In February 2007, while Ohio was getting pounded by a blizzard, myself and 20 other Ohioans were in Ouanaminthe, Haiti. Some did construction and wiring, some did cleaning and organizing… I taught Art to First, Second and Third Graders. Changed my life.
Upon return, I showed students the pictures, told them the stories… but you can’t really share something like that. Until you smell the heaps of garbage, walk through dirt homes, go to bed with grit in your hair, meet the school cooks who sleep on the school kitchen floor, and talk to teachers and students… you’re reading a story.
My first day in Haiti, walking the village by foot with some high school tour guides practicing their English, I became aware my appearance was creating a stir. Being a young woman so alien and nervous, I was the favorite target for taunting and odd stares. After enduring this awkwardly with a fake grin, then being mooned by several men- we headed back to the school. A teenage Haitian girl broke out from her group of friends and ran alongside me, mocking my walk and wagging her hips as her friends jeered. I can only imagine what I looked like to her- wearing a J.Crew T-shirt and flip flops with daisies on them. My clothing cost more than a full month teacher’s salary in Ouanaminthe.
That night I poured embarrassed tears to an older team member. What was I doing? Fulfilling my white suburban dream of helping “poor little dark folk” by teaching them to mix primary colors? She was kind to me but firm,
“I think you have to be patient with them. And yourself.“
Our third day, the School Director ‘H’, managed to coax me off school property for a tour. He drove carefully over deep ruts of the ravaged dirt roads. Slowly, but without hesitation we wove through narrow alleys as children ran alongside his motorcycle with white toothy grins:
“Mon-pas!” they yelled. Later I found out it was short for “teacher-pastor.” With him I wasn’t “Blanco” the silly white girl- he was a celebrity, and suddenly so was I.
We stopped at a home to visit a mother who had fallen ill. Her children ran up to us as I took in the scene… clothes hanging off their skinny shoulders, dirty bare feet that scrambled over sticks and rocks as if it was carpet. Their home was the size of my bedroom. All dirt. No door or windows, just old sheets pinned as a flimsy guard against sporadic tropical storms.
A little girl who looked about five, but was likely eight instead, raised a large flat stone up to me. Haitian eyes gleam white next to ebony skin, and children’s eyes… well, they look right into your soul. She chattered excitedly in Creole- as ‘H’ tipped his head back to laugh.
“She asked you if you would like some eggs.”
I look down at her flat stone. On it were neatly arranged sticks and green leaves.
“You see,” the children play kitchen here too, only without plastic ovens.”
I had flash backs of my own play-kitchen growing up- white and yellow plastic molded eggs that I would fry in a blue plastic pan for my mother. It’s fitting that a child would teach a teacher the most powerful lesson of her first trip to Haiti:
We are the same you and I.