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Notes From Honduras

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Hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst. That’s been one of my maxims when working or traveling in developing countries—just as it was on a recent reporting trip to Honduras.

That’s why I was pretty much unfazed when, after a stomach-churning, 90-minute trip from San Pedro Sula into the rugged mountains in northwest Honduras to visit a rural school, my guide and I found the building empty. It turned out the school’s two teachers were at a conference out of the area. It wasn’t something we could have confirmed in advance, as no phone lines go into the community.

Fourth and 5th graders at the Heart of Honduras Primary School in Panacam, Honduras, complete a drawing project.
Fourth and 5th graders at the Heart of Honduras Primary School in Panacam, Honduras, complete a drawing project.
—Robert C. Johnston

My guide on the three-day trip was Alejandra Madrid, a 26-year-old architect and the executive director of the Honduran nonprofit group, Schools for the Children of the World, which helped build the school. Though remarkably unflappable throughout the trip, she was frustrated and deeply apologetic that no teachers or students were around for me to interview.

As Alejandra ambled up the tree-lined dirt road to find a parent, a student, or anyone associated with the school, I went about my business. I was here to write about school facilities, so why not check out the facility.

When I did so, I realized that the school’s three classrooms were hardly empty. Darting, fluttering shadows broke across the rays of sunlight that filtered into the classrooms. Bats? There are bats in the classrooms?

I looked more closely and realized these were not bats, but the largest butterflies I had ever seen. The wingspans had to be at least 10 inches. The classroom occupants were black and had salt-like speckles on their wings. One, then two, three, and several more flitted about the room.

As I marveled at the frolicking butterflies, a large rooster crowed loudly just a few yards away. At the same time, Alejandra walked into the school courtyard with a local father she had tracked down.

Just as the rooster crowed and Alejandra appeared, the butterflies disappeared. They darted to dark corners of the classroom, out the ventilation opening between the classroom walls and roof, or wherever giant butterflies go for privacy.

More than an hour of interviews with two parents and a pair of wary but forthcoming students from the school helped me salvage the reporting trip and, combined with the butterflies, gave me more images of the rural school than I had hoped for.

Hot, Humid Classrooms

Mario Raul Chavarria is the assistant director of the Teresa Morejon de Bogran primary school in the small town of Los Naranjos in Honduras. He also teaches the school’s 5th and 6th graders in the afternoon.

He would prefer teaching from 7 a.m. to noon, just like he did last year. It’s more convenient for him. More importantly, he says, the earlier shift helps his students avoid the afternoon heat that slowly but surely saps their energy when their classrooms reach 80-plus degrees and are enveloped with thick humidity.

But as the number of students at the school has grown to 340, there are no longer enough chairs and desks for the students to attend at one time. So classes are now taught in two shifts: from 7 a.m. to noon and from noon to 5 p.m.

Mario Raul Chavarria, the assistant director of the Teresa Morejon de Bogran Primary School, stands in front of the unfinished cinder-block wall that surrounds the school.
Mario Raul Chavarria, the assistant director of the Teresa Morejon de Bogran Primary School, stands in front of the unfinished cinder-block wall that surrounds the school.
—Robert C. Johnston

Mr. Chavarria, however, is working on a solution. Opening the door to one of the two unused classrooms, he points to the shiny black frames of chairs that his students are building with the help of a local welder. It’s great training, he says of the work the children are doing. The students will make the desks next, he adds.

Later in the afternoon, he says, he will preside over a raffle, where the grand prize will be a lamp. The students are selling the raffle tickets to help raise the roughly $500 it will cost to build the chairs and desks. The project should take about five months, which means by this winter, at least 50 more children can go to the school in the morning—or at the very least, the 80 1st graders who scrunch together in desks meant to accommodate half that number can be divided into two classes.

Mr. Chavarria points to another project under his charge, an unfinished cinder-block wall around the school. The barricade, along with barbed wire along the top, is needed to keep out trespassers.

But what about the government? I ask. Isn’t there any help? His dark brown eyes sharpen and his lips turn upward in a smile that is at once friendly and tolerant of my question, which suddenly seems very naive. No, he says, the government doesn’t give the school anything.

We walk to the front of the school, shake hands, exchange pleasantries, and I wish him much luck on his projects before climbing into my rented pickup and driving away.

Spanish and English Conversations

Having traveled throughout Central America and worked with youths in Guatemala for two years, I’ve encountered scores of students who say they are studying English in private or state-run schools.

And while I’ve been impressed with their enthusiasm for the language and their commitment to learn it, typically, there’s so much lacking in their English skills that it’s hard to see them working as bilingual secretaries or in the tourism business, which is often their goal.

A cumbersome “How are you?” or “Where are you from?” can be as good as it gets—even from those who have been studying English for a few years.

These small, well-kept homes in Panacam were built with international aid following the devastation brought by Hurricane Mitch in 1998.
These small, well-kept homes in Panacam were built with international aid following the devastation brought by Hurricane Mitch in 1998.
—Robert C. Johnston

While I was in Honduras, however, I encountered a good number of students whose English was clear and conversational. I’m not sure if this is true in other Latin American countries, but most Honduran private schools are officially “bilingual” schools, where students are educated in Spanish and English.

Though I wasn’t surprised that private schools catering largely to the affluent families in Honduras would stress English, I was impressed by how well the students were learning my native language. It turns out that schools run by religious groups serving a more diverse economic group also are bilingual.

Their ease with English gave rise to some good discussions.

I had a conversation with one girl about why the Honduran Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts merged into one organization. (It worked better than having two groups that didn’t function well.) I was asked by other teenagers about my family, and told in great detail about their families. Other young people explained the various activities taking place that week in the fair honoring St. Peter, the patron saint of the local city of San Pedro Sula.

I later spent two days visiting schools with Alejandra, who was born and educated in Honduras. Her English was so flawless that I almost forgot that I speak Spanish and that I was in a Spanish-speaking country. She even wanted to talk to me about my favorite episode of the television show “Friends.” I had to admit I didn’t have one, and encouraged her to watch “The Simpsons.”

Obviously, I was impressed. But I also felt as if my own daughter is way behind.

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