of the same questions. I found out he had also been able to finish a grade, once, in just a year, back in first grade. Even though he was now in second grade he had been trying for several years to finish that grade. As we sat and talked, the same baby that climbed into her mother’s lap earlier in the day now climbed into Janel’s lap, crying. As though it was second nature, Janel cradled her and rocked her just as her mother would have done. He often steps in as caregiver for his younger siblings. He also helps with the cooking. I asked him what he liked to do for fun and Marie France quickly laughed and said he was a trouble maker and that sometimes he torments the neighborhood dogs. He laughed and I teased him about it. I asked him what he liked to do in addition to tormenting the dogs. “Joking and cutting up with my friends”, he said, “and I like playing soccer”; left field is his best position. When asked what obstacles were keeping him from accomplishing his goal of becoming an engineer he said money and the fact that he misses so much school for lack thereof. Unlike Jeff, he does get frustrated because he says getting and education is much better than just sitting around doing nothing. His heart was also deeply burdened for his mother. His goal for the future echoed the sentiment of Jeff, to get an education, to get a job, to make money and to make a better life for themselves individually, for their brothers and sisters collectively, and especially their mother. I asked them both if they believed there was hope for their future and in reaching their goals. They both answered yes but both seemed to understand that unless they could find a way to get their education that was going to be difficult.
One of the things that struck me, that I noticed was missing from all three of the conversations I had was the word opportunity. I was hoping for someone to tell me that an education gave them an opportunity for a better life. I finally asked Janel what opportunities an education would give him but when Marie translated the question into Creole, she never used the word opportunity. It struck me to think that on so many levels maybe that word doesn’t really exist in a cultural context. Sure, there is a word for opportunity in Creole but perhaps on a much bigger level, it’s what the Haitian people are lacking. Opportunity.
At sixteen years of age, most teenage boys in the US are downloading their favorite tunes on to their IPod, texting the girl they have a crush on, or are dreaming about their first kiss or their first car. At sixteen years of age, Jeff has already decided what he wants to do when he grows up, is burdened by his mother’s incessant suffering, wishes to make a better life for himself so he can make a better life for her, and hopes that maybe this year will be the year he finishes 5th grade.