This is a repost from almost four years ago when I was doing Trini Tuesdays on a regular basis. It explains what took Mr. Lime and me to Trinidad and shares a particular experience we had. It was originally posted in response to the question of why we went and what was something that impacted us most significantly. I thought it would be helpful to give this background before proceeding with some of the pictures I have yet to share.
Mr. Lime and I are both Special Ed. teachers and we wanted to use our skills overseas. We had gone to Trinidad for two week work trips in '89 and '91. While there the second time a local man who had a desire to meet the needs of learning disabled students asked us if we'd consider coming back to do just that.
There was a real need. The Trini school system is based on the British system. At that time, students at the end of our equivalent of 6th grade too what is called the "Common Entrance Exam." A student's performance determined whether or not they got any further public education and if they passed the exam it determined which school they were allowed to attend. It was extremely competitive. Consequently students with even mild handicaps struggled and often failed when some basic remediation and adjustments in instruction could have made a world of difference. A child's whole future basically came to rest on their performance on one test on a single day. Every year when results were announced the newspapers would be full of accounts of 12 year old children committing suicide or being beaten severely because of a poor showing or a failure on the exam. In the years since we have returned to the US things have changed so that secondary education is guaranteed but it is still highly competitive to determine WHICH school a student may attend.
We went in September 1992 and returned to the USA in December 1993. We had planned to spend at least 4 years there but some rather severe administrative problems necessitated our return to the States. During out time in Trinidad we did a lot of home visits with students who were not attending school. We found economics to be a bigger handicap for many families than any learning disability, although that was a real problem too. Although education was 'free,' students still had to provide their own textbooks, school supplies, uniforms and transportation. We worked mostly among squatter families who, on a daily basis, had to make the gut wrenching choice of taxi fare to get children to school or food to put in their bellies that night. Helluva choice, huh?
You ask about the greatest experience. I have such a hard time choosing! There were so many greats, but let me tell you about one that humbled me deeply.
Irene grew up in the interior of Venezuela. She describes her childhood as a nearly tribal existence. As a teen her family moved to Guyana. When she was 15 she was given as a wife to Mathura, who is Guyanese. I met Irene when she was about 30. She and Mathura, who was about 45, had 6 children at the time. They lived in the squatter village we worked in. Their house had been constructed of scrap lumber. They may have been desperately poor but they had pride and the house was built as sturdily and decently as possible and it was kept neat as a pin.
Mathura was a Guyanese man who worked for a poultry processing plant and as such was annually given a certain number of fowl as an employee bonus. Many families in Trinidad raise their own fowl. He choose a good mix of layers and birds for meat. He had also very wisely invested some of his meager earnings in fruit trees. He told me, "I don't always have enough money to buy food but at least if we have fruit trees the children will have mangoes or oranges." He had asked himself what would provide food consistently over the long range and had sacrificed a few good meals in the present to be able to eat in the future. He and Irene also agreed that taxi-fare came over meals because they knew their kids needed to do well in school if they had any hope of getting decent jobs. Again, awful choices to have to make.
Mr. Lime started going to work with their children. Even though they got to school regularly, they needed help to be able to pass the CE Exam. Tutors are very common but hideously expensive so there was no way this family could afford a traditional tutor. Every week, this family would kill the fatted calf to feed Mr. Lime when he came. He asked them to please not do this but it was an insult to them that he should decline hospitality. We noticed that the children were allowed to eat after Mr. Lime had his fill so I told him to eat the minimally polite amount and then encourage the kids to 'fix up.' That seemed to work.
Some time later Mathura asked Mr.Lime if he was only allowed to work with children because his wife could not read. Truth be told, Mathura was not much of a reader either, but we suspected he wanted Irene to be the guinea pig and that it might be a bit injurious to his pride to admit he needed some help. Mr. Lime began working with Irene each week after he was done with the children. After some months Irene was making some really good progress. She was utterly devoted to her work and each week would surprise us with some new piece she had been struggling through on her own. Irene gained a new sense of self-confidence and just beamed with each success she had. You could see the pride her kids had in her achievement too. Even Mathura had a new found respect for his wife. Previously, he regarded her as somewhat mindless. Now he could see she was capable of thought and reason.
I have to say, illiterate or not, I could have sat at Irene's feet for months and learned many things from her had time allowed. She was full of practical wisdom and knowledge, gentleness, kindness, and love. Whenever we did share time I always came away with some new piece of knowledge or with the encouragement to be a better person. I spent most of the time in Trinidad pregnant with Calypso. When it was nearly time for her to be born Irene sat me down with some advice. She knew I'd had a c-section with Diana, she wanted to make sure I was ready for Calypso, that I wasn't afraid (well, I was a little). I was really touched by her motherly tenderness toward me.
After Calypso arrived and we were back at our house we heard the gate rattle and a familiar gruff voice, "Good morning! Good morning! It's Mathura!" Mr. Lime tied the dog and let Mathura in. Mathura entered apologizing profusely for not being able to stay even long enough for a sweet drink (the very minimal expression of hospitality required of hosts and remember it is rude to refuse hospitality) since he was on his way to work. He greeted me, fussed over Calypso and said he had to bring something to us right away because he wanted very much to be the first to give us something.
He explained that according to his culture (East Indian Guyanese) every baby had to have a piece of gold. With tears in his eyes he thanked Mr. Lime for giving his wife the ability to read. For all the time we had spent with them helping the children and his wife he hoped we would allow him to give our new baby her first piece of gold. With that he pulled out a very small box and extracted a delicate adjustable gold band sized for an infant and gently slid it onto Calypso's chubby baby finger. Mr. Lime and I looked at each other knowing what a sacrifice it was for this family to give such a gift and feeling utterly unworthy to accept it. We dabbed our eyes and quietly said a very humble, 'Thank you.'