Accessories and Sandwiches / Regina Coyula

The school year has just begun, the first for many children. Filled with enthusiasm and wonder, these little ones are unaware of the disruption their new status as students creates for many Cuban families.

Along with the canasta basica,* the school uniform is the last holdout of the ration book as far as manufactured goods are concerned. It is provided to each student upon enrollment in the form of a ticket to buy subsidized uniforms, which he or she must treat with great care since there won’t be any more given out until the fourth grade.

As everyone knows, education in Cuba is free but other expenses related to a child’s schooling come directly out of the family budget. I am not referring only to shoes, a backpack or a lunchbox. The first parents’ meeting will confirm what families already know from their own experiences or those of others.

There are always parents who offer to buy paint and others who offer to paint. There are always collection drives for cleaning supplies and sign-up sheets for mothers to clean bathrooms. It is now standard practice to start the school term every year by collecting five CUC per child to purchase fans.

Teachers and administrators adopt a stance of giving in to these family initiatives in a game of role playing in which it is assumed that the Ministry of Education will provide everything that is needed to do the work and that the family wants what is best for its children.

All this and other things that follow are part of an unwritten but demonstrably effective methodology, which only gets better from one school term to the next The youngest children must not bring backpacks, only luncheras (lunch boxes). If they bring soft drinks, they must be in plastic containers, even if they are in cans. Everything must be able to be kept at room temperature.

Special emphasis is given to the lunchtime sandwich. No roast beef, ground meat or fish. Chicken must be shredded, ham sliced. Even better if it is the ever popular perrito (or hot dog).

Every pre-schooler must bring a sturdy shoebox to store all his or her projects for the entire school term. They must also bring scissors for cutting paper, crayons, an eraser — all items available only in hard currency.

The classroom is a place where the disparities that have become entrenched in society are there to be seen. Every student has a right to education but equality ends there.

From the moment they arrive at school, even before morning classes begin, their footwear and accessories tell a story of which the students themselves are ignorant protagonists and about which their parents will speak in private with cynicism or shame, depending on their personal ideas about what constitutes success.

Translator’s note: The “basic basket” is an allotment of foodstuffs intended to provide Cubans with a minimum of 3,100 of calories per day. The items include beans, rice, sugar, cooking oil and coffee. There is also a monthly allotment of meat, chicken, and eggs. Prices for these goods are heavily subsidized but the items themselves are often in short supply.

5 September 2014

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