When Learning Turns to Dust

For several days I have been coaching my son for his final secondary school exams. I dusted off my notions about quadratic equations, formulas for calculating the area of a pyramid, and factoring. After more than twenty years of not encountering these mathematical complexities, I reconnected neurons to help him prepare and to avoid paying the high price of a tutor. More than once, during these days of study, I was on the verge of giving up, faced with the evidence that numbers are not my forte. But I resisted.

Only when Teo returned from his most difficult test, saying he'd done well, did I feel relieved, as many of his classmates are in danger of repeating a grade. The reason is that in their three years of middle school, these students have seen three different evaluation methods paraded before them. They have also been affected by the lack of preparation of the so-called "emerging teachers" and the long hours of classes taught by television. For two semesters my son's group has had no teachers in English and computing, and the assigned hour of physical education consists of an hour of running around the schoolyard, unsupervised. The lack of requirements and the bad quality of the education has left us parents trying to put patches over the innumerable gaps in knowledge.

Fortunately, Teo's school is not one of the worst. Although the smell of the bathroom sticks to the walls and clothes, because no one wants to work as a cleaning aid for the miserable wages the job pays, at least there is not as much haphazardness as in other schools in Havana. Nor, and this is a relief, do they sell grades, an ever more common practice in educational institutions. The teachers Teo has had, despite being ill-prepared, are good-natured people whom the community of parents have tried to help. In comparison with the problems that a friend of mine has had with her daughter's technical school, we could not be happier with the moral environment of our son's secondary school. According to what my friend tells me, the exchange of sex between the teenagers and the teachers has become a common way to get a good grade. Each test comes with a fee, and few remain unscathed in the face of the tempting offer of a cell phone or a pair of Adidas shoes, in exchange for outstanding grades.

I have avoided writing about this thorny issue of the deterioration of the educational system for fear, I confess, that my child would feel the affects of the opinions of his mother. In the three years he has been in junior high, I've barely slipped in a couple of criticisms about the state of the school infrastructure, but now I can't take it any more. They will be the professionals of tomorrow, the doctors who will attend to our bodies in the operating room, the engineers who will build our houses, the artists who will feed our souls with their creations; this terrible educational background puts all of this at risk. We cannot continue to be satisfied with the fact that at least while our children are sitting at a desk they are not roaming the streets at the mercy other risks. Within the walls of the classroom very serious vices can be developed, permanent ethical deformations, and an incubation of mediocrity of alarming proportions. No parent should remain silent about it.