Power Outage

In the United States, we live in a world of many fulfilled expectations. I turn on the kitchen tap and water comes out. When I mail a letter, it usually gets there. In Honduras, where I’ve been teaching this past year, it’s impossible to live with such expectations.

Some mornings when I turn on the faucet, there’s simply no water. I never know why, or when the water flow might resume: having running water now seems just as surprising as not having it. As for mail service, it doesn’t exist beyond the towns. Not too surprisingly-since the street I live on is unnamed and the house is unnumbered-my own mail is sporadic.

Almost everything people in the United States take for granted is more precarious here. It is humbling. The police regularly stop people to request their identification papers, but they also might stop you and take the unopened Pepsi on your front seat. Everyone seems to know someone who has been robbed, and when robberies go wrong, as they often do, someone can end up dead-like the mother of a child in our school. Nor are there expectations that this sort of violence will have legal consequences. Hondurans are conditioned to believe that life is unpredictable. With a sigh of resignation, they figure out how to work around things as they are.

Education is one area that might offer hope, but public schools are generally under-funded, overcrowded, and available only through the sixth grade. Last year there was an added problem: schools were open for only about a hundred days, the result of a series of teachers’ strikes. I instruct nineteen middle-school students at an innovative bilingual private school, where a quarter of the students receive scholarships. An affordable bilingual education is almost unheard of in Honduras, where quality education is seen as an entitlement for the rich. Even our $450 yearly tuition is a huge sacrifice for middle-class families. They work two or three jobs or spend twelve-hour shifts at foreign-owned maquila factories in order to send their children to our school.

When my students and I discuss current events, I encourage them to think of solutions to the problems Honduras faces. Instead of letting them gripe about things, I encourage them to suggest specific ideas, such as how to train more doctors, invest more in education, or develop systems for sewage and garbage disposal. More crucial, though, is how they go about their everyday class work. I urge them to read critically, and to express original thoughts in class and in their writing. Instead of parroting back, word for word, what they have read from a text-as is customary in most Honduran schools-I hope they are learning to question what they hear and read, to demand more information, to make connections, to consider how things might change. Instead of simply copying and pasting from the Internet, I hope they are learning to take notes and to use their own words to draw and explain their own conclusions.

Two ninth-graders recently approached me and excitedly told me what they thought would happen next in the novel we were reading in class. I took this to be a positive sign. Their speculation obviously didn’t relate directly to whether water would one day flow reliably from their faucets, but it did indicate a new level of engagement, even expectation.

Sometimes when it’s hot here and I’m especially cranky, or when the power goes out and my students are particularly disruptive, I lose perspective on why it’s so important to maintain high expectations for my students. But then I remember that my work is part of a much bigger project, though I can see only the smallest fruits of that project now. My students face obstacles that I, as a privileged American, never had to contend with. I marvel at their resiliency. In having great expectations for them, I hope I am holding myself to the same standard.

Published in the 2007-08-17 issue: 

Bridget Kelly, a former editor of the Yale Daily News, is currently a middle-school teacher working with Bilingual Education for Central America.

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