April 6, 2008

"Third World" Wars: Episode II: Jimmy Hats, Baby-Mamas, and Book Learnin'

I have in front of me (and so do you) two newspaper clippings from issues of this week’s editions of La Nación, which is generally considered Costa Rica’s most reliable and reputable newspaper (although that might not be saying much, based on a glance at its competitor newspapers, all of which heavily rely on covers that display bloody traffic accidents, an overuse of exclamation points, and girls decked out with fake titties and/or g-strings). In any case, the point is that these two articles caught my attention because they illustrate, to a saddening degree, that I do in fact live in a country that is, at least in some ways, still a third world country.

Before I go into this, I hope that this doesn’t sound like more preaching/bitching about Costa Rica’s problems. As a foreigner who is still getting acclimated even after nearly two years here, it’s still the differences between my new country and my old home that catch my attention, and these two stories fairly broke my heart.

The first story was from a cover page article that continued onto pages 4 and 5, in which it was stated that the country would begin to teach students how to use condoms in schools. Now, as far as I’m concerned, sure, knowledge can be power. Schools should teach kids how to use condoms, geometry, the five-paragraph essay, the Pythagorean Theorem, chainsaws, hand grenades…whatever. But that’s not my point here. The thing that made this story alarming to me was a sidebar that described some of the motivations behind the government’s decision to teach condom use. It talked about birth rates in Costa Rica and had other statistics like STD and AIDS numbers, single-mother births, and births to underage mothers. This is where I started to become concerned. It says that in the last year, “only 0.7%” of the babies born in Costa Rica were born to mothers under the age of 15.

Now, 0.7% may seem like a small percentage, and I suppose that it is, relatively speaking, but in this case, that still means that 500 babies were born to mothers that were 14 years old or younger. The paper further elaborated upon this. Apparently, in the last year in this country, 366 babies were born to 14-year-olds, 102 were born to 13-year-olds, 16 were born to 12-year-olds, and four eleven-year-olds gave birth. Eleven years old! Man, that’s young. It’s so young, I feel comfortable, APA-style-wise, writing “11” in letters instead of digits.

I realize that in this country of 4,000,000 people, 4 babies born to eleven-year-olds may not be a big deal. And indeed, in the U.S., maybe the same statistics are much higher, proportionally speaking. But what really nags at me is the idea that these condom-teaching programs had been put on hold about 10 years ago—right around the same time those four new mothers were born themselves—due to objections from the church about the curriculum. At this point, I don’t want this post to devolve into a theological criticism or debate, but I do think that the government has made a wise choice here. I realize that for many families, sexual education is taught at home, and for still other families, condoms or other types of birth control are not morally justifiable. But still, when 500 babies are having babies, it’s obvious that the abstinence-only programs aren’t working out so well. Instead of giving them a guilt trip, give these kids a box of condoms! And for the majority of the kids who won’t use them: Great for you! Use them to make water balloons, and play around like kids your age ought to.


The second article that caught my attention was one from Thursday. It’s titled (approximately): “Youth Want A Secondary School On Isla Caballo, Puntarenas.” This caught my attention because Isla Caballo is one of the islands in the Gulf of Nicoya; it’s only about 30 miles away, as the cockatoo flies, and on a clear day you can even see the island from our backyard. Apparently when it comes to educational opportunities, though, those 30 miles will take you into another world. Another world that doesn’t have high schools. That’s right, there’s apparently no high school on the island, so the local kids were collecting signatures to send to the Ministry of Education, in order to get the Ministry to open a high school on the island.

Let’s pause and consider this for just a moment. (Pause)

OK. It’s been considered, and I’ve come to this conclusion: Kids are collecting signatures and asking to be allowed to go to school! What the hell is going on here? Am I in Bizarro Costa Rica here? This all makes a little more sense when you read the quote by Yahaira Alvarado, the 17-year-old girl who is leading the signature collecting. She says, “The youth of Isla Caballo need a school to be opened because after we finish 6th grade, we need to start jobs as fishermen.” The article states that she finished 6th grade in 2003 and is now a fisherwoman. I realize that shitty agricultural work can be a good motivator, educationally-speaking (my wife Angela has said many times that she started to study English mainly because she “hated picking coffee”), but imagining 6th graders “graduating” from elementary school by receiving a diploma and a fishing rod is just sad.

Anyhow, to make a long story short, about 50 kids collected 5,000 signatures, but the outlook for a school still doesn’t look so good. According to the Ministry of Education’s representative, they need 120 students to open a new high school, while this one would only have about 40 or so. The article says there may still be a possibility, or that perhaps they could open a “tele-school” on the island, but for now, the children’s educational future remains uncertain.

To summarize and conclude, let me leave you with a case study. I taught 6th grade last year, and let me tell you, it was a pain in my ass. Those kids were whiny, hyperactive, and lazy, usually all at the same time. But they were also my favorite classes. They have that certain indescribable characteristic of youth that makes their energy both draining and contagious at the same time. But, obviously, all of my students were attending school, and they had the opportunity to continue doing so until they graduate from high school. Also, as far as I know, none of the little tykes popped out a baby, so they’re doing pretty good on that front, too. When kids are that age, teachers have to try to cram in as much knowledge as possible to prepare them for some of the stuff to come. That way, when the bell rings and the kids leave class, they can bitch and moan to their classmates about having to study for the upcoming sex education exams. And if you should happen to overhear their protest-filled lamentations, just look at them and smile, for all is as it should be. At least they have a school to go to, and the whining is coming from their mouths, not the mouths of their newborn babies.


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1 comment:

annie lee said...

Entries like these are why I like your blog so much (it isn't just our eternal bond of friendship) ... when you write like this, you come across as thoughtful and relevant without being at all preachy. I'm forever amazed by the unique experiences you have in your adopted home country. We could probably smuggle 80 6th graders from Seattle your way if the situation gets dire, too, by the way. I'm tired of the neighborhood brats ringing our doorbell and running off laughing.