I traded my pharmacy scrubs for an artist’s smock in Haiti. The transition wasn’t difficult.
I knew the reward for volunteering hours in a hot sweaty clinic would be a classroom of local kids making art.
We began our journeys to Haiti with a small medical group, which had completed a dozen twice-a-year missions to the rural area of Sud Est. My partner, Mike, and I had participated in two of those trips and convinced me to accompany him on his third. He wrangled an invitation from the Catholic school’s headmaster for me, a community artist, to do an art project with the kindergarteners. For me, it was as an opportunity to see other aspects of Haiti. For the headmaster at St. Mark’s Primary, my project provided a variation for her classroom teacher and students. We agreed by email on a mural. “Nothing permanent!” she wrote.
In Wisconsin, I spent weeks preparing before I departed. A tarp would provide the surface for the assemblage of colored construction paper and bottles of glue to affix it. I practiced as much as I could, using kindergarteners at a neighboring primary school to model the process.
In Haiti, I bought the inexpensive and reproducible art materials in the city before we journeyed up the mountain to Lamontay. I again tried out the project on the numerous children of the cooks and housekeepers at the church compound where we stayed. I sprinkled the Haitian Kreyol words for colors, shapes, and numbers into as many conversations as I could.
Mike and I finished the two weeks of clinic. On Monday morning after breakfast, Voltaire, our Haitian translator, joined us. We slid into the swarms of children on their way to school.
The kindergarten students lined up in front of their classroom for the morning assembly. The teacher, Madame Denis, and her assistant stood at the front as their 60 students followed in two lines, one for the girls, the other for the boys, up the stairs, in through the doors, and directly to their seats. They pulled their tiny chairs out from the short, round tables and sat quietly. This was an orderly bunch in an orderly room.
Madame Denis, a gentle woman of 40-plus years, embraced a general fastidiousness. She had neatly pressed herblouse and skirt and pinned her hair tightly into a bun at the back of her head. She started the class in a song of welcome and turned over the class to Voltaire and me. With his help, I used my practiced words and demonstrated the project. The plan was for the children to construct their own chickens, each student cutting the shapes with their scissors from the colored paper and gluing them together in the form of a chicken, poul.
Despite my preparation, I didn’t anticipate most of the kindergarteners at St. Mark’s had never used scissors.
Mike captured the chaos on video. Four adults towered over ten tables each with six small children, helping them to cut while keeping their curious fingers out of the glue. The poul each child created was no ordinary fowl. It featured two heads, or three beaks, and even 10 legs. The teacher and her assistant, concerned their brood was drawing outside the lines, insisted each child render a chicken that looked like a chicken.
That morning, Madame Denis’ one hand held a student’s paper in place while she leaned around a second to help a third place the chicken’s head in an anatomically correct spot. She reached occasionally across the table to restrain a fourth child from pouring out his cup of liquid adhesive. One boy sat, his palm covered with Wilhold, opening and closing his hand, watching the little tails of glue form and break.
Every child focused on making a chicken, but there was no unison here, only individuality. In this space where lessons were always spoken together, now there were 60 unique voices, descriptive of a never-before-enjoyed educational experience.
I shouted to Voltaire, who had his own hands full with a tableful of young artists, “Tell Madame it’s okay! The chickens don’t have to look like chickens.” Voltaire translated and the faces of the teacher and her assistant changed. They looked at me in confusion, then surprise, and finally with thanks. Madame Denis brought her hands in from the two directions and gave the child in front of her a loving squeeze.
We finished in the allotted time; the children washed their hands in a communal bucket and marched outside for their midday break before their plates of rice and beans.
That night, I affixed the completed chickens to the tarp. I wondered, as I picked up each child’s grouping of geometric shapes, if we achieved success. I believe that art, in any form, gives free reign to creativity and provides new avenues of expression. Yes, I was pleased. We might well have deviated from an educational lesson plan, but we enabled the children to make art.
The headmaster gave the mural her blessing and a hard-won smile the next morning. Voltaire and I hung the chicken-covered tarp in the kindergarten room, and Mike took photos of the student artists in front of it. The children sang us another song, and sat properly in their small chairs. The three of us said our goodbyes
Some years later, Voltaire and I visited Madame Denis in her classroom at the end of her school day. She looked the same — perhaps a bit of grey in her hair. The classroom remained trim and tidy — each tiny chair pushed properly under its table.
She pointed excitedly to the wall where the old mural still hung. The flock, with their askew beaks and multiple feet, were slowly fading. A number of fresh pieces of brown construction paper hung to the right. And glued to those sheets were more chickens — new chickens — each as unique and creative as those from which they descended.
J.O. Haselhoef is the author of “Give & Take: Doing Our Damnedest NOT to be Another Charity in Haiti.” She co-founded “Yonn Ede Lot” (One Helping Another), a nonprofit that worked with volunteer groups in La Montagne (“Lamontay”), Haiti from 2007-2013, when Haselhoef wrote many of these stories. She
lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.