At a Haiti school’s reopening, a lesson in sharing
David Saill is 10 years old, and he came to school Monday in a freshly ironed shirt and baggy black slacks to reclaim a piece of his lost life.
He couldn’t have it all back. Not his home, which collapsed in the Jan. 12 earthquake. Not his very best friend, Laguer, who died when his own house fell on him. Not the sense of security he felt before he knew that the earth could shake apart his known universe.
But school -- that he could have back. Or so he was told.
Monday was the first day that schools in Haiti could reopen after the earthquake, which was centered near the capital, Port-au-Prince. The entire national school system -- already among the poorest in the world -- had been shut down, although schools in much of the country were not directly affected.
Most schools in Port-au-Prince are eyeing a March restart, at least those that can find a safe place to hold classes. An estimated 70% to 80% of the schools in the capital were damaged or destroyed, and no one is yet sure whether the rest are safe to enter.
David’s school, known as Plein Soleil (Full Sun), was supposed to be the exception.
But nothing is easy in Haiti these days.
Plein Soleil is an all-boys elementary school, opened in 1992 by a French couple, Michel and Francoise Vaillaud, to serve a unique population: Children who live in a shantytown in a narrow ravine that runs through some of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods.
The school was designed by two Haitian architects who relied on internationally accepted building codes, and was built with both strength and flexibility in mind, the better to withstand Haiti’s frequent hurricanes, and, as it turns out, an earthquake.
The school rode out the January quake with only a few hairline cracks in its concrete floor. After an inspection, Michel Vaillaud decided it was sound.
Although the Haitian government had said that no schools in Port-au-Prince could reopen, Vaillaud said he spoke to Education Ministry officials Sunday and got the go-ahead.
Only about half of Haitian children attend primary school, according to UNICEF; the numbers drop sharply among higher grades. According to the international organization Save the Children, only 2% of Haitians graduate from high school.
On Monday, David, who is in fourth grade, showed up for school at 7 a.m., a half-hour early. He was eager, he said, because all he had been doing was sitting around in a tent.
“I miss all my teachers and the work that I used to do, what I used to learn,” he said. He had an air of sadness, exacerbated by a welt under one eye. David said he and his mother were home when the quake struck, and they dashed out of their house before it went down.
The school was not quite as he had left it. A group of people who had lost their homes, perhaps a couple of dozen, had taken over the playground. They had been camping there since shortly after the quake.
To prepare for the resumption of school, Vaillaud had asked them to leave. They refused. They offered a compromise: They would stay away during the school day, as long as they could sleep there at night. Vaillaud said no.
Vaillaud arrived Monday about 7:20 a.m., and things got hot quickly.
“You think you’re going to put these kids in school?” one young man shouted at him. “You think that’s the right thing to do?”
Vaillaud, a rangy 79-year-old with tousled white hair, hollered back: “The school is for kids! It’s not for grown-ups!”
A tall man in a beige T-shirt loomed threateningly. “You’re giving me pressure!” he shouted. “Why are you giving me pressure? Why don’t you take your school and go back to your country with it! If the cops come, I’ll go. Otherwise, I’m staying.”
As his young students waited on the playground, Vaillaud strode out to his pickup and roared off.
The man in the beige shirt, whose name was Vladimir Sainral, strutted around the school courtyard.
“I’m waiting for the cops!” he said, jabbing a finger in the air.
The squatters gathered and aired their concerns.
“We accept that he can have the school,” Sainral said. “We just want to stay in the yard.”
Daphne Vicsama, 30, stepped forward, holding her 2-year-old son, who clutched a breast beneath her cotton dress. She told a sadly common story.
“I had my son die in our house, 12 years old,” she began. “And my mother-in-law, she died. And now I’m sleeping on the cold ground. I don’t have anywhere to go. We don’t even have a tent. . . . So he doesn’t have to push us. We don’t need this.”
At 7:55 a.m., 25 minutes after school was supposed to start, Vaillaud returned. Three police officers were with him. One carried a 12-gauge shotgun.
Haitian police have a long and well-earned reputation for brutality, dating to the terror unleashed during the regimes of Francois Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude. This team was led by a tall, deep-voiced senior officer, Jude Thomas, who looked like he had long ago seen it all.
He began speaking to the squatters with a sympathy bordering on tenderness.
“You know,” he said, “one day they’re going to kick you out, so you should try to find another place that’s better.”
The squatters yelled their concerns, all of them at once.
Thomas looked pained.
“I’m talking too nice to you,” he said, turning stern. “This yard isn’t for you. You came here because of a bad situation for a while. The country can’t stay like this! You’ve got to find a better place.”
Thomas made a final offer, which he had discussed in advance with Vaillaud: Stay for one week while school resumed, then leave. The people agreed.
As he headed back to his car, Thomas was asked why he had been so accommodating.
“It’s so bad for them,” he said, eyes on the squatters. “They are my family, they are my brothers and sisters. I have to take care of them.”
At 8 a.m., while Thomas was still negotiating with the squatters, the school bell had finally rung.
The students -- just 24 out of 200 who are enrolled there -- stood at attention while one boy raised the Haitian flag. They sang the national anthem, then filed into a single classroom, all that would be needed for the day.
The school’s principal, Edsule Dubuisson, entered the room and spoke to the class.
“I know there’s a lot of sadness in your hearts,” she began, “and there’s a lot of people close to you that you lost on Jan. 12. Now, God created us and we’re alive. . . . Don’t keep thinking in your mind of the loved ones you lost. It’s no reason for you not to continue your education.”
The class listened, gravely. One boy wiped his eyes.
Outside the classroom, Dubuisson said she would spend more time later talking about the earthquake, and would ask each child to tell his story of what happened that day. And then, she said, they would talk about what they could do to protect themselves and minimize the danger from future quakes.
In the yard, after having made the deal with the police officer, the squatters still grumbled.
Some said that Vaillaud, a retired petroleum engineer who had followed his wife to Haiti when she fell in love with the country and its art, was a racist.
“He’s a French guy,” reasoned one woman. “An American never would have done this to us.”
But then Vaillaud made them yet another offer: For one week, he said, they could stay in the yard from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. But if all goes well, he added, he’ll extend that offer to future weeks. The people agreed.
“Six to six,” they said. “OK.”