Despite the Guantánamo Bay base’s military purpose, it has also been home to a number of children over the years. In 1931 the W.T. Sampson School was founded to accommodate the children of military personnel and continues to operate today. The school was closed and students evacuated to the mainland during three periods of intense mobilization at GTMO: World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the refugee crisis of 1994-1996. Other notable dates for the school were 1941, when the school divided itself into an elementary and high school, and 1976, when it joined with other base schools into the Department of Defense Dependents School system (DoDDS). Today the elementary and high schools have a population of about 100 students each (http://www.am.dodea.edu/cubaweb/Schoolinfo/About.html).
The small and remote nature of the school and community has produced extremely intimate surroundings, giving rise to the description of the residential areas of the base as “like going back to the 1950s” (http://www.stripes.com/news/at-guantanamo-a-dodds-school-unlike-any-other-1.80788) and “a modern Mayberry,” after the idealized rural setting of the 1960s’ sitcom The Andy Griffith Show (Jonathan Hansen, Guantánamo: An American History, 235). While such neighborly surroundings can be considered idyllic, they can also be regarded as suffocating. There are extremely limited possibilities for students to leave the base to socialize with students from the mainland United States or Puerto Rico. Cuba, of course, is off limits. In fact, even an academic knowledge of Cuba is limited: there are no courses on the history of Cuba in the DoDDS curriculum (http://www.dodea.edu/curriculum/socialStudies.cfm?cId=courses), although a Puerto Rican history class is offered. There is a Host Nation Studies program for the elementary school students (http://www.dodea.edu/curriculum/hostNation.cfm), which is intended to introduce small children to their host country’s language and culture, though it does not appear that the students are actually taken on excursions into Cuba like children in several other host countries are.
The problem of isolation is not lost on administrative and childcare professionals. A former principal of W.T. Sampson expressed concern over the social preparedness of her students (http://www.stripes.com/news/at-guantanamo-a-dodds-school-unlike-any-other-1.80788). While there is much anecdotal evidence that the seclusion of the base produced alcoholism in the adults who arrived there from the mainland (Hansen, chapters 4-7), there have been no official statements made as to isolation’s effect on individuals growing up at Guantánamo. However, there is as much positive anecdotal evidence as negative. JoAnn Hawkins, who attended elementary and high school on the base through the 1950s and early 1960s, wrote in an email to this author, “when the gates were open [we] had many Cuban friends so [we] never felt isolated,” and even when the base became closed off, multiple school activities kept her and her friends in a social atmosphere. To her, living at Guantánamo was not very different from living in any small town in the United States.
Though, as with any small population, the demographics of the school do not necessarily reflect the demographics of the United States as a whole, as the above pictures suggest. This, coupled with the lack of education about Cuba, can be viewed as an extension of the imperialist policies that brought the United States military to Guantánamo Bay in the first place.
Posted by Victoria Sheridan – MA Candidate at Rutgers University
Rutgers University is participating in the Guantánamo Public Memory Project‘s National Dialogue and Traveling Exhibit. Opening at NYU’s Kimmel Center for University Life Windows Gallery in December 2012 and traveling to 9 sites (and counting) across the country through at least 2014, the exhibit will explore GTMO’s history from US occupation in 1898 to today’s debates and visions for its future. The exhibit is being developed through a unique collaboration among a growing number of universities as a dialogue among their students, communities, and people with first-hand experience at GTMO.