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Happiness Is a Humble, 1-Room Schoolhouse

June 05, 1986|EDITH H. FINE and JUDITH P. JOSEPHSON

TIJUANA — First day in the new school. Children streak across the mud-mired paths to their new electric-green school in a teeming Tijuana dump settlement. Inside waits David Lynch, their American teacher. Magdalena, a striking 11-year-old, scrubs the table with her shawl before sitting down.

"Isn't our new school beautiful?!" asked Lynch.

"Look! It's got a floor!" said Zenaida, 8.

"It's so big ," said Antonio, 13, taking in the 12-by-13-foot room.

"Are you going to put glass in those windows?" said Leticia, 8, as a cold wind whistled through open window frames above.

"Eventually, yes," replied Lynch.

Late-afternoon sun flickered across earth-colored faces. These children, often called sucios or "the dirty ones," exude energy and beauty, despite living in shelters crammed into postage-stamp patches rimmed with foraging pigs, chickens, burros, dogs and squalor.

For residents of Colonia Pan Americana, having a school of their own was a dream until six months ago. Last fall, the children studied with Lynch in a room attached to one family's house. The idea of a school originated with the dump's community organization. The people told Lynch they could build a school if they had $2,500.

After reading about the English teacher at the dump (View, Dec. 19, 1985), several people donated money and clothing, and an anonymous donor played Mrs. Santa Claus and gave the $2,500.

"I read the article," she said. "I decided, 'That's what I want for Christmas, a school for those children.' My reason is very simple. I've been very blessed, and I've lived an enriched life. Having a major illness in my family has put a focus on values. I'm working to instill this same sense (of) awareness in my children.

"I'm participating in a very scrumpy way. David is giving his life."

Today, a school with thin plywood walls and paneless windows stands on a hillside. Half medical clinic, half classroom/community room, the modest building has risen from the mud to bring the dream to reality.

The roughly constructed school may not impress outsiders. But to Lynch, who began his English lessons five years ago with children gathered 'round him on the ground, the new school marks a monumental step forward.

When he first came to the dump, 40% of the school-age children were not in public school and few ever imagined leaving the dump. Today, most attend public school and 90 students study English with Lynch in the afternoons. Now, the children set their sights higher, aspiring for more than living out their lives in the dump.

Lynch, 33, formerly a New York special education teacher, devotes six days a week to his educational enrichment programs for the children of Colonia Pan Americana and two other large Tijuana dump settlements.

What fuels Lynch?

"The most rewarding thing is to see that the things I've started are working. . . . that's what motivates me," he said.

In the quiet classroom, only the scratching of the children's pens breaks the silence. The calm attests to the mutual respect between Lynch and the children. The children shushed each other when chatter erupted. Lynch expects them to listen and follow directions. His teaching style is direct, relaxed, matter-of-fact.

"Ramon, that 'v' is a 'b'," Lynch said. "You need to change that."

As always, Lynch solicits his students' opinions.

"What shall we put on the walls of our new schoolroom?" he asked. When the children shrugged, smiling, he joked, "Well, since I am so handsome, shall we put a big photo of me on the wall?" They giggled.

In his bare-bones teaching, Lynch makes use of whatever materials exist, honing in on basic needs.

"I teach English because this is what the community wants me to do. Parents say English is the skill most important for their children to get a good job in Tijuana," Lynch said.

Lynch projects the sense that, if the people are to survive, they must forge their own way, make their own mistakes.

Building the school was a community effort.

Donated funds in hand, Lynch delegated decisions as to location, materials and design to Miguel Mendoza, president of the dump's community organization, and other members.

"The concrete floor was most important to me," Lynch said. "We're on a hill, so when it rains, we could slide right off."

Six male volunteers from the dump constructed the building, using tools borrowed or scrounged from the refuse piles. Snafus developed--cracks in the rough-troweled cement, gaps between walls and floor, roof nails poking through--most of them due to the volunteers' inexperience.

"It looks like they built it, but the people are very enthused about the school," Lynch said. "There's the feeling of, 'Yes, this is our school.' It was their idea. They volunteered their time and built it. They own it, and are going to use it."

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