Who’s going to sting? The wasp
Who’s going to win? Havana
Who’s the most astute? The Institute
From where? From Havana
I trust that many readers will recognize the building in the photograph. To those who do not know it, I tell them it is the “pre” in Havana, or –to those who are more attached to the good old traditions- the Havana Institute of Secondary Education. Many generations of Cubans went through this massive and compact building to egress proud with our brand new Bachelors of Science and Letters diplomas –that is what the official document said- full of illusions about the next upcoming admission to university classrooms.
Watching this building always brings me a flood of memories, all of them friendly and surprisingly close, despite the 32 years that have passed since I finished high school. I can almost see the happy student groups in white and blue uniforms; perceive the shocks of the exams; recall the projects for the future, so remote then, but definitely different from the reality we ended up with; listen to the constant jokes and laughter; surprise forbidden conversations complicities, fleeting love affairs, the first cigarettes. Dozens of faces are drawn in my memory, some closer and more familiar than others, but, today, all of them definitely endearing. So many of them dispersed now around the world!
We, the young people at Havana Institute had a strong sense of belonging to its spaces. We loved its solid structure of blocks of stone, its wide staircase, its sunny inner courtyards, its hallways, the glittering stained glass windows of the Aula Magna, solemn and big, with its imposing podium and mahogany furniture, the upper porch overlooking Zulueta street; the lobby, decorated with classical columns and ending at the majestic marble inner staircase; the elegant grid work on the ground floor windows; the classrooms’ glass blackboards, its well-appointed laboratories… A building designed for teaching the way they don’t build them anymore. When I was a student there, the Pre still had its own newspaper, “La Avispa” (The Wasp), edited by a group of students -barely the thinnest of periodical rags, printed on an old mimeograph in the basement of the building, -with quite an irregular publication, but somehow carrying in it the reminiscences of the past, something like a breath of autonomy of the old republican times, when the building’s classrooms were a strong outpost of freedom and civil society discussions through the voices of its students. We were aware that, in the past, a good portion of the pillars of the Cuban intellect, of the leaders of civic thought of the Republic had been shaped there.
One fateful day in the 1990’s Havana Institute ceased to be. All of the city’s pre-university education centers had gradually been moving to the countryside since the mid-80’s by official decree, and, inexorably, our turn came too. Thereafter, high school students were required to study under an internship regime in the horrific prefab dorm blocks that, -for better indoctrination, away from family influence and control- had been built. For a time, the classrooms and hallways of the ancient building became silent, orphaned of its youth and the spirit that it had sheltered over almost a century. Under the auspices of the city’s Historian, they worked towards its complete renovation and finally reopened, this time as an “experimental” basic secondary school -a title usually given here to institutions that enjoy special attention-, “focal point” (another of the system’s nobility titles) and model showcase of what the authorities understand as an example of excellence in average education. Needless to say, the openings for admission of adolescents to the school are very sought-after and are awarded after previous careful selection by the officials of the Municipal Department of Education.
I have recently learned that soon the secondary school that occupies the building will be moved to the Convent of Bethlehem. It is said that this building will again become the Havana Preparatory Institute and, in a certain way, it makes me happy that it is so. My fertile imagination makes me suppose that the economical critical conditions and the lack of government liquidity have become unable to sustain the charge of thousands of interned students, which the government –in virtue of its own laws and the brilliant initiatives of our “invincible” leader- is obliged to ensure, albeit minimal, food, uniforms and provide elemental material involving accommodations and transportation. But perhaps these are merely my own assumptions and the reopening of the Institute only represents the whims from on high or -more probably- one of our Historian’s impulses of nostalgia. Anyway, in this case, I couldn’t but appreciate that his bursts of nostalgia will have a more effective result than those of this obscure blogger.
But I don’t know. Something tells me that things will not be the same as before. I don’t know if any of the excellent teachers that the Institute had then are still left; I don’t know if, under the current conditions of widespread deterioration, there still will be enough professionals with such zeal for the quality of education; I don’t know if students are as naïve and trusting or if they will have so many hopes as we and the ones before us or the ones shortly after had then. I would like to believe that indeed, one day the Institute with the greatest tradition in this country will once again be what it was and even better. I would like to believe that maybe in that place the illusions of many generations of Cubans will be forged in a possible and relatively near future by the forces of love, will and dreams, and that they may be capable of reconstructing and creating something valuable and permanent on the ruins of Cuba. And, on reflection, I also believe that, after all, it is best that they never be as naïve and trusting as we were.