Maître Jérôme woke up from his sleep drenched in sweats, in the throes of a nightmare, with fright, disarray, and even panic as the events of the dream were so vivid that he began to shiver. The reality portrayed, the warped conclusion from an analysis of a flawed system spooked him. As often happens in a dream, the storyline’s rhythm followed its own path in space and time. He was an observer looking into a documentary, his biopic, all in such real time sequence and with such verisimilitude to give him cold sweats by just watching.
The first scene was at church on a Sunday morning for the 8 o’clock mass. His seat was empty. The one he usually occupied in the first row on the right facing the apse. A narrator’s voice came to explain citizens’ concern about this conspicuous absence. “Maître Jérôme never misses mass, be it the 5AM during weekdays or the 8AM on Sundays. He was such a fixture that no one dared to occupy his seat.” The narrator continued, “His absence from service was as strong a sign of a bad omen as there could be. Everyone knew that nothing good would stem from Lionel coming back to town. A school dropout and a vagrant for a good part of his adolescent life, he had left the area a few years ago and rumors had him enrolled in the dreaded security force of the local congressman and he had developed the reputation of a thug officially sanctioned. That security force was in essence an armed gang and the new paradigm was a collection of power-hungry grifters, in public offices doubling as warlords. Lionel had the plum position as head of the local henchmen. As soon as he had set foot in town, he made the comment that a new sheriff was in charge and as a de facto Caesar, he would shake things up, beginning with the so-called educated gentry. Such pronouncement had the ring of blasphemy in this devout community. Maître Jérôme was the symbol of educated gentry. That public stance, expressed in a pithy manner, contrasted with the elaborate, long-winded rants he was wont to and known for.”
The next scene portrayed Lionel in his youth living as a vagrant, a kokorat, after flunking out of school. With his comrades, he was bitterly complaining about the grudge he held against maître Jérôme who gave him an F for the French class due to a poorly written composition. He kept ranting about that and the whole educational system. He was also shown throughout his years growing up becoming street wise, catching up all the bad habits therein and the survival skills necessary to remain alive. He had choice words for teachers and the smarter set whom he called vermin and unproductive. His vitriol reached fever pitch when he expounded on the flaws of the system. By his telling, “This is pure nonsense. Our mother tongue is Creole. That’s what we speak and understand. We are being taught in a foreign language called French. How can we understand the stuff? Them that understand and speak it are full of themselves. They think they are superior to us.” The voice chimed in “His invectives against the educational system, and by extension its enablers, blunt as they were, were stroking a raw nerve and even had the sheen of a well-thought out analysis. The dilemma was in the thread and the conclusion. A critique of a system is not synonymous with a belief of its destruction. The teaching profession does too much good and is such a fillip for one’s personal flourishing that it should be venerated, applauded, protected, celebrated and not defiled, sullied, degraded or debased. In a very Haitianesque way, a cherished profession was now being scorned and held in effigy of opprobrium. Instead of student eager to learn from teacher, an animus had taken hold, fed by an angst, nurtured by a personal insecurity. People who ought to be natural allies were now on opposite sides of the barricade.” Picture of his comrades clapping in support of Lionel’s comments filled the background.
The scene after brings the voice again, explaining the reason for his absence from church, “Lionel and his goons paid a visit to maître Jérôme at his house the night before Sunday’s mass.” This was followed by actual images as they ransacked it and gave him a drubbing, leaving him with bruises. Maître Jérôme watched himself speak, “What have I ever done to you to deserve this?” he asked Lionel. Instead of an answer, Lionel slapped him hard, splitting his lip. “You intellectuals always think you know everything, always looking down on folks, that’ll teach you a lesson, teacher,” Lionel offered as food for thought. “ ‘Looking down on folks,’ resonated long after the physical abuse, a rebuke with a sting more painful than the searing throb of the blows,” the narrator mentioned. Maître Jérôme was in the position of watching the actions and listening to a narrator reading his mind as he said, “Maître Jérôme is the last person to ‘look down on folks.’ He had gotten in trouble for cozying up with the less fortunate. He took the accusation as a moral letdown, an indictment of the first order for he always wanted to fight for the cause of the have-nots.”
That last sentence brought the viewing to its end and he awoke in that between and betwixt state, not knowing if this was real, made up or a prediction of events to come. He certainly was shaken, not sure if this was an omen, an epiphany, or just a bad dream. The omen or the epiphany were the real issues. He knew firsthand about the lot of the impoverished. He didn’t know the extent of the resentment brewing in some corners. Misguided as far as he was concerned since he wanted nothing more than help the underclass escape the morass of illiteracy and open doors for opportunities.
Bad omen was a more likely possibility because he was witnessing daily the pitfalls of the broken system. Nonetheless he couldn’t help but wonder about the potential danger of slighting real students, defeating his constant, unbidden commitment to molding minds in a healthy manner. His lifelong dedication to transfer knowledge was being questioned. This type of rejection, however imaginary, was dismembering rather than dovetailing the seams of his life’s work at a time when he was putting the drying ink on a critical essay about the very shortcomings of the educational system.
All he could think of was the irony of the society he was living in. A society that from afar in the days of yore that craved liberty, economic parity, thirst of knowledge but in reality, up close, was not practicing what it was preaching, allowing too many without access to education. Far from solidifying the principles of freedom, it has long ago accepted the notion of repression, suppression of independent views, human’s rights. Instead of building roads leading to freedom, it was allowing the independent, parallel, burrowing of tunnels of ignorance overtaking the diffusion of education. This was a perfect storm where nonfeasance begat misfeasance. As a result, knowledge, scientific inquiry fell by the wayside, casualties of such malfeasance. Maître Jérôme felt guilty. Guilty being part of a system allowing lack of access to education of numerous Lionels. Guilty while acknowledging the mushrooming of so many ruffians, some of them once his students.
The tunneling phenomenon in a sense was creating a vortex. It was similar to a rapid flow in a funnel leading to a dead end into the abyss. Maître Jérôme wanted to sound the alarm, in a clarion call to warn us that this tunnel was a hazard, a dire threat to society’s welfare lest it be riven, disintegrated, on its way to oblivion. Usually such disruption carries social upheavals costing lots of lives.
This tunneling and vortex situation has lasted far too long. The clarion call should be everybody’s concern and duty. The nightmare unfortunately is being lived daily. We ought to emulate maître Jérôme.
Reynald Altéma, MD