On the Importance of Working Together
I’m not sure if the Children’s Academy parents who were doing their service hours that day were notified in advance that we’d be joining them to help level the field in front of the school. In any case, when Jodie, Michael, John and I came to work that day, dressed down in preparation for some serious manual labor, we were met with mixed looks of curiosity, excitement, and, well, mild entertainment. This would not be a typical work day for us and the parents knew this better than anyone.
At 8:30am the sun was already hot, beaming down unobstructed on the top of the hill on which the school is located. Jonas, the parent of a Children’s Academy preschooler and a member of the school’s parent committee, handed me the pickaxe with a knowing grin. As he did, I couldn’t help but ruminate about how in my country this kind of labor has been relegated to tractors and backhoes. Feelingless, unconscious machines that couldn’t experience discomfort or pain even if you wanted them to.
I started swinging with vigor. I knew I wouldn’t have the chops these rural Haitians did, but I figured that at least I could impress them with a good effort. Within minutes I had two painful blisters on my left hand and I’d broken up, well, very little earth.
Prophete, the groundskeeper at the school, saw me flailing about and grabbed the pickaxe from my hand. “Here, you need to hold it like this.” I needed to separate my hands on the handle and then leverage the point to break up the earth effectively. He then proceeded to demonstrate how it’s supposed to be done. With the strength of an ox, he broke up several cubic feet of earth in a matter of seconds. “Holy Toledo,” I thought. “How did he do that?”
Realizing that my efforts could be better used in other ways, I picked up a shovel and started filling and carrying buckets of earth away. After 10 minutes my shirt was soaked through and I was covered with dust.
John and I had been talking about doing this for some time. Though mainly a gesture, we wanted to make it clear to the parents at the school that we didn’t consider ourselves above hard, manual labor – or whatever work needs to be done in order to make the school succeed. We feel that this is an especially important message to send in Haiti, given its long history of colonization, slavery, and other forms of social and economic domination by foreigners.
But it also was a great opportunity to get to know some of the parents better. While we worked I had a great conversation with Jonas, the father of a Children’s Academy student. As is the custom in Haiti, we covered all the bases: Where are you from? Are you married? Have kids? How are your parents?
At the end of my “shift” – I only had an hour and a half to offer that day and, frankly, that’s also about all I could handle – I was pleased. I had returned to the pickaxe and was finally starting to figure out the proper technique. While hammering the earth, I overheard the parents, “Hey, that’s not bad, he’s starting to figure it out!” Just as this experience had given me a new respect for the parents’ contributions at the Children’s Academy, apparently my efforts had garnered their respect as well. Through working together we learned something about one another, something which brought us closer together in pursuit of a common goal – building the best school we can.