Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

La Escuela Primaria: A Visit to Cuba

school gardenThis past Feb­ru­ary, my hus­band and I trav­eled to Cuba on an eleven-day tour. Near the end of the trip, we drove from the cen­tral city of Cam­agüey to vis­it a ranch. After a two-hour dri­ve, our bus bounced down a long dirt road and passed under a wood­en sign that resem­bled a gate in an old west­ern, telling us we had reached “The King Ranch.” Sheep, goats, and cat­tle grazed on dry, scrub­by brush, in fields that lined both sides of the road.

We drew up near the ranch’s main build­ing. The ranch man­ag­er who wel­comed us was flu­ent in Eng­lish. He told us that Mr. King—the same wealthy Tex­an who once devel­oped a mil­lion-acre ranch in the U.S—had bought 40,000 hectares of land in Cuba before the Rev­o­lu­tion. At its height, the ranch boast­ed 20,000 head. When Cas­tro came to pow­er, the ranch passed into gov­ern­ment hands, as did all land and pri­vate busi­ness­es on the island. Now the ranch sup­ports 3,000 ani­mals and a vil­lage of about 130 peo­ple.

Our vis­it to the ranch includ­ed a small rodeo, where a few vaque­ros, rid­ing small cow ponies, com­pet­ed in calf and bull rop­ing as well as bull rid­ing. One stocky cow­boy man­aged to stay aboard a buck­ing bull for fif­teen sec­onds before being tossed to the ground. He scram­bled to his feet and dust­ed him­self off, unhurt.

After the show end­ed, we climbed into horse-drawn wag­ons that car­ried us to the vil­lage. As we approached a cir­cle of small, thatch-roofed cot­tages, a few kids ran along next to our car­riages, call­ing out to us. Why weren’t they in school?

Before we could ask, our hors­es drew up in front of a tiny, two-room school build­ing. We gath­ered in a gar­den out­side, dec­o­rat­ed with col­or­ful, hand­made sculp­tures of ani­mals and insects. Our guide explained that the teach­ing prin­ci­pal had just been select­ed as Teacher of the Year for all of Cuba. This hon­or meant that the school would host a local dis­trict meet­ing the next day. School had been can­celled to allow a team of teach­ers and par­ents to spruce up the build­ing, set up dis­plays, and sweep out the two small rooms where chil­dren in grades K-4 were edu­cat­ed. In a nar­row hall, a par­ent was dust­ing and arrang­ing a few dozen books on a nar­row shelf that made up the school’s entire bib­liote­ca.

Mom with Books

Bib­liote­ca (school library): pho­to by John Fis­ch­er

 An out­side observ­er might think these chil­dren were deprived. After all, their homes were small sim­ple struc­tures, with dirt floors and thatched roofs. Except for the main ranch build­ing, none of these homes were built to sur­vive a hur­ri­cane. I also won­dered how the school man­aged with so few books and mate­ri­als. Yet the teach­ing prin­ci­pal (speak­ing through a trans­la­tor) was proud of his school’s suc­cess. He spoke of the ben­e­fits chil­dren gain when dif­fer­ent ages learn and work togeth­er. He also explained that par­ents are very involved in their children’s edu­ca­tion.

Cuban home

Farm worker’s home: pho­to by Mar­tin Cross­land

Cuba prizes its chil­dren. The coun­try boasts one of the world’s high­est lit­er­a­cy rates. Children’s health and edu­ca­tion are a top pri­or­i­ty. Through­out our trav­els, we saw chil­dren who appeared healthy, well-fed, and hap­py. On school days, chil­dren wear uni­forms accord­ing to grade lev­el: red and white for pri­ma­ry school; yel­low and white for mid­dle school; brown and white for high school; and dark and light blue for high­er edu­ca­tion. Their uni­forms are clean, bright, and ser­vice­able.

Health care is free for all, new moth­ers can take a year’s mater­ni­ty leave, and the state pro­vides free day­care from six months to age five or six. Edu­ca­tion is free, from kinder­garten through uni­ver­si­ty or tech­ni­cal school, and grad­u­ate school.

La Escuela Primaria

Escuela Pri­maria: pho­to by Suzanne Raley

Although this vil­lage is twen­ty-one kilo­me­ters from the near­est town, nurs­es and doc­tors vis­it reg­u­lar­ly, and ranch chil­dren receive the same edu­ca­tion and fol­low the same cur­ricu­lum as their peers in city class­rooms. Twice a week, teach­ers make the long trip to give lessons in art, music, and com­put­er sci­ence. The prin­ci­pal showed us a first grade note­book where a child had writ­ten long para­graphs in per­fect cur­sive.

Cursive Writing

Dic­ta­do (dic­ta­tion): pho­to by Suzanne Raley

Dis­plays on the wall demon­strat­ed sci­ence projects and geog­ra­phy. Chil­dren leave the ranch in fifth grade to board with fam­i­lies in a larg­er town, four nights a week. There, their learn­ing con­tin­ues, through high school and beyond if that is what they choose.

After our tour, I walked back to the main house with our guide and the vaque­ro who had demon­strat­ed bull rid­ing. I learned that he and his daugh­ter, now 17, were both born in the vil­lage and edu­cat­ed at the vil­lage school. His daugh­ter was now fin­ish­ing high school and would enter med­ical school in the fall. He was proud of her accom­plish­ment, but he spoke as if it wasn’t unusu­al.

Of course, Cuba has enor­mous eco­nom­ic prob­lems. Though cit­i­zens are well-edu­cat­ed, they work for pal­try salaries and may not find jobs that allow them to use their exper­tise and train­ing. Their lives are con­strict­ed in ways that we would find oppres­sive. But as our bus drove away from the ranch, I thought of the stun­ning and inspir­ing art exhibits, con­certs, and dance per­for­mances we had seen in every city on our tour, which demon­strat­ed the val­ue Cuba places on the arts. This was in sharp con­trast to our schools, where the arts often dis­ap­pear when bud­gets are tight. I thought of city schools in Amer­i­ca with over­crowd­ed class­rooms that lack basic mate­ri­als, and teach­ers who are poor­ly paid and dis­re­spect­ed. What if our coun­try val­ued its chil­dren, their health, nutri­tion, and edu­ca­tion, as high­ly as Cubans do?

The Cubans we met were warm, wel­com­ing, and informed. They asked knowl­edge­able ques­tions about our upcom­ing elec­tions. Cubans hope—as we do—that the rap­proche­ment begun by Pres­i­dent Oba­ma will con­tin­ue to grow and heal the rift between our two coun­tries. Many Amer­i­cans like to boast that our nation is the wealth­i­est in the world. Still, we have much to learn from this fas­ci­nat­ing, croc­o­dile-shaped island.

3 Responses to La Escuela Primaria: A Visit to Cuba

  1. Jackie Briggs Martin May 11, 2016 at 7:44 am #

    Won­der­ful report Liza. It’s heart­break­ing to think of what we could do, if only we had the will to do it, if only we cared about our chil­dren that much.

  2. Sarah Lamstein May 11, 2016 at 9:19 pm #

    Such a clear, envi­able in a way, pic­ture, Liza. Thank you!

  3. Miriam Busch May 12, 2016 at 2:03 pm #

    So love­ly. Thank you for this, Liza!

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