Friday, January 15, 2010


It is hard to imagine the hell that is going on in Haiti. Last night, I talked about the earthquake with my sons. They thought that 100 people had been killed, not 100,000. We sat on the couch in the family room and I read an article from the front page of the New York Times out loud to my 9-year old. He couldn't believe that the archbishop of Port-au-Prince might be dead. We talked a bit about Haiti's history and Pat Roberston's observation that the Haitian people had originally made a pact with the Devil to free themselves of the French, which is why they have been cursed with floods, earthquakes, poverty and corruption these past few hundred years. My 9-year old wanted to know what the Devil had to do with any of this.

Our synagogue sent out a list of organizations to donate money to and my husband's firm suggested a list of organizations to donate money to and said it would match any donation we made. We will probably give to Doctors Without Border (, the Union for Reform Judaism's disaster relief fund ( and maybe directly to a hospital in Haiti run by Passionist missionaries (

These gestures feel so small and insignificant so I started to think about one of my news reporting students from last semester. He was from Haiti and putting himself through college, through some combination of financial aid and scholarships. I had no idea how or why he had come to the United States; I just knew he was not a great student and had transferred in from another college. Initially, I was so concerned about his performance that I emailed the head of my department to say I was worried he would fail. This student was a good-looking, muscular guy with a big smile. He always came up to me before or after class and said, "How are you, Professor?" (I always had to smile at this because as a part-time adjunct in the English department, I was hardly a full professor, but never mind.)

This student was charming and actively participated in class discussions, but sometimes he looked exhausted. There were times when he had trouble getting onto a computer to see where the assignment was posted. He often turned his work in late. His assignments were often too short. I was getting frustrated with him. But then half way through the semester, there was a sea change in his work. His grammar improved dramatically. He started quoting sources correctly, using their names, ages and titles, and putting their quotes within quotation marks. He turned in the right number of words. Normally, when a student showed improvement in his or her work, I would write an encouraging note with an exclamation point on the assignment and pat the student on the arm as I handed the assignment back. But with this student, I was so ecstatic about his progress that I actually spoke out loud.

"Wow, your work has really improved! This is terrific! What is going on?"
"I'm not working seven days a week anymore," he said. "I'm only working five. I have more time to do my work."
I had my heart in my mouth.

For one of his final assignments, this student wrote about a fund-raising event that had been organized in a church in East Orange. The event was trying to raise money for the children of Petites Desdunes, a Haitian village of 25,000 people that lacked running water and electricity. The village had no hospital or clinic; people built their houses out of mud and wood. ""People use gas lamps, wood stoves, and mostly manual things that do not require electricity or modern technology," the student wrote. "The organization’s first goal was to run electric equipment to more than 580 miles from the city to the village."

This student did a decent job on the paper; he wrote vividly about what Haiti was like and interviewed a wide range of people at the fundraiser. "You could feel the positive energy in the air," he wrote. "It was amazing how almost everybody seemed to know each other or was related to each other."

His writing and reporting weren't perfect but I was impressed enough to give him a much better grade than I ever thought I would have at the beginning of the semester. Of the 19 students I had in that class, this student had shown the most dramatic improvement. Last night, I emailed him to see how he was. I haven't heard back.

Post-Script: My student from Haiti is safe. He was in Haiti on vacation and left on Monday, January 11. "I missed the earthquake by one day," he wrote. "My parents and my little sister are still over there. They are trying to come back. Most of my family members are okay but a couple of them are missing. Communication is really bad down there."

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