Friday, November 14, 2008

Educación Jodida

Jodido literally means "fucked." Paraguayans don't actually use the word in that sense; they use it more in the sense of "screwed." When I talk about the Paraguayan education system, however, I use it in the literal sense of the word, because the Paraguayan education system is fucked. This might seem rather harsh, especially in light of the fact that the American school system is plagued with problems of its own, not the least of which is the No Child Left Behind Act. Why am I so harsh in my criticism of the system? First of all, Paraguayan schoolchildren only go to school for 4 hours every day. That's half a day! I went to school for a minimum of 7 hours every day (usually it was between 9 and 10 including after-school activities and sports). Paraguayan schoolchildren also rarely receive homework. I can count on one hand the number of times I've seen kids doing homework for school in the past 6 months. Some of you might still have your doubts, you might think "4 hours a day, that's not so bad. I didn't pay attention half of the day anyway" or "I never liked doing all that homework every day after school." Ok, fair enough. For those of you who actually did pay attention during math class, here's a question: what's 28 hours a week divided by 15 subjects? Into those 4 hours Paraguayan educators try to cram between 10 and 18 subjects. That means that a student might have only 1-2 hours a week, maximum, of a subject like math or Spanish. I know that's how the classes in our university system work, but do you remember high school? Between the notes passing, the immature teenage boys, and the complete and utter indifference to formal schooling at that age, we needed to see our teachers several times a week to get anything through our thick heads. Subtract from that time the time spent in recesses, at least 1 hour a day, and you have 3 hours of school per day. That is, when Paraguayans actually have school. I've been trying to talk with one professor for almost a month with no luck. That's because he only works on Tuesdays and Fridays, and God forbid it rains, there won't be any school. Thought it was bad when your children complained, "I don't want to go to school today! It's snowing! " (in DC this translates into there's .005 of an inch of snow on the ground, which might just put the city's two snow plows out of action permanently). Paraguayan schoolchildren make the same plea to their parents when it rains. Now granted, when you live out in the country and all the roads are made of dirt, it's considerably harder to get where you need to go. I too am guilty of skipping meetings because of rain. But, the amazing thing is how even after a small drizzle, not only will the students not go to school, the teachers won't go! Sometimes for days after it's stop raining! School is often also cancelled because of holidays or special events. It leaves one asking when Paraguayan kids actually do go to school. On the days in between the rain, special events, and random other days when their parents keep them at home to do housework (in the case of girls) or work in the farm-fields (in the case of boys), unless of course they live too far for the student to attend, the cost of school supplies is too expensive, or they're untrustworthy because they're female, in which case they don't go at all. And on those days when they do decide to grace the school with their presence, it's rare for them to actually receive lessons. I try to stop by the high school at least once a week and only once or twice have I ever seen a teacher teaching a class. Most days, they sit outside drinking tereré, gossiping, and complaining about how jodido the students are and how they never seem to want to learn. I wouldn't have any interest in learning either, given the fact that the teachers teach by rote memorization, reading abstruse passages – completely irrelevant to students' lives – from the government-issued textbooks the students don't have a copy of, and expecting the students to copy them down word by word so they can cough them up later on exams. The result of all this so-called "education," I use better grammar and can spell words in Spanish better than these native Spanish-speakers can!

This discussion wouldn't be complete without a mention of school-sponsored fiestas. It seems that almost every week there's a party sponsored by one grade or another. Fiestas are the one thing the administration is serious about organizing. There may not be rain-dates for classes, but there are always rain-dates for fiestas. What's the purpose of these fiestas? To raise money for one school project or another. I'd like to know what "school projects" the fundraising benefits, because I've seen students charged for the cost of their exam papers (and we are not talking big packets the likes of your high-school exams, I'm talking about a single-sided piece of paper). Lessons are often put on hold so that students can get ready for one fiesta or another. I've walked into classrooms to find that instead of teaching the students, the teachers are showing the students how to model for that night's fashion show. On other days I've witnessed the teachers sitting around while the students run amok because that night there was a fiesta and the teachers wanted to give them a break from class (What class? Talk about pre-party!). What happens at fiestas is another matter in itself. The school raises fund by charging students for food and drinks. Ok, that may not seem so bad. Let me be more specific: alcoholic beverages. Schools charge their own underage students to raise money for those same students' education. The Paraguayan custom is to take a sip of a drink – any drink: tereré, Coke, wine – and pass it around. I've seen teachers take a sip of a beer before passing it to one of their students. Meanwhile, the police at the police station look on as if nothing is happening. I always thought that restricting the drinking limit to 21+ was a stupid, unenforceable law. While it's true that the U.S. government can't stop underage kids from drinking, you have to at least appreciate the fact that there's no alcohol served at school-sponsored events. Teachers are supposed to be role models for students. How can they be role models if they get they're as drunk as their students? Or worse, if they get their own students drunk? We hope for teachers that inspire youth and an education system that educates the leaders of tomorrow. The Paraguayan education system is certainly a far cry from that.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

An Ode to Compost

Remember that feeling you had the first time you were covered in cow manure? Well, I certainly do! It was disgust at that green slime running down my arm; disgust at that pungent odor permeating my clothes. Why was I covered in cow poop you might ask? Because I needed it for my abonero, my compost-pile. I have a large bin in my backyard (hopefully it’s tall enough to keep the chickens out). I first put a layer of dry leaves to cover the bottom. Then I spread a layer of oh-so-sweet-smelling manure on top, after which I put another layer of dry leaves, followed by a layer of green leaves and rotten lemons, another layer of dry leaves, and finally kitchen scraps. I made sure to water the pile between every layer and add soil as well, just for consistency. The layers alternated between carbon-rich and nitrogen-rich organic matter, as to create the proper chemical reaction that will cause the pile to heat up. What was the point of spending all morning shoveling piles of shit, raking up leaves and rotten fruit, and hoisting buckets of water out of my well? What’s the goal? Crumbly, sweet-smelling compost (and this time I really do mean sweet-smelling) – the best all-natural fertilizer you can give your garden. A supplement that puts carbon, nitrogen, and potassium into the soil, enriching it and helping fruits and vegetables grow faster, last longer, and taste better.

Since I was already covered in dirt and sweat by this point, I decided to experiment with manure tea. I put heaping piles of cow dung into an onion sack, tied it shut, and placed it in a bucket of water where it will steep for a week or two, resulting in rich, liquid fertilizer. There was one hitch with this plan. I was getting the cow poop from my neighbor, whose house I reached by hopping a barbed-wire fence. The problem I did not foresee was transporting this bag of manure back to my yard. Imagine the sight of me stumbling around, desperately clutching in both arms, trying to move a surprisingly heavy sack of shit. This brings us back to the point where we came in, the one where I was covered in shit. Oh well, all in a day’s hard work!

P.S. Another problem I did not foresee was getting shit stains out of a shirt. I guess I’ll have to keep that shirt aside for my “lifting piles of cow shit onto my abonero” days.