Opening Statement



Thursday, 14 June 2018

My Visit To The Cuban Schools!

Coming: Photos y More Links ...



Spring 2018

Disembarking from my Toronto flight is like walking into a blast furnace. I step off the shiny, new aircraft onto the creaky, old, metal steps. Stop to wipe the steady stream of sweat from my eyes. 

The heavy air is almost too hot to breath. Lowering my sunglasses in place, I gaze out at the formidable, Sierra Maestra mountains towering around me. Out to the shining, sparkling Caribbean Sea.

Here I am, back in Santiago de Cuba, to visit the Toronto Friendship School. Meet with my colleague, Professor Jose Tejaro, to discuss printing more copies of "Ingles Para Ti/ English For You", our Cuban School Project teacher and student English instruction workbook.

My thoughts drift back. I began the Cuban School Project after a class trip here in 1992. As a Canadian teacher, I was only too happy to assist in providing some educational relief work during the Special Period throughout the nineties, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Socialist block. 



Back then, the island was teetering on the brink of near chaos and total economic collapse. Overnight the peso became worthless. Jobs disappeared. Hunger and sickness were the order of the day. 

Unlike the United States, Canada has maintained a policy of constructive engagement with the beleaguered socialist nation, from the 1959 revolution through until today.
Often during my frequent trips back then, I was the only English speaking person from the outside world most of the Cuban teachers and students had ever meet. 

I'm a strong believer in social justice, a still relevant takeaway from my strict, now long abandoned, religious upbringing a lifetime or two ago, as a young man. The Cubans were eager to learn how to speak English. Acquire some basic business skills. Make contact with the world beyond their tightly shut and embargoed borders. It seemed a perfect fit.

I donated what I could to the cause, mostly my time and effort. With donations from the Ontario Teacher Federation, OSSTF public secondary and the OECTA Catholic teachers, we set out to build a small two room rooftop school house in the hillside barrios of Santiago de Cuba. Also, a instruction booklet that was specifically adapted to meet their quite different social, culture, and economic needs. 



Having retired 5 years ago, I've continued work on "Ingles Para Ti" with my good friend and colleague Professor y Jose Luis, from the Oriente Pedagogical Institute. Last year, I once again decided to drop by the Toronto Friendship School after a few years absence, happily surprised to find it was still there.

A flood of memories hit me, as I climbed up the wrought iron steps to the rooftop school, in the unforgiving sun. The tired, creaky, old fans feebly rotated back and forth in a last ditch effort at desperate relief from the stifling heat. From the street below the mad cacophony of old beat up cars, trucks, donkey carts and wagons echoed off the school's brick and mortar walls. Still the classroom was packed with students of all ages. Also, a new teacher. There was nobody whom I recognized, or for that matter whom recognized me.

Of course, it was 25 years later. Everybody whom I once knew and worked with there, was now long gone. But, as I saw for myself, the teaching and learning was still going on. Plus, it was a happy place, with a very dedicated teacher. Enthusiastic students. All eager to learn. Nobody putting on any airs. At best now mildly intrigued, by an old white haired stranger from far away, visiting their crowded classroom. 

Sitting there quietly, watching and thinking back to much more desperate times, I could have cried. Amazingly, everything had worked out just as we had once hoped, so very long ago! How often in life do our deepest, hopes and dreams actually come true? And after all Is said and done, do they really make a difference? 



I long ago gave up any hope of saving the world from itself. Thinking that perhaps, if we just tried to help out in the little corner of it where we find ourselves, one might yet still somehow make a difference. 

As a teacher, I've started up a lot of school programs and taught a lot of Special Education classes over the years, mostly in Toronto's Jane Finch corridor. Usually been confronted by our first world malaise. Ultimately, everything ends up on the chopping block of economic efficiencies and blatant indifference for the human cost of those whom are poorer, weaker, and get left behind. Not so in Cuba!

In my old age, I'm not religious anymore, but this was definitely a very spiritual moment, realizing that perhaps, in some very small way, here in the barrios of Santiago de Cuba, the Cuba School Project had actually helped make a very big difference. Quite frankly, back in the nineties, I really wasn't very certain if anyone we worked with or taught there would even survive under the added weight of the crippling US economic embargo, as it kicked into overdrive. But they have.

After class, Professor Omara told me that her students enjoy many job advantages nowadays in learning English and some basic economic skills as Cuba works to integrate itself back into the international community. Basic English is now also taught in the public schools, but they are keen to learn much more, even if it is just to dream and discover more about life outside Cuba. Perhaps the Toronto Friendship School is even a victim of it's own success. There are now so many English language schools, that her own student numbers are down. 



As I talked with Professor Omara on the sidewalk outside the school, a neighbour walked by. He recognized me with great surprise, claiming that I was one of the "founding fathers" of the Toronto Friendship School. Omara was quite shocked, not knowing what to say. I myself was quite embarrassed. Soon the whole street knew. Folks started leaning out their window, waving, checking me out. Very unreal. I don't want to sound vain, nor overestimate my own importance in the greater scheme of things in our life and times, but it was a truly a homecoming of sorts that I will never forget.

This spring, I came back to volunteer and teach at the school. It's the only "formal" teaching I still do. Nothing too laborious, I helped with the reading, discussions, and to happily serve as more of a language resource than anything else, to Professor Omara and her 3 classes of about 60 students. 

It's quite different now. Books and school supplies remain in short supply but the students have more food and medicine now. Cruise ships come and go from the harbour. There is much hope, as always, that perhaps soon the US embargo will be lifted. Like the battered, old clock on the classroom wall, life does not miss a beat. It still ticks on in the now long forgotten, little barrio school that we once built.



After class, I relaxed in my room at a century old Spanish hotel in the city centre, frequently enjoying the live traditional "sons", "bolero's" and "salsa" music at the Casa De Trova/ House of Music, across from the cathedral in Cespedes Parque, the town square. Everybody at the school wants me to come over to visit. For lunch, dinner, or just to watch TV. 

We sit in battered old chairs, watching Cuban soaps, old subtitled movies and pirated North American TV shows, on ancient, beat up tube sets. Lost among our reverie of Cuba and the night in the ancient decaying grandeur of this crumbling, 500 year old city. A very simple evening joy in any language, in a world so very far removed from our own.

I'll keep going back, even for just a few weeks here and there. I have found my place in the sun.




VIDEO LINKS


Traffic Jam: Yup! A lot of folks in Santiago de Cuba still ride round in horse drawn buggies and wagons @ HERE!

Casa De Trova: After school in the evening, I'd enjoy live salsa music in the city centre. Here's the Grammy award winning "Septeto Santiaguero". Only $5 -cheap! @ HERE!

Ladies Night: The women put on a traditional music show at the Case de Trova featuring breathtaking bolero's y sons @ HERE!

The School: Here's the view from the classroom as we enter and classes begin @ THERE!




BLOG LINKS

I've written a lot about Cuba and the Cuban School Project over the years. A lot of these true stories are now gathered here on my blogsite. You'll find some of the links below, which will lead you to many more. They are all true. Real life. They happened. I was there:


The Cuban School Project Story: Here's how it got started in the 90's @ HERE!


The Cuban School Projects: The two key initiatives that I continue today, the Toronto Friendship School and "Ingles Para Ti" are outlined in greater detail @ HERE!


Toronto Friendship School: Join me for an early visit to the school during desperate times -the "Special Period" @ THERE!


Rumours of War: A day in class with the students back when everyone at the school feared that a US invasion was imminent. A US fleet was poised off the coast, with jet fighters taking low run practice flights over the school. Yikes! Lotsa learning, for me too @ HERE!


My Cuban School Project Links: More school links from back then @ HERE!


What the Heck is Going on? More links on the situation in Cuba @ THERE!


What Do They Think? The local view from my friends, students and colleagues now at the school and from others I still see from back in the day @ HERE!


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