Monday, May 16, 2011

Guatemalan Xerox Machines

Last Sunday my next door neighbor Milbia yelled to me from the chain link fence that separates my back yard from her kitchen.


“Hey Milbia, what’s up?”

“Would you do me the favor of letting me borrow your computer? Ours isn’t working right now and I need to do a paper for the U.”

Just this year Milbia started taking Saturday classes at the local University. This is no small feat for a 28-year-old single mother of two young kids (Benicio and Leslie). Most women in her situation become comfortable tending the house and lack the confidence and motivation to make their personal growth a priority. I was happy to supply my computer for her schoolwork needs, anything to help along her success story.

Later that afternoon, Milbia and a classmate of hers came to my house and I set them up on my computer. As I tended to my housework: sweeping, dusting and washing clothes; Milbia dictated from a bound report and her friend typed.

“Diariamente, miles de niños y niñas en Guatemala viven el problema del maltrato infantil...” (Daily, thousands of Guatemalan boys and girls suffer from child abuse...)

At one point the typist took a break and I took the opportunity to comment on their report.

“You guys are writing a paper on child abuse?”

“Yes, but it’s already written, we just have to retype it.”

“It looks pretty nice in that folio you already have. Why do you have to retype it?”

“Well, we didn’t write this, we are just copying it.”

I grabbed the paper bound report they had been dictating from and sure enough, it had worn out dirty edges and was written by other students with a previous year’s due date. The first thing I wondered was, "Did the students, whose names are on the bound copy, write this or copy it?"

This wasn’t my first experience with students here “pidiendo copias” (asking to copy). When helping Jenny correct English homework, I noticed trends in sentences. “Trends” might be generous, an entire class would turn in verbatim assignments. As if they were little Guatemalan xerox machines. And, Selvin, who used to work at the minibank, would make extra cash by doing kids homework on the Coop’s computer- mostly just copying paragraphs from Wikipedia en Español.

I am frustrated by the Guatemalan educational system. If this country is ever to develop and prosper its students must be empowered to think critically and cultivate their own imagination. It doesn’t surprise me that in any Guatemalan town you will find three panadarias (bakeries) making the same tasteless bread; or fifteen corner stores selling the same cornflakes, sugar and refried beans that the tienda down the street sells. It’s a copy culture. The education system doesn’t encourage kids to take risks and think for themselves so why would they as adults?

When I found out that Milbia was copying, I became upset. Doesn’t she realize the only person she is cheating is herself? “You know,” I said to her, “if a student in the U.S. is caught copying, they can be kicked out of school.” I didn’t receive the shocked reaction I was hoping for.

I wasn't shocked.

"Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution." - Albert Einstein

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