Other than my bed, the classroom is the place where I’ve spent the single most amount of time over the course of my entire life. After 19 years in formal education in the United States, I thought I knew a thing or two about school. One of the wonderful opportunities we have as Peace Corps volunteers is to appreciate the different approaches societies take to things as central as education. Sin más preambulos, here is a list of things I never knew about school with my new Nicaraguan context:
Every official school event can be started by a prayer
Monthly teacher’s meeting, parent teacher conferences, assemblies: in Nicaragua there is no public school function that is started without a prayer from the designated “prayer person”. At my rural school that would be Marvin, the social studies teacher.
The end of Teacher Marvin’s prayer
With over 80% of the population belonging to a Christian group, and over 50% Catholic, it’s a perfectly normal occurrence. The first few months in site, this was quite a shock to me. Although the USA is a predominantly Christian society, the strong line between church and state is something I took for granted.
As a strong advocate for religious pluralism, I’m not recommending that school prayer be instituted in public schools in the US, but I’ve noticed that this overt focus on values spills over into other realms of the school life. Teachers routinely talk about forming values in students in a way that seems more healthy and holistic than our myopic focus on education’s attainment and standardized test scores in the United States.
There is never a bad moment to bring up Rubén Darío
Prince of Castilian Letters, Rubén Darío is Nicaragua’s most celebrated artist. Born only an hour outside of Estelí in what was then Metapa, Matagalpa (now Darío City), this virtuoso of verse, prodigy of prose, and founder of modernism put Nicaragua on the map. Although I only faintly recognized the name before Peace Corps, I had memorized the first stanza of his poems for Spanish class: Juventúd, divino tesoro…(Youth, divine treasure…)
Other than public prayer, another good marker that you’re at a Nicaraguan school event is that Rubén Darío quotes are peppered throughout the program as transitions from one part to the next. It’s not just at public events where his name is evoked. The MINED has even given teachers specific orientations to mention Rubén Darío in every class, every day.
The only other Nicaraguan cultural hero that is in the echelon as Darío is Augusto C. Sandino, the revolutionary leader of the guerrilla rebellion against US military occupation in the 20s and 30s. However, since the ruling Sandinista party based their name off of this Latin American symbol of resistance to US domination, he is much more politicized. Some say that Rubén Darío is also being used as a political figure, citing as example one of the official school slogans for the 2016 school year: “Rubén Darío, the sun that illuminates new victories.”
An all-staff baby shower is a reason for a 2-hour early dismissal
During training my class was let out during 4th period so that they could set up for a baby shower for a fellow teacher that would last during 5th-6th period, when the whole school would be let out early. Talk about culture shock! I went back to my Spanish class and described the situation to our Nicaraguan Language and Culture Facilitator, who was not nearly as surprised as I was about the situation.
The Ministry of Education is trying to curb class time being cancelled, and while it seems to happen less in Estelí than it did in our training towns, some reasons we have seen for class cancellation include:
- Mother’s/Father’s day celebrations
- Impromptu staff meetings
- People coming in to sell products, or beg for money
- Procession to celebrate the literacy crusade
After a while here, and after talking with other teachers, I’ve come to realize that sometimes other things are more important: community, celebration, people. For example, at the beginning of February this year, one of Emily’s counterparts lost her daughter to a heart attack. To help support her, the school transferred Regina to the less stressful job of teaching adult learners in the evening. In commemoration of her years teaching the high schoolers during the afternoon shift, and as a show of support, the afternoon teachers threw her a big farewell/we love you party. Yes, school was cancelled an hour early, but the sense of community and support that was present was a truly touching example of how “solidarity” is not just a political slogan, but a value lived out daily by the Nicaraguan people.
It is these small difference that remind me that, regardless of how many dichos I know, or plates of gallo pinto I eat, I am a foreigner. Yet they’ve also come to remind me of how much I’ll miss this place, and how much more there is to know.
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