Last Thursday the school where I have worked the past few years held their clausura or graduation ceremony. The room was colorful; full of little girls running around in their handwoven huipiles and cortes, mother’s carrying babies in the original “Maya wraps” and young fathers who have replaced their work boots with their nicely polished black leather shoes. Santa Maria is beautiful town of about 30,000 people nestled on the side of a volcano, about 15 minutes drive from where I live. It is hard working agricultural community, where most families earn just enough to get by day-to-day, but not enough to get out of the cycle of poverty. It is a good reflection of Guatemalan deepest social issues- lack of job opportunities, little access to health care, limited educational options, a deep rooted machista ideology and too many NGOs with good intentions giving paternalistic handouts.
This is the backdrop for our school, Proximos Pasos.
And as I sat and watched 11 of our girls walk across the stage to receive their certificate for completing 6th grade I felt mixed emotions.
• • •
I have taught English to many of these 11 over past 2 years, and some I have known some since 2008. I am proud. They have worked hard and have been committed to their studies. They have had excellent teachers and I believe graduate knowing new skills and expanded ideas. They have learned that they are important and deeply loved by God. They have had access to computers and professional cooking classes and hot showers and field trips. Things most girls in Guatemala would only dream about.
You might be thinking, only 11 girls made it to 6th grade? But wait, don’t you start with a class of 30 in 1st grade?
Yes, but when you consider the average grade completed for girls in Guatemala is just 3rd grade, then you realize these 11 are super stars.
And these super stars are precious. They are Paulina, Blanca, Mishel, Karla, Loida, Andrea, Heidy, Maria, Claudia, Rosenda and Estanfy.
As we applauded and cameras flashed, I felt a twinge of sadness. I know for many of them this is it. They are done studying. They will not go on to jr. high or high school, what we call here basicos or diversificado. They will go to work. They will stay at home and take care of younger siblings. They will become part of the cycle of poverty that keeps you where you are just to survive. They will fall captive to the idea that says you will stay here because you’re a women. This is the ugly side of a machista culture that gives boys preference in studying, where as girls are often required to stay home or work. It’s not fair, but it just is.
Before the ceremony started, I ran into Mishel, one of the 11 who I first met in 2008. We bonded because of our shared names. I gave her a hug and a huge, “Felicidadae!”
Are you going to study next year?
She shook her head.
“I have to work.”
But you’re such a bright and gifted student.
“Mis papas van a mandarme a vender.” (My parents are going to send me to sell in the market.)
“In Guatemala City.”
Her eyes welled up with tears.
And mine did too.
After the ceremony I took a picture of the graduates. The shortest one standing in the back is Paulina, one of my favorites. She is a spunky and creative and just a teeny bit mischievous. One of those students who has so much potential to unlock. She shined during our oral presentations and can get along with almost anyone.
I leaned over to be at her level, Are you going to study next year?
“No, Seño .”
“My parents won’t let me. I have to work.”
My heart was crushed. Where are you going to work?
“En la casa.”
She turned the other way so I wouldn’t see her eyes start to water.
These girls are 12, 13, 14 years old. And this is it. Their chance to go to school, to keep studying is done.These girls know education is a gift, not a right and sadly it’s a gift that is taken from them too soon. Maybe this hits close to home because I am a teacher and I will always be an advocate for education and learning and opportunities. But I am also a new mother, a mother to a little girl.
And my little girl who was born in the same country as my 11 students. She is Guatemalan and yet I know she is born with privileges that my students will never have. I know my daughter will have the opportunity to go on to jr high and high school and probably even the university. She will not be forced to sell vegetables in the market when she’s 12 or quit school to work in the house at 13. She will have the opportunity to study and learn and go to school, and I want the same for the girls in Santa Maria.
• • •
I am not naive enough to think that I can change a culture or a community. I don’t think complex social issues can be changed by simple solutions, nor by an outsider at that. But I am convinced that we need to do something. I want to research what programs in other third-world countries have worked to help keep girls in school longer? I want to interview and talk to families in Santa Maria; find out from them what is the biggest hindrance? Is it money? Is it having help at home? And what are solutions? Have you heard of any NGOs or programs that have been successful with keeping girls in school longer? Please do share.
the cutest future graduate: