“Dilo con orgullo,” (“Say it with pride”) Patricia to a student speaking during a morning motivation meeting. Patricia is the founder of the Hope Bilingual Academy in La Concepcion, Masaya, Nicaragua.
I would quickly learn that it’s not just a school-it’s an unofficial homeless shelter for kids who come from violent homes. I came to visit to see why Patricia, a teacher, decided to open an entire public school with her retirement money.
Not only is Patricia a teacher-she’s biological mother of three, and a mother to so many more in this small town. One of my friends and colleagues, Corey, teaches English there. She is passionate about education and social justice, and is currenty púrsuing her Master’s in Education. Oh, and she shaved her head to fundraise for the St. Baldrick’s Childhood Cancer Foundation. She works and lives with Patricia.
Patricia was born in Nicaragua and moved to Waco, Texas with her family as a girl. Two of her children live in the United States where her husband lives, but she spends most of her time in Nicaragua.
I’d never stayed in La Concepcion, otherwise known as La Concha(The Shell). Corey had asked me to visit to blog about the school so that more people could find out more about it. I didn’t have high expectations, because I’ve been so used to the lack of support the public school system has in general. When I enter a school and the light switches actually work and the toilets flush, then I immediately think it’s a nice school. I teach in one of three nice schools in my city. It’s no surprise that the nice school is a partially subsidized, partially private school.
I took a packed microbus from Managua, passing through rolling, emerald hills that boasted gargantuan banana trees who shaded our path. I got out at La Concha and a moto taxi hailed me (that’s how much of the public transportation works here- taxis honk at you to let you know they have room). I jumped in and cradled my blue Osprey backpack and book bag as we transitioned from the relatively smooth cobblestone streets to a wobbly dirt road on the outskirts of town.
“Where are you from?” the driver asked me. As I answered, I couldn’t help but cough to exhale the dust I’d inhaled. He just chuckled and looked at me as if to say “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
There was so much dust.
The driver kindly waited for Corey to open up the gate. There was no doorbell, but Dogs began to barked from the inside once they heard me. Corey opened up, and we walked to her house. “I feel like I’m in a compound and that I’m about to drink the kool aid,” I said to her. It felt like her own private jungle that was closed off from society. I dropped my things off in her house and we walked to school.
Elementary aged kids ran up to us, giggling, to hug Corey and to examine me. “Wow, these gringas really do love having short hair!” I imagined them thinking as they stared at me with wide smiles.
We walked along a dirt path to the school. It was not a cult, and there was no kool-aid. Instead, I stumbled upon the safest, most productive public school I’d seen in Nicaragua.
School was getting out early because of a parent-teacher meeting. I met Patricia and we chatted over grilled-cheese sandwiches. We rocked in our rocking chairs. I asked what role the government plays in managing the school, since it is still a public school. The only thing that the Ministry of Education provides the school is rice and beans to feed the kids. Everything else comes out of Patricia’s pocket and small, private donations from people like her daughter who believe in the academy.
As I learned more, I asked myself how sustainable it was for Patricia to fund the school with her retirement money and inconsistent donations. Conceptually, the school was an amazing idea. A free, bilingual school for underprivileged students? I’m all about that.
At the same time, I wondered what would happen once Patricia’s retirement money runs out. Would enough people donate to keep the school afloat? Patricia has definitely asked herself this question herself, but for now, she says “I need to do what’s right. I couldn’t not open this school.”
In order to understand why Patricia felt so strongly about investing all her money in this school, I knewI need to observe the students. They were happy and disciplined. They raised their hands and waited their turn to speak-a procedure that takes a lot of work to reinforce, even in my adult English classes.
While the students seemed happy, they’ve come from rough backgrounds. I had no idea how many homeless boys lived with Patricia.
One boy’s mother had him at a young age in order to encourage the father to stay with her. Once the boy grew older, the boy’s father would beat him, telling him he would beat him so that he wouldn’t be a “fag.” He thought that beating him would “cure” him of being gay.
As a lesbian, I haven’t faced as much homophobia because many people assume that I’m just “confused” or that I’m still bisexual, which is more acceptable because that means I’ll still have a chance with a man. I’ve noticed how much more harshly male sexuality is policed here, especially from father to son. It comes from the pressure men feel from machismo to be “manly”, and in order to prove their sexuality, they feel the need to reinforce the idea that the ideal man isn’t a submissive “cochon” (fag).
Whether the students lived with Patricia or not, it was stories like this one that made me understand why the school’s name began with “Hope.”
Corey and I made an afternoon trip to the neighboring town of Jinotepe. My feet were covered in dust. The heat prevents me from wearing close-toed shoes, but now I’d wished I wore sneakers instead of my Teva sandals. We got off the bus in Jinotepe and I asked a woman if I could use her water spicket to clean my feet.
After having lived here, I’ve become even more aware of my presentation. Many Nicaraguans ask me why so may foreigners roll up in their oversized backpacks and look as if they haven’t showered in 5 months. I reassure them that not all foreigners are dirty. I’m just confused as the locals. I don’t understand why people who have the money to travel abroad don’t take the time to shower, either.
The woman whose water I used gave me a rag to wipe my feet off. I thanked her profusely then Corey and I pressed on. As we sat inside of Paris Café, we soaked up the luxurious air conditioning and chatted more about how to sustainably fund the school. There must be grants or USAID funds, I thought. Corey’s thought about staying after her Peace Corps service ends to stay with the school. Everything just seems up in the air, but for now, Patricia and Corey are providing a quality education to underprivileged kids.
Patricia has had reservations about registering the school as an NGO. She’s heard stories about people manipulating one another to gain control of NGOs, and she doesn’t want to deal with the mistrust or drama. I wouldn’t either. For now, though, it seems like the most viable option until she gains more visibility and partners with an organization or individual who could donate consistently.
I spent the next day observing the morning motivation session. Dozens of kids, from the post-toddler age, to hormonal teenagers, filled the largest space in the small school. Patricia asked students to spell different words in English. “Samuel, deletrea la palabra ‘fortaleza’, con gusto, si!” (“Spell the word “strength”, with enthusiasm, yes!”) she would say. Samuel’s peers waited respectfully and quietly for him to be heard.
After the morning meeting, I went off to observe Teacher Dionisio’s math class of 14 students. In the small, dimly lit, blue classroom, he held his math book, a marker, and erased the whiteboard by hand.
Dos entre que? Cinco. Dos por tres? Seis.
The students huddled under one light bulb and scribbled down notes. As in any typical classroom, the students in the front participated the most while the students in the back chatted with each other, as if I wouldn’t notice. Overall, though, I was impressed by how much more engaged the students were in a smaller classroom. I’m used to teaching classes with an average of 50 students crammed into a room, often without enough decrepit desks for everyone.
How wonderful it was to see students engaged in class. The Hope Academy reminded me of when I taught at Brooke Charter School in Boston.
Both of these schools had dramatically different levels of funding, but they had one thing in common: they were safe places for learning.