School for first through twelfth grades started back last Monday after a winter break of six weeks. So I was surprised to see several kids hanging around during school hours. I concluded that some of the schools must start on different timetables.
Then one of the boys asked if I could buy him "school shoes." He had not started back because the only footwear he had now were shower shoes (flip-flops), and they were not allowed. He showed me the holes in his old school shoes and explained that a previous missionary had bought them for him. I know that he is an orphan living with his grandmother and other siblings. "If I buy you shoes, you will be able to start going to classes?" I asked, and the answer was "Yes." So he went with us to town today and I bought shoes for him.
Next a seventh-grade girl came by my back door looking sad. I asked her what was wrong. I knew that she had been attending school this week, so I expected her to tell me of an argument with a friend or something similar. She told me that "Madam" (her teacher) would not let her come back to school on Monday unless she came in "school shoes." I looked at her feet. She was wearing decent-looking flats. They were made of plastic, but the style covered her foot and looked fine. She said that the teacher had told her she didn't look respectable when she marched and sang the national anthem wearing those shoes. She asked if I could buy her "school shoes." Again, she is an orphan living with her sister and grandmother.
This request made me mad. What right did the government school have to demand that children wear a certain kind of shoe to school? Okay, flip-flops might be unacceptable for health and safety reasons, but Patricia's shoes would have been fine in the U.S. I told her I would write a note explaining her situation for her current teacher, asking that she be allowed to continue to go in her plastic shoes. (She had indicated that last year's teacher had not complained about her shoes.) She took my message to the school, because there were Saturday "extra classes" being held. She returned with the following note, written by the deputy head: "Please help Patricia buy shoes for here we don't allow plastic shoes. We chase away those who have plastic shoes until they buy school shoes. We can give her the stockings, please just help her with the school shoes."
Education is supposed to be free for grades 1 through 7 in government schools in Zambia, but the system does not work that way. By law, the parent-teacher association has the right to impose fees and require uniforms, and they all do. UNESCO estimated that one in five children of that age in Zambia is not attending school, and I'm sure they are counting community schools as well as private and government schools. The only reason a child would not be in school here is the family's inability to pay the fees or buy the uniform.
"Free" government schools are quite creative in finding ways to charge fees--fees to enroll in school; fees for gym clothes and uniforms; fees for study guides and booklets; fees to take the end of term examinations and fees to get the results officially recorded. And, of course, students must buy their own composition books, pens, rulers, and other school supplies. There are no textbooks, just review booklets. School sessions are short, and children are encouraged to take "extra lessons" (for which they pay the teachers) after school. The teachers are so underpaid that they must offer extra lessons to feed their families. It's a terrible system.
I know that we have serious problems with public education in America, as well. In most school systems, our teachers are underpaid and overworked. Families are expected to help with classroom supplies, and in some systems children share books and cannot take them home (at least in Arizona.)
How many pairs of "school shoes" will I end up buying? And when will we wake up to the consequences of the failure to invest adequately in quality education for our children, in Zambia and in America?