"Education is an ornament in prosperity and refuge in adversity." -Aristotle
Over spring break, I flew to a whole new world on a mission trip with a student founded organization, Project Build. Right out of the plane, I could tell El Salvador was a much different place than my safety net of Iowa. As a country, there are still many signs of turmoil and corrupt government lingering from a civil war that ended years ago.
Such loss and tragedy is deep rooted and still in the hearts of many El Salvadorians. A key to rebuilding their country is an investment in education. We had the privilege to visit a few schools in our week long time spent in the beautiful country.
The first school we visited was a secondary school for high schoolers around 14-18 years of age. The public schools in the city of Berlin are all kept locked and guarded by security though we needed no passes or ID to enter through the rusted metal gates.
Once inside, we were welcomed with smiles and friendly greetings in both Spanish and English. The high school had a court for basketball and soccer (yes, I’m using the American word for this) and an outdoor snack shack for lunch if a student doesn’t want to go home for lunch. We had to meet with the principal at the building and ask for permission to tour the school and he welcomed us in to visit classes and answer any of our questions.
Their computer lab had nearly 40 machines new and old crammed together on whatever desk or table could be found. This was the only room in the school with air conditioning to keep the computers cold. The computer teacher told us that they were mainly used for taking tests and some assignments, but that it saves a lot of paper than doing things the old way.
In the English class, they learned the language by listening to American songs and then singing and dancing along to them. So, of course, we were prompted to sing and dance along with them and led the class through Uptown Funk, YMCA, and the Chicken Dance. All students learn English in school, but not many remember much of the language because it is used so rarely. The system is working to expand these students’ world to become global citizens, but the economic standing of many students make the dream of needing to know English seem far away and unnecessary.
Even in the science class students shared what they were working on, what their goals were for the future, and what they liked learning. Many of the students wanted to attend University in larger cities in El Salvador, but none we talked to had any idea of how to make their dream possible or access to higher education that was affordable.
The students were at recess when we arrived, and before we could join in playing with the bubbles, balls, and chalk we brought they sang a few songs to welcome us. This school was compromised of all younger students – who we would consider Kindergarteners. After I took off my reflective sunglasses that made my eyes look like a giant mosquito, they loved that we were there and that they got to perform for us. Again, this school was kept locked even to the parents waiting outside to pick up their students.
The last school we visited was in a smaller canton, El Recreo, of around 500 people. The students here know extreme poverty of not having a roof over their home, no sewer plumbing in the whole canton, and farming all the food they eat (assuming there is not a drought that wipes out all the crops).
Even in such a small town, the elementary school was fairly new and had four classrooms for K-5. We played duck duck goose with the Kindergarteners in their classroom and they went wild! Running around the circle they tipped chairs, scraped, knees and bumped heads on ceramic tile floor all without a tear shed. Before lunch, we played games with all the kids and brought toys to use in their yard that had a roof shading the concrete pad.
The next day, we engaged with the rural high school students. The school was easily 1-2 miles out of El Recreo and many of them walked this daily. The other students in the school walked even further daily to attend classes lasting all day. We introduced ourselves to the classes all in broken Spanish, but the effort was appreciated and welcomed. Seniors have “creating time” where they can make crafts and learn with their hands. As visitors, they gave us all handmade purses embroidered with flowers and cartoon characters. In return, we hosted a lunch for all the high school students back in town.
The El Salvadorian people have a culture committed to the education of their youth knowing it will help them grow into a strong nation.