An Interview with Mr. Chris Kent (English Faculty) by Julie Geng, VI Form
JG: What made you interested in Haiti initially and decide to go on the first trip?
CK: When Ms. McColloch, and Ms. Berndt and Ms. Lohwater first developed the partnership, she asked me to come along and join the group. I definitely took a backseat approach and wanted to just observe and wasn’t necessarily as active as I could have been purposefully. I just wanted to see what other people thought this was all about and take the time to figure out for myself what interested me. So I’m not really sure other than just being approached and being asked to be part of the group were what really drove me. I don’t think I had early on a connection with Haiti other than the idea that helping the school seemed a great thing to do. I was definitely impacted by the idea of teachers helping teachers. When I think about our trip, as we come back, one of our goals now is for teachers to help teachers. I think that has to be part of what we do as teachers. But in terms of going last year, I think because I had been so backseat, I just realized that I need to, if I was going to be invested in this partnership, if I was going to ever do anything more than just sit in the back row during meetings, I need to go. I need to see it for myself. So I liked the idea of going with a small group. I like the idea of going with the other school, and it seems like a great opportunity that I didn’t necessarily want to pass up. I kind of went back and forth just because there were so many unknowns. But I think a lot of the unknowns intrigued me as well as made me hesitant at the same time. Ultimately, the desire to want to do more and realizing that this was the way that I could do it.
JG: Is that why you chose to go again this year?
CK: I remember coming back last year and immediately saying, “I want to go again.” And I remember now having that exact same feeling of “I want to go again next year.” Because there is so much to take in and so much to experience. It’s not that there is a feeling of it being incomplete, but that of feeling that there is more to be done. There are more people to meet. There are more things to understand. I love that we got to hear people’s stories this time, something we didn’t get a ton of last year. We heard a couple people’s stories but we didn’t hear how people got married, how people met their significant others. We didn’t get to hear how long they have been on the mountain, and there is so much more left to do. On the flip side, it is a big undertaking and time-consuming and physically, emotionally, and spiritually draining. I had to be ready for the experience. Immediately after last year’s trip, I wanted to go. I was sort of signed up to go, and being one of the few male faculty on the partnership and the only male faculty on the trip. If we take a male student, we need a male faculty. So I am happy to be that. Also knowing that we need someone to drive in Haiti that had been there before. I would not want to have someone to have to be in the position where their first time there they are asked to drive. Because so much of the first few days we are driving through Port-au-Prince, you have to see it. You have to be able to take it in. This time I was much more concentrated on the road than I was on seeing the poverty, seeing the trash, and seeing just how life goes by. How people sell goods on the side of the road, how the motorcycles go by, the different tap-taps. You have to see that. You have to take it in. Having been before I knew that it was important for someone who had been before to drive. I was definitely apprehensive the second time. It’s a lot to leave my family. That’s always a concern of mine. My wife is incredibly supportive. She said, “Just go.” That was helpful but once we left for the trip I was definitely totally invested in going and excited to be going again.
JG: What do you think is the purpose of the Haiti trip?
CK: I think it really comes down to understanding of Haiti, this culture, and their way of life. We talked so much on the trip about slowing down, and I think that’s such an important thing, something in our society and world right now we just take for granted. The idea that we need to move fast, and to go, go, go, go, go…onto the next thing. One of great benefits that we get from this trip is that we have to slow down. We see what it’s like to live in a community that is slowed down. There are struggles with that, too. Realizing that they spend so much of their day getting water. It was Ms. McColloch who said that so much of their life is compromised with just staying alive, getting food, getting water. So little of their life is devoted to producing beyond that. It’s kind of the opposite for us. So much of our life is devoted to producing, and so little of it is needed to survive. The partnership is important because there is no denying that we live in a privileged society and whether that’s America, or St. Mark’s, or the Western developed hemisphere (or developed world, rather). We have to have responsibility as human beings to help others when we can. Because there are always opportunities in times when we need help from others. Sometimes that comes from simply somebody sitting down next to you and teaching you a card game. Sometimes that comes from someone helping you down a hill. We need to learn that as much as we need to offer that to people. Not to say that the people in Haiti need that more than other people, but this partnership program provides us an opportunity to do that with the people of Haiti and to connect with them on a human level. More than we are there to give money to the school, we are there to be human beings with them.
JG: What was the most memorable part for you?
CK: The hike up is always memorable. I know that trail very well even though I have only been on it twice in my life. I think it’s an important walk. The church service is always very important. I remember that from last year’s very vividly and this year’s really vividly. The thing that stands out for me is what I told you guys [on the trip] at the Oloffson – this idea that right now, as we are sitting here talking, as you are writing this, as people are reading this LEO article, that little boy is still getting water today. Just as he was last year. And to think that the same boy who helped me down the trail to see the water source last year, to show as the small trickle of water that comes out of that giant cinder column, that his life is about filling up a 5-gallon jug. So much of his time now is spent filling up a 5-gallon jug and bringing it back up to his family. That’s so much of his childhood. Seeing him and seeing that he’s no longer a child that can sit and play games with us, that we can take pictures of, that he now has responsibility just one year later that seems so important and that seems to define so much of his life at this point. That would be memorable, seeing him.
JG: What’s the most difficult part?
CK: Outside leaving my family, and driving….(laughter) I think it’s the transition back. Just because we do a really job of investing our full selves in the trip and of really connecting. We talked about how school seems so far away, and it seems like we had never been at school at all. Those concerns of homework and grades, and co-curricular meetings, and seated lunches, didn’t seem to be anywhere near our line of focus. To have to go from that and then be back into it. It’s like the world stopped for us but not for anyone else. And to have to answer a simple question like “how was your trip?” simply, because there is really no simple answer to that. I know you understand that. It’s hard to say it was an awesome trip because there were awful parts of it too. There are scary parts. There are people with pump action shotguns directing us to park somewhere. We saw people struggling to survive. We saw people having a rocking dance party and bringing us in. We saw people giving us eggs from their home with notes that said “I love you” on them. We saw some really beautiful things and to try to encapsulate all of that in a sentence or two is really hard. Or to even encapsulate that in words is really hard. That’s the toughest part.
JG: How do you think we can improve the trip in the future?
CK: I think I really like taking the six students. Having four faculty was great as well. Not for supervision purposes, but perspective purposes. Not that I think we treated you any differently than we treated each other. But just that it’s nice to have such a range of perspectives on the trip. Older adults and young adults. I am not sure if at this point I can think of specifics to improve the trip other than just continuing to really make sure that everyone is as well prepared as they can be and that everyone is as open as they can be to the experience. Allowing it to evolve to what it needs to be. I think so much of our focus tends to be on the fundraising part and about how can we help monetarily and how can we help develop economy. It’s hard to balance that with the human side of how can we make stronger connections. It’s a big struggle that we spent two days on the mountain, which was phenomenal, and we got to know the people in Latournelle so well. But our partnership is with the school. It is hard to sometimes realize that we need to help the school and our goal is to help the school. We hope that can help the community of Latournelle because those are the people that we met. How can we get to know the students more? Having pen pals is great. How can we do more of that? How can they know us more? Make it less about what we give and what we receive, and make it more about just connecting and sharing and allowing our world-views to cross-pollinate.
JG: How do you think we can strengthen the partnership in the future?
CK: Having our messages as clear as possible. The struggle with that is clearly defining our own message. It’s hard to put in words what we do there, and it’s hard to put in words what we want to be doing in the future because it’s such a complex, multilayered, emotionally and mentally experience. Just trying to be as clear as we can be and communicating what we do. When we get to the hear of why, we wanted to go. And get to the heart of what we are taking away from this experience, those of us who have been there and those of us who are in the partnership. What inspires us to connect with it? When we can share that with other people, there is no doubt that it spreads to other people to connect, to want to know. We have to, as a community, embrace a goal of giving ourselves to other people. Whether that’s being less self-absorbed in our day-to-day life or whether that’s connecting with a partnership program like what we do in Haiti. At the end of the day, our work can’t just be about Ste. Marguerite’s and Latournelle and Haiti. It has to be about a human experience. It has to be about us seeing an opportunity here to connect with other people on a human level. When people can see that and understand that, then it shouldn’t matter where the partnership is or what the partnership is with. It should matter that’s a need that we all should have.
JG: How can we make the students at St. Mark’s more aware of the world beyond our immediate community?
CK: You challenge their perspective. You challenge their worldview. Some people respond really well to that. I think you guys on the trip did a great job of challenging yourselves and open to that challenge. That’s a huge thing. Not everyone is open to this particular kind of challenge. For good reasons, not everyone is ready. Not everyone wants to take on a challenge in that realm. But everybody needs to be challenged, to step outside their comfort zones, to really think about the world in a different way. We talked about slowing down. I think just that notion of experiencing what life is like slowed down. To reorder your perspectives and the things that matter to you. To think about what would my day be like if the necessities of my life suddenly become luxuries. In order to experience and talk to people that have different worldview and mindsets than yourselves is something everyone needs to do whether they like it or not. That’s not to say that we have to impose this Haiti Partnership on the school, but we need to develop a culture that is more comfortable with stepping outside themselves.
Chris Kent is an English faculty member. He received his B.A. in Literary Studies and Creative Writing from Beloit College and his Master’s Degree in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California. Mr. Kent is the Technical Director for the Theatre Department and a member of the Haiti Partnership Committee. He is currently the dorm head for Maple House.