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‘You are more than good enough’

Classroom desks; photo on Flickr by Jack Sem, CC BY 2.0.

Editor's Note: On September 9, students across Trinidad and Tobago who recently sat the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) examination—a high-stakes placement test that determines which secondary school they attend—received their results. Approximately 19,645 students sat the 2021 exam, but as places in “prestige” schools are limited, the competition is fierce. In addition, as many of these schools are run by religious boards, there is an agreement—the Concordat—that gives them the right to hand-pick 20 per cent of new students entering denominational schools, regardless of their performance.

The system has long been hailed as inequitable and counterintuitive to how children learn. Writer Shivanee Ramlochan, who has had her own struggles with the country's education system, shared her thoughts about the exam on Facebook. She has graciously allowed us to republish them, below:

I was a rebellious student.

Though I had aptitude and inclination in the language arts, many things about my primary and secondary school experiences frustrated and stymied me, utterly. This wasn't helped by the punitive, shame-oriented discipline methods of many of my educators, and school administration. I was, quite naturally, a precocious and perhaps arrogant young person, but nearly without exception, my worst academic memories have to do with teachers—older, wiser, more experienced—reducing me ruthlessly to tears.

This is to say: there are a handful of passions that were crushed in my body and mind before they could bloom, as a direct result of how I was educated. I am not ascribing “fault” here; on the contrary, being deterred from certain pursuits in the past has only strengthened my desire to invest myself in them now. Still, as is my custom on the day S.E.A./Common Entrance exam results are released, I find I cannot be silent about the expectations, dim and punitive and repressive, we place on our nation's youth.

The newspapers will be strewn today with “top performers,” bespectacled and beaming girls and boys clutching their results slips, flanked by two supportive parents, a vision of nuclear domestic bliss. The achievers will speak of long, frustrating nights glued to textbooks, of the importance of God, of badminton and swimming alongside equations and composition. They will be praised, and I don't seek to take a single thing away from them.

There are many more children today who will feel wretched, holding a slip that announces they didn't pass for their first, second, third, or fourth choice. Perhaps, indeed, they “failed.” Their parents will weep, or shout, or beat them til they don't know whether they're crying from the licks or the lack of love they feel. Their friends will regard them with pity and relief that they aren't in such pathetic shoes. Their lives will seem so bleak that some might be tempted to hurt themselves, to rid the world of the embarrassment they've caused. And these are the children I wish I could give everything to, every assurance, every confidence, every faith in their power and promise.

Today and every Results Day, I wish there were awards and front-page spotlights for the girl who's proud she actually finished her exam paper this time, or the boy who, finally, understood the most difficult comprehension question even though he didn't ace the section. For the pupil who thought they'd fail, only to burst with joy at being selected for a “non-prestige,” yet heartily holistic college. For the twins who never had designs on prestige schools at all, and only wanted to go to secondary school somewhere close to home, with a big grassy field in which they could play cricket and football. All these children deserve praise. Not one of them merits shaming.

The rigid, neo-colonial demands of Trinidad and Tobago's academic hierarchy prescribes one way—one narrow and cruel way—for a child to “succeed.” It posits that unless you go to the “right” preschool, the correct primary institution, the ideal secondary setting, “win” a scholarship and emerge on the other side of this exhausting gauntlet a medical doctor, lawyer, or—barring those two—an engineer, unless that has been your path, then you don't deserve the most praise at the family table come Christmas. I don't need to tell any of you that this is wrong. Yet for many of us, this is how we were raised, whether we grasped the brass ring or let it fall away entirely.

I long for an education system that truly prizes multiple intelligences, and a society supported by media houses and non-governmental organizations that actually actions that praise. I want to tell the children who feel dejected and overwrought with grief, witnessing their cohorts go on to convents and colleges of presentation, that the best thing they can do with their lives is the thing that gives them the most incandescent satisfaction, and that this does not need to be the plumbing of the human body; it can, in fact, be the plumbing of toilets, faucets and sinks. That a life devoid of tort textbooks and lawyer's silk isn't superior, smarter or better than one in which you make superhero-themed cakes for a living, or design postal stamps, or drive big-rig trucks round our island's perilous corners and potholed roads with deftness and precision, or create pointillist-perfect styles on lacquered nailbeds.

Of all these skills is our country made. From garbage collecting to gardening to geriatric surgery, we need them all. Or would we prefer a T&T where 1.3 million doctorlawyerengineers stare blankly at each other, come time to fix a carburetor, visit the theatre, read a novel, install an AC unit, fly to Tobago, or cut stone from the earth?

To the children who feel they have failed:
You have not failed. Even if you have not passed this exam.
You are no less worthy. No less capable. No less anything.
The world is still as much yours as it is anyone's.
You are still, and always will be, a radiant being, capable of infinite possibilities.

And yes, I promise, you are more than good enough.

Shivanee Ramlochan's 2017 poetry collection, Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, was shortlisted for the 2018 Felix Dennis Award for best first collection.

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