My aunt Yolaine in Haiti knows a lot of people in a surrogate mother kind of way. She ran a pre-school and kindergarten in Port-au-Prince, Jardin Fleuri de Yolaine, for forty-two years before passing the torch along to her daughter Patricia, a brilliant educator with the vision and energy to keep carrying the school forward. I’m amazed when middle-aged men and women will approach my aunt to say hello, recognizing their former principal of long ago, and she’ll say something completely personal to them, some detail about their lives or something she remembers about their parents.
My aunt being a big-hearted but stern woman, there was a strong emphasis on detail and order on the school grounds–especially because at the school, she also ran a boarding house for students and children of all ages whose parents lived out of the country– but there was also an undeniable devotion to merriment for the little ones. When carnival came around each Lenten season, the students were there to celebrate the occasion in style, decked out in Jardin Fleuri shirts, festive headgear, carnival garb, and face paint. Before Christmas break, there was always a celebration. Graduation Day was always a big deal come June, students dressed in cap and gown, the children performing long-practiced dance routines and poetry readings, the works. All of these occasions remained a family affair at heart–any relatives visiting when such things were going on automatically became participants, and my grandparents, Erna (an educator herself) and Dantes (a busy attorney), were always on hand to give students their diplomas, to help emcee events, and simply to provide moral support.
Life at Jardin Fleuri continued much the same through the 90s and the 2000s. Needless to say, everything changed on January 12, 2010 with the earthquake. With that earthquake, 2010 has become a veritable Year Zero in Haiti. We used to discuss Papa Doc’s Haiti and Baby Doc’s Haiti, Aristide’s Haiti and post-Aristide Haiti. My cousin now speaks of life “avant Douze Janvier/apres Douze Janvier” (before January 12th/after January 12th). The school–a cement fortress, a friendly home base for many loved ones, and a decades-long fixture of Port-au-Prince–sustained terrible damage and was eventually razed to the ground.
For the very first time in my life, I saw my aunt, an indestructible woman who has seen and been through so much, display exhaustion and dejection. I felt a heavy sadness for my cousin Patricia who had launched her entire being–heart, mind, and soul–into this school for the last few years after my aunt had chosen to semi-retire. Jardin Fleuri had been Yolaine’s legacy, and Patricia had meant to leave her mark in it as well. Despite losing everything, true to form, neither my cousin nor aunt had a ‘woe is me’ moment, or if they did, they never voiced it aloud–they’re not complainers, even during the most dire of circumstances. There was never any doubt that the school would endure. There wasn’t even a question of how it would endure. The only question was “When?”
The students first came back to class outdoors under propped-up plastic tarps, set up by my aunt and cousin on a nearby piece of undeveloped, tree-dotted land owned by my aunt. Next came class in tents, while they waited for UNICEF to build small modular units, which is where the students are now, better removed from the elements. Rebuilding is sure, but proceeds at a glacial pace due to a number of factors outside most people’s control: lack of resources, bureaucracy, and corruption, among others. And Haiti continues to move neither backwards nor forwards, but in its own direction, at its own speed, always in its own dimension, its people as tired yet brilliantly resilient as ever.
*** Thanks to my cousin Patricia for sharing some of these pictures. ***