by Rose-Anne Clermont
– Germany –
Before we had our own children, my husband and I began sponsoring a child in Senegal named Absa, a pretty little girl with clever eyes.
We received several letters and pictures of Absa, always showing her in a brightly patterned, cotton dress, pounding millet. The aid workers in her village sent along a check-list: medical exam, vaccinations, clean water in village, school attendance. The list was cursory but a sliver of proof that we were actually helping Absa.
It has been seven years and our children know the pictures of Absa, standing behind a large wooden bowl and holding onto a tall wooden mortar.
Recently, we received a check-list with a blank space next to school attendance. My eyes rested on the latest picture of Absa, now almost a woman, and I wondered what would become of her?
I called the aid organization and asked why Absa was no longer in school. The woman on the other end of the telephone line sighed.
“Most kids in rural areas go to school for three, maybe four years. And girls, well… Her year of birth is 2003. That makes her nearly 15.”
“So she is probably married, is that what you’re saying?” I heard another sigh.
“Or being prepared to be married,” she said.
When I told my husband, he reminded me that we hadn’t donated the money to make Absa live up to our cultural expectations. But I argued that we also didn’t sponsor a girl so that she would become a child bride. Cultural differences aside, was it not clear that uneducated girls led to more poverty? More risk of unreported abuse from their husbands? More isolation? My husband and I looked at each other and felt helpless.
Troubled, I called my mother-in-law (my own wasn’t yet awake in America). She agreed that it was somehow tragic for Absa, but in her calm wisdom, Barbara told me about her brief, informal education. Her most important lessons, she told me, were from life and the people she met along the way. Luckily for her, she had known enough to see intellectual, studied people as teachers. She reminded me that education is a lifelong process that begins with an open mind. But I wondered if anyone in Absa’s world would ever allow her to exercise an open mind.
Like my own mother, Barbara was forced to leave school early. Yet both women re-educated themselves every chance they could get. Maybe Absa, too, might continue to learn, even if she is no longer sitting in a classroom.
In part three of A Current between Shores, Barbara and Renée talk about their educations and the opportunities life has offered them to continue learning.
“For those with money, it is prestigious, for the poor, it’s a way out of poverty. Parents will sacrifice anything for their kids to go to school. Even after we’d been kicked out of private school after my father’s death, it was made clear to us that we had to continue our schooling. When I did leave secondary school early to earn the $15/month stipend from the nursing school, my older cousin discouraged me. She told me that times were changing and that I needed my education. She said I could do things like go abroad and that I’d have far more possibilities in life if I stayed on. But I didn’t have a choice, I needed the money and she wasn’t exactly in a position to help me financially.”
Barbara: “I had a short education. I missed almost a year of school because of the war and my mother was always sick and pregnant with another child. I had a lot of responsibility at home to help her—I cooked, took care of the children and did the housework. My father or mother always wrote me an excuse. I finally left school at 15 in 1949, when my sister Katrin was born. My parents eventually hired a woman from our church to come to our home in the evenings to teach me and my best friend art history and religion. But I was so tired from working all day that I nearly fell asleep.”
What is the first memory you have of wanting to become a nurse?
Renée: “Back then, in Haiti, people didn’t regard nurses very highly. Nurses were thought to be handmaids of doctors, who did everything for doctors, including sleeping with them. My aunt had wanted to be a nurse but her parents didn’t allow it based on that cliché. She became a teacher instead.
“But I always liked taking care of people. So I knew I wanted to work in the health field.
“My sister and I had been living with my older cousin, Bertha, and I remember watching her get ready for work. She got dressed in this white dress, I mean really white, so white it glowed. And then she put on the cap… that’s when I knew that I was going to become a nurse.”
Barbara: “I always wanted to be a nurse, that’s all I could imagine being, what most women imagined being at that time. See, I was naïve and shy. I thought once that I might want to work in a bookstore; I loved literature and poems, but I didn’t have the courage to tell my mother—she thought I was best suited to be a nurse for newborn babies. But I had a terrible skin condition on my hands, which prevented me from doing that kind of nursing. Eventually my mother, who kept pressuring me to choose a career, decided I should become a kindergarten teacher. But I didn’t want to learn the strict Marxist pedagogy they taught in the GDR. That’s when I seriously began thinking of getting out of East Germany.
Were there women role models who influenced your career choice?
Renée: “Tante Bertha was definitely a role model for me, even though she was much older than me and we didn’t talk much. Back then, adults didn’t have conversations with younger people the way they do now. Roles of who was an adult and who was a child were very clear and strict. But she did have a big influence on me becoming a nurse. She was tall and slim and pretty and smart and as a child, I was so impressed by that [nurse’s] uniform.
“After our mother could no longer afford to take care of us, we lived in a house full of women at Tante Emmé’s. They were all my cousins and we called them Tante, because they were older than we were; each of them had some impact on me. I love to sew because of Tante Vanina, who was a seamstress. Tante Bertha was a nurse. Tante Maillote, who was their mother, had been a teacher. Then there was Tante Cécile and Tante Oriole; they all took part in educating us and teaching us important daily lessons.
“Being a Girl Scout also influenced me growing up. We met every Saturday and being together in a community of girls was very important to me. The group leaders, people I still have regular contact with today, taught us a sense of service to our communities, a sense of responsibility, and leadership. Once per year, we went to camp, to the rural parts of Haiti, which was great for me as a city kid from Port-au-Prince. I always looked forward to those chances to get away. I was really disappointed when I couldn’t go to camp during my first year of nursing school.”
Barbara: “As a young girl in the Christian Community, I was in a youth group and had an older friend, a violin teacher. I could always talk to her about intimate issues. I was in my late teens and she was around 24. She was very poised and collected and I could talk to her about women’s problems. She told me to listen to my feelings and didn’t tell me not to try and go to West Germany. She told me to consider my future.
What did you like most about learning to become a nurse?
Renée: “I liked taking care of the patients. I liked having a sense of a future; I knew I wasn’t going to be poor any more. I suddenly had possibilities. But nursing school was hard work. As nursing students we supposedly worked under the supervision of senior nurses, but we were doing the same things they were. We did evening and night shifts and the worst was going to a full day of classes after that. The night shift ended at 7am and we had class at 8am. After six months, we got our caps and that’s when I started going into the wards. By the second year I was already on my own. I matured fast because I had so many responsibilities. Then, all of a sudden, the medical students started flirting with us. And nursing school was the first time we learned about sex education. That matured me a lot, too.”
Barbara: “I enjoyed when the patients were happy. I enjoyed my relationships with the patients in the short periods we could spend time with them. I also loved nursing school, because I could be with other young women. I had always been at home and did the housework and was always responsible for my family. In those two years, I was with other women of my age and interests. Those two years in nursing school were good for me. We had fun, we secretly went out, things teenagers did. But we also worked very hard, doing everything the nurses did and then learning on top of that. I had no idea it was going to be so hard. We had to work on the wards with the patients and we were practically cleaning women as well. We had to wash soiled sheets, wash the gloves after surgery, wash out the gauze. As nurses, we had to work much, much harder back then.”
What was difficult about being a nurse?
Renée: “The first time I had a patient die, it was very traumatic. I had just come on duty for the night shift and I was making my rounds, talking to patients and dispensing medication. I had just checked a patient’s IV—I had just talked to her. Then I went into an adjacent room, when a patient yelled at me to come back. We didn’t have monitors or anything like that. When I went to see what had happened, she was dead. She’d had a heart condition, even though she hadn’t been old. I was completely shocked, but I had to gain my composure long enough to call the doctor. And then I had to wrap her before her body was taken to the morgue and then write a long report. I don’t know how I finished that shift—it seemed so long. Dealing with death does get easier after a while.
“It was even harder when I worked in pediatrics. I left the children one day (with high fevers and diarrhea) and then went back to work the next, and they were gone. That was difficult, because the children died so fast and so often.”
Barbara: “There were patients I really felt sorry for. There was a girl in her early twenties and she had cancer in her leg, so they amputated her leg at the knee. Then the cancer came back and they took the rest of her leg. The poor girl worried that she couldn’t wear a prosthetic and I had to make the situation not seem so dramatic. We weren’t allowed to tell the patients how bad their situation was back then (late 1950s).
“When I worked in the surgical unit, I wasn’t allowed to tell women they had breast cancer. We told them we had to take them into surgery to do a biopsy and told them there was only a possibility that a breast had to be removed. Of course, when they woke up, their breast was gone. Today things are much easier, nurses can be more up front with the patients.
“In nursing school, they told us we shouldn’t let death get too close to us and that we shouldn’t start crying in front of patients. They told us not to let out our feelings. There is a fine line between not letting everything out and becoming hardened. But you also can’t emotionally function when you let each death get to you.”
How did your education continue in life?
Renée: “When we were in America, I went to a community college to learn how to type to help my husband write letters. By chance, I passed by the nursing department, looked in and they encouraged me to come in. They told me I could transfer my credits from Haiti, so I first did an Associate’s Degree, then I decided to get a Bachelor’s Degree, which was hard, especially because of the language. After that, I decided I was finished. Then a friend, another nurse, encouraged me to go with her to an open house for a Master’s degree, but I was skeptical. I told her I was definitely finished with school. I took one course and before I knew it, I had a Master’s degree. That was the best thing I could have ever done. I was able to do more than bedside nursing. I worked as a therapist and broadened my possibilities. I worked on research projects, I published papers. And outside of my field, of course, I learn from people every day. A person never stops learning. ”
Barbara: “I took a typing course two evenings per week to help my husband. It was hard, because it was after working days in the hospital but I liked being in a class and learning something new.
“I may not have had a formal education but I learned so much from special, knowledgeable people close to me. I realized when my children were in school that my general knowledge wasn’t worse than theirs. I never knew the theoretical things they learn in school today but I learned about history and literature through people I met along the way. I took something from every person I had the privilege of knowing and, in that sense, became educated further. When learning stops, then a person is really tired.”
– In Part IV of this series, Renée and Barbara discuss fleeing the countries of their birth and the discovery of new lives. Previously in Part I, they described growing up in dictatorships and their impressions of democracy, and in Part II, both women explored their struggles with poverty. – Ed.
About the Author
Rose-Anne Clermont was born in New York City and first lived in Germany on a Fulbright grant from 1998-1999. She holds a Liberal Arts Degree from Sarah Lawrence College and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Columbia University. She has contributed to Spiegel Online, The International Herald Tribune and, in German, to Die Zeit. She currently lives in Berlin with her husband and three sons.
A Current between Shores, appearing on The WIP as a nine-part series, was conceived as “parallel histories from different worlds.” In it Rose-Anne explores the lives and remarkably similar experiences of two of the women closest to her, Renée Clermont, her Haitian mother and Barbara Kemter, her German mother-in-law. Both had their lives transformed under brutal dictatorships more than 50 years ago. Coincidentally, both became nurses and lived to build new lives, raising their children in different worlds from the ones in which they grew up. Now they are grandmothers to shared children. As Rose-Anne says, “They are teachers and keepers of similar histories that we dare not forget.”