12 Feb Guatemala Explorations #2
EDUCATION IS THE KEY TO CHANCES FOR CHILDREN.
Admittedly, much of our time spent learning about education programs for kids in Guatemala leaves us feeling sad that so many must struggle throughout their lives just to survive. Many parents cannot afford to send their girls and boys to school because they can’t afford the various fees for uniforms, books and enrollment, but also because they need their children to work alongside them in order to feed the family. During school hours (typically only from 7:30am to 12:30pm in Guatemala) we regularly saw children carrying heavy loads of wood they were sent out to find, needed to fuel the small stoves in their huts. Small boys and girls who appeared to be 5 or 6 years old struggle to carry cement blocks to work sites, their stoic faces showing few signs of the terrible strain on their necks and spines from such bulky loads close to their own body weight. Others carry plastic jugs of water from the community well a kilometer down the road back to their homes, ridiculously heavy weight on the heads of girls so young.
To many of these parents, education is a luxury, an intangible extravagance that won’t help the family to survive day-to-day, an indulgence for other families who can afford to think of a future for their children, beyond the end of the day. The vast majority of Guatemala’s Maya population is illiterate and does not recognize the value of an education for their children because, through no fault of their own, the future that an education can make possible is beyond the realm of their experience.
The nexus of extreme poverty and education is where organizations, such as several whose programs we have gotten to know, operate. They search for communities where, despite their utter deprivation, families believe that education is key to improving future opportunities for their children. Organizations work with these forward-thinking communities to rebuild schools, strengthen curricula and teach kids critical thinking skills not taught in typical rote-memorization learning public schools. When communities provide much of the labor for school construction, families support educating their girls and boys.
We visited a village of 350 people where parents rebuilt a primary school and constructed a new middle/high school with the help of a dedicated man from Denver. The schools invigorated education for the children of the community, as well as nearby villages. From first grade, children learn English, a skill that will provide better employment opportunities later on. They take classes in ethics and philosophy, music and arts, to turn them into well-rounded and thoughtful adults. Children are in school all day, rather than mornings only, so there is time to learn and grow.
As we chatted in the hallway with the schools’ founder and headmaster, Juan, a high school senior the size of a young middle schooler, stopped to speak with us. In the American-accented English he had learned at school, Juan proudly told us that he was headed to university in the fall, the first in his family to go to school, let alone university! Perhaps as a result of his scoring in the 98th percentile on his math SATs, he already received his acceptance letter from the University of Idaho — his “safety school.” However, Juan told us that his real dream is to attend St. Olaf’s in Minneapolis. Just imagine, we told this young man, with an excellent education and much hard work, one day you might be the leader of your country. Eyes twinkling, he smiled back at us, and in that moment we knew that this thought had already crossed his mind. Indeed, he is preparing himself, his community and his country for a better tomorrow.
Positive outcomes like Juan’s give us renewed hope that poco a poco — little by little — we can work together to improve the future for many more of Guatemala’s children. In the meanwhile, we watch children struggle to carry their loads and remember the difficult — although not always insurmountable — path that lies ahead.