My students at the May Rodrigues Vocational Training Center are called “early-school-leavers,” the Guyanese euphemism for high school dropouts. Every morning, eighty teenage girls giggle and saunter up the dirt road to the school, bright blue ribbons woven through their braids. From Tiger Bay, La Penitence, Albuoystown, they come from wooden shacks crowded with ten or twelve brothers and sisters. Without fail, their uniforms are washed and pressed: four pleats in the just-below-the-knee blue polyester skirt. They iron designs onto the back of their simple white cotton blouses, elaborate geometries expanding out to the sleeves. Breakfast was black tea.
The one-room school has only two full-time staff: a headmistress and a reading teacher. Twice a week, a hunchbacked grandma came to instruct shorthand; a young woman arrives two hours late every Wednesday to teach “Food and Nutrition.” Other girls squint in the half-darkened room—electricity is expensive — to complete a crochet chain stitch or thread a thick needle for a straw-craft mat. I fill in where I can, calling out vowel sounds in my American accent and chalking the alphabet on a piece of plywood painted black.
Our girls are the ones no one else can manage: slow and sickly, or fast and trouble-making. Some had been expelled for having had “story,” incidents with teachers or students in their old schools. Some had been kept home for years to take care of younger siblings. Most can barely read and must learn a trade to get by. But a few of them are just too smart for the overcrowded city classrooms, and are thrown in with the dropouts because there is nowhere else for them to go. One or two are brilliant. The most brilliant one I met was Onica Belle.
“Miss, Miss!,” Onica calls to me as I ascend the wooden steps to the main school house. She is always out of breath. “Miss, for the swimming this week…” Big inhale, big exhale. “Miss, I have to buy swimming costume and Miss, Finella told me some at Bourda market, a lady selling used ones, Miss, but I didn’t see them, Miss, ya seen them? Ya know where to shop them, Miss?”
“Well, I know that the market stalls by the post office…” I start, but she is off again.
“And Miss, for the concert, Miss, I want to do a dance but the other girls sayin’ there’s too many dances, Miss, maybe I’ll read a poem, Miss? What ya think, ya know any poems, Miss?”
Again, I begin to respond, and again she cuts me off, questions filling her mouth. My brain, already pickled by the searing midday heat, gives up quickly. I lean against the railing, sweating and dizzy.