This was a special week at the orphanage. School started.
I know in America the start of school means the death of summer. The end of fun. Back to the grind. Not in our place. School here is greeted like an old friend.
Or in some cases, a new one.
High-fives on the first day of school / Photo credit: Danielle Cutillo / Courtesy of Have Faith Haiti
Ten years ago, we opened our school — or I should say we built it, and then we opened it. Using our crew plus outside laborers, we constructed, from the ground up, a three-room building along the far wall of the property. It was a simple cinder block structure. We put carpet squares on the floors and blackboards on the walls. We painted the outside a buttercup yellow.
But when we cut the ribbon to mark the occasion, we had done much more than christen a building. We had shifted to a new plane of existence. Our possibilities soared. The orphanage went from keeping kids alive to giving them a shot at a future.
Understand that in Haiti, school is precious, and mostly a purview of the rich. You cannot attend school without paying money, and you cannot attend the best schools without paying a lot of money. The wealthy in Haiti may pay in excess of $10,000 a year to send their kids to private school. Meanwhile, poor children are turned away at public schools if they cannot pay the tuition in advance, or if the child has the wrong shoes, or slacks, or shirt. If you start paying but have to stop, they will turn you away at the door.
When I arrived in Haiti in 2010, few of the kids at the orphanage attended outside school. Some took classes with an older female French teacher, who came by during the week. But it was hardly formal education. And hardly a ticket to opportunity.
Which is why the start of school each year these days is more than just a date on the September calendar for us. Seeing the new kids we admitted over the summer now in their bright blue t-shirts, ready to start learning for the first time in their lives, is a reminder that we can do something rare here.
We can challenge the minds of kids whom others cast aside, and lift those kids to a level where one day they never have to worry about having to choose between feeding their children or educating them.
First day of school, 2021 / Photo credit: Danielle Cutillo / Courtesy of Have Faith Haiti
“It’s a beautiful morning,
it’s a beautiful day,
Walking with Jesus,
every step of the way…”
I love the tradition of going to school at our place. The kids put on special t-shirts and pants (color-coordinated according to their level.) They line up outside the kitchen just before 8 a.m. They sing a morning song or two. And then, upon the signal, they march off with their teachers to their area of study. They don’t drag. They don’t sulk. More often than not, they are skipping or running. When people ask us, “How come your kids are so excited to go to school every day?” I answer, “Because it gives them something to do.”
Remember, we are not ripping them away from their PlayStations, their TV’s, or their posting on Instagram. They don’t have any of that. They play outside all day long, and all weekend long, so there’s no heartbreak over losing that for a classroom. On the contrary, school to them is a challenge. A chance to excel at something. And it’s fun.
For that, I have to thank my sister.
Her name is Cara Nesser — “Miss Cara” to everyone in Haiti – and she is two years older than me and has been teaching ever since we were kids in New Jersey and she set up “school” in the backyard for my little brother and me. She’s earned advanced degrees in education. She’s done curriculums and programming in different parts of the world. Teaching has been her life and her passion.
And so, back in 2011, I called her up.
“Listen,” I said, “I have a proposal. Don’t say no. Just hear me out….”
Cara Nesser (l), school director / Courtesy of Have Faith Haiti
How can I put this? She didn’t exactly leap at the idea. Starting a school in Haiti? A place she’d never been? A language she didn’t speak? And she was living overseas at the time. Just getting to Haiti would take days.
But deep down I knew, if I could get her to meet our kids, her natural love of children and education would take over.
And that’s pretty much what happened. The kids lit up when she met them. They sponged onto any book she opened. And like pulling an astronaut’s safety cord, we tugged at Cara until we guided her from outer space into the mothership. She became our school director. And she’s been running things ever since.
I remember our first day of school, ten years back, Cara and I both beaming proudly. Kids made figures on popsicle sticks, did games with a parachute, and read the words “Today is your first day of school” off a chalkboard. They were wide-eyed and giddy and really small.
First day of school, October 31, 2011 // Courtesy of Have Faith Haiti
Today many of those same kids are a year away from going to college in America. The school itself has expanded physically beyond the three classrooms to the chapel, the gazebo, the balcony above the yard and sometimes to the dorms. We are in desperate need of growth — another reason to find a new place — but for now, we just keep expanding. We add teachers every year. The current ratio is one teacher for every five kids. Sometimes I bemoan how much the school is costing in staffing, but Cara will say, “Yeah, but she’s a really good teacher, I don’t want to lose out on her…” and next thing I know, we have a new staff member.
Meanwhile, our curriculum is not what you’d expect from a dusty, pot-holed, baking-hot little orphanage. We have three divisions — lower school, primary school, and upper school — and the classes range from basic literacy and numbers to World Literature, Cultural Geography, Meteorology, Physics, Human Anatomy, Geometry and Sign Language. We also have specialized classes in engineering, media, music theory, Spanish and woodworking.
Joy in the work in the first day of school / Photo credits: Danielle Cutillo / Courtesy of Have Faith Haiti
We teach in English, French, Creole and sometimes Portuguese (thanks to a great Brazilian teacher). By the time they reach the equivalent of junior high, our kids are pretty fluent in at least three languages. And come high school years, they are taking TOEFL preparation as a regular class, in order to do well on that test that is the gateway to their studying at universities in the U.S.
Our current TOEFL score record is a 96, earned by Edney on his first try.
“Who’s going to beat that?” I ask the older kids.
Hands shoot up.
And that’s the thing. More than any academic accomplishment, what stands out with school at our orphanage is the pure love of learning. The sheer excitement of starting a class. School is never something to be endured. It’s something to be explored. I think back to the way I used to walk to school in the mornings, dreading a test, wishing it would snow, and I realize I could never — most of us in America could never — appreciate what school means in this hot and often forgotten country. “Giddy” is not often the word you associate with the first day of school, but it is at our place. The kids race in. The doors shut behind them. The learning starts. The world opens.
Feature image credit: Danielle Cutillo