06/08/2010 03:30 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Algebra al fresco in Cyvadier

By Peter Costantini ~ Cyvadier, Haiti

Walking home from school in Pétionville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Photo credit: Peter Costantini

Down a rutted, muddy lane off the main highway running through Cyvadier (pronounced see-vad-yay), a small group of kids are hanging out in the packed-dirt yard of a modest house in the shade of a mango tree. The first day I pass by, they try out their English on me: "Hello! How are you?" "I'm fine, thank you. How are you?" I wave and keep walking.

The next day, we exchange greetings in English again. Their ages range from something like 8 to 16, boys and girls. One of the older boys waves me over. "You speak French? J'ai une question." Nearly all Haitians speak Kreyol among themselves, but school is taught mostly in French. The young man's name is Manno and he seems to be the point man on solving a problem.

They've got a blackboard set up out in the yard covered with what looks to be algebra. At the top are two equations within a bracket, each with two variables. Below are a few matrices, small tic-tac-toe-like arrays of numbers that can be used to solve the equations. "We're trying to solve these two equations for x and y," the boy says in French. "Can you help us?"

My mind is over-revving, trying desperately to retrace those faint neural pathways. "Let's see, I haven't done matrices for about 45 years. What do you have so far?"

I stall for time, asking them to explain what they've got up on the board. The boy obviously understands the problem, but the matrices don't seem to be working. Even the young kids are watching the mathematical deliberations. Now that there's an old blan (foreigner) involved, it's a math festival.

"Why are you studying outside here?"

"Our school still isn't ready to open."

Apparently it was damaged in the January 12 earthquake, and not all the teachers are available yet. Even though schools supposedly reopened in April, many still don't have buildings or enough books, supplies, or teachers. Cyvadier is a town on Haiti's southern coast a few miles east of the small city of Jacmel. An assessment by the United Nations-led Education Cluster found that 88 percent of the schools in the area had been destroyed or damaged.

It's starting to come back to me that you multiply matrices across or down or diagonally, but I have no idea in what order or what you do with the results. "So could you solve it for one variable, and then plug that into the two equations to solve the other?" "We already have x." They realize that they can use x to solve for y.

Now they're off and running with the solution. Once again, the thirst for understanding has found a few drops to wet its parched lips.

Walking on, I look back at the do-it-yourself Socratic Method unfolding in the open air. Even with mangoes in place of olive trees, perhaps the ancient Athenians would have recognized kindred spirits.

In the Haitian education system, however, most of the Groves of Academe have long since been deforested. Even before the quake it was one of the most ineffective and unequal in the hemisphere. An estimated ninety percent of students went to private schools. Costs of tuition, uniforms and books put even primary education out of reach of huge numbers of Haitian families, who make barely enough to pay for shelter and food. Free public education barely existed, and where it did a stultifying bureaucracy and clan politics stifled initiative.

Now, in the aftermath of the quake, some 500,000 students are unable to return to school. Capable people that could be restarting the educational system are doing manual labor to survive, if they're lucky. Putting these precious resources back to work without recreating the old energy sink will be an enormous challenge for Haiti for the next decade and beyond.

Regardless, many Haitians revere education as the key to pulling their families and country out of poverty. Watching some kids outside a camp, my friend Ronald told me: "When I see kids on the street during a weekday, I always wonder why they're not in school. I'm a parent - it's just an automatic reaction."

Here and there a healthy sapling pushes up. The Ministry of Education, while still digging out from under the rubble, has released a new post-earthquake curriculum in conjunction with UNESCO that tries to help students deal with the trauma they've gone through creative activities, and by understanding the earthquake through science. After finishing this curriculum, standard lessons will be accelerated in an effort to complete the school year in 18 weeks ending in August.

With the goal of assuring six years of education for every Haitian child, the Inter-American Development Bank recently pledged $500 million over the next 10 years for Haitian education, according to AlterPresse Haiti. That's an encouraging start, but only the Haitian government and people can put these funds to work in a new a system that trains enough teachers and administrators, rebuilds nearly all the schools in Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas, and constructs new schools across the country. Ultimately, to make serious inroads into the crippling poverty, Haiti needs a system that educates its kids from pre-school through graduate school.

Frankétienne, the iconic Haitian writer, artist and former Minister of Culture, recently wrote in Le Monde:

"People talk about 'reconstruction', but it's not just about damaged or destroyed material structures. Because there are also mental structures, and there the only remedy indicated is education. All the plans concocted in the United States with the participation of the international community ignore this educational dimension. Nevertheless, education is clearly the path to salvation. It's the path that enables us to restructure what was damaged physically, materially."

"It is our mental structures that are responsible for the enormity and extent of the damage. It's not the 7.3 earthquake that is the fundamentally devastating element, it's the irresponsibility of our leaders allied with that of our self-appointed friends. They push aside education; they push aside creativity. Yet these, together, must play this restructuring, revitalizing, dynamic role. ..."

"I believe that any aid, any plan for rebuilding Haiti, must reserve a paramount place for education."

[Translations by Peter Costantini]