Notes on an Educated Black Girl

educated black girl means you have risen above the odds and fought your way out of the hardships that must have defined your life.

educated black girl means you are still somehow, indefinably, less than the other educated girls.

educated black girl means you have to throw off the shackles of your history and culture and language in order to be respected for who you are and not where you come from. (brown girls who speak patois are cute; where they come from, they are taught to demand respect).

educated black girl means when you bruk out it’s shameful. (a few shades lighter would have made it soca).

educated black girl means you have to play a part: long hair, straight hair, cute clothes, keep quiet – everyone loves a woman who knows her place. you are branded a rebel for embracing the texture of your roots and voice. can’t you see you’re making everyone uncomfortable?

educated black girl means knowing that to some people you will either be educated or a black girl.

But never both.

On a related note, International Women’s Day happened last Saturday but we should be celebrating women and talking about (not to mention fighting for) women’s rights every damn day of the year. Educating our girls is important, just like making sure both genders are properly represented in parliament.

This is what happens when you let me go to a Philosophy lecture

This one is a wall of text, guys. Apologies in advance, unless (like me) you like words. In which case, you’re welcome. 

I was a third year medical student pretending to be a first year Literature major, sitting beside a final year Philosophy major from Germany.

It was the best day of my life. 

Some of my classmates are using the four weeks’ holiday we’ve been granted to rest and reflect. Some have been using to to prepare for the annual third year production, Smoker. Some have been using it to prepare for their upcoming clinical rotation.

Today, I used it to sit in on lectures in the Faculty of Humanities and Education. And it was amazing. My ardent admiration for Literature, notwithstanding (Austen fans, see what I did there?), today I discovered the dearth of possibilities that lay open to most other university students (with the possible exception of students from the Faculty of Law): the almost limitless variety  of classes and courses that can wind up creating a one-of-a-kind bespoke first degree, and not just the one-size-fits-all paper that most students leave university toting.

I am absolutely green with envy at the students in Humanities and the Social Sciences who are restricted in the course decisions only by credit allowances. UWI is an all-you-can-eat buffet, and medical students are on a water-and-lettuce-leaf diet. Everyone else is given a plate and told to fill it as much as possible. So many of them waste so much of their plates, just leaving the space empty, when they could have topped it up with the study of languages, culture, psychology, gender, literature. Or is the lettuce leaf just greener on that side of life?

I want to rail against the university for the vacuum they’ve given us to study in, for how limited our options for real enlightenment are. These foundation courses that are meant to give students the benefit of a multi-faculty education are compulsory, true. But they have a pass mark of 40%. They only require 4/10 of the effort. They only need you to know 4/10 of the concepts and information that are being rigorously dissected by some other student doing some other major in some other faculty.

I am upset that we are allowed, encouraged even, to study one subject exclusively. Is a liberal education the opposite of this? Where can I get one of those?

I think the well-rounded university graduate is a myth. Called into being by some employer who wants a business grad with a working knowledge of computers and human behaviour.

The issue at heart is the cycle of invalidity: the undergrad freshman wants to make money when he/she graduates, the university needs marketable graduates to maintain its credibility, and of course society stigmatizes the liberal arts graduate as un-properly-educated and unqualified.

When will we recognize the relevance of every subject? When will we stop subjugating one discipline for the veneration of some other? (Philosophy-for-Science, I’m looking at you). In short, when will universities, as social institutions, create an environment that is suitable for developing the cornucopia of human minds it professes to cater to, instead of trying to jam every peg – square and otherwise – into one round hole?

Perhaps when philosophers stop teaching philosophy and start leading governments. Perhaps when doctors stop treating bodies and start healing psyches. Perhaps when students stop being simple mind-jugs waiting to be filled and start being critical leaders of social change.

Most likely I’m asking for too much, and much too soon.

Mental Slavery: GSAT is kind of like segregation

I have nothing against prep schools – some of my best friends went to prep schools. I also have nothing against the so-called traditional or non-traditional high schools. I do have something against people feeling like they’re better than other people, and that comes out a lot here.

So Grade Six Achievement Test results came out last week, and as usual children and parents went through a Miss World-scale gamut of emotions, from bitter disappointment to the heights of ecstasy. This year, however, the Ministry of Education conspired to throw a few unexpected twists into the usually simple equation.

Pictured: GSAT reactions.

Along the lines of 2 + 2 = 4, GSAT placements have always been something like Rich Parent + Private Prep School = Child in Traditional High School. But in a effort to equalize the system (and reduce the burden on these so-called traditional high schools), Minister Ronald Thwaites has announced that students with high averages will be dispersed equally among all schools. What this means for Rich Parents is that their darling, prep school-coddled prodigy will not automatically gain a place in the handful of traditional high schools. The horror.

traditional high school n. colloq.

In Jamaica, most of our high schools are older than we are as a nation. Some of them have been around for hundreds of years and during that time have garnered reputations for turning out high-achieving students. Never mind that they did this through careful filtering of incoming students (the upper class), the majority of Jamaicans nowadays are almost superstitious in their conviction that their child will only succeed if he are she attends one of these schools.

This means that every year these schools are flooded with students who have GSAT averages in the nineties, not to mention the transfers from other schools whose parents want to buy them a better shot at excelling academically. The Minister’s heart is in the right place, but plenty of parents are feeling shafted because their child is being used to ‘elevate the system’ (actual quote from the Gleaner article). Frankly, I find it utterly condescending that these parents feel their children are too above the system to play a part in changing it.

They’re doing it right.

Because you just can’t continue to allow the majority of high achievers to go to the same schools over and over. What happens to the other schools, the hundreds of other schools we have scattered all over the island? The principal of Sts. Peter and Paul Prep School is crying ‘Geography’ as a limiting factor – but proximity to the school has never been a strong factor in GSAT placements, not even in my day. Parents will send their children two parishes away if they think they’ll be getting a better education there. And, in my opinion, her argument is sorely weakened by this quote:

She said another concern was that students were being placed in technical and vocational schools, which required a specific line of study that they were not prepared for.

Which is a fancy way of saying, ‘We trained your children to be academicians, not much good for anything else.’

. . . and this quote:

“The children are crying. They feel as if they have failed,” she said.

Whose fault is it that these children perceive non-traditional high schools as failing schools? It is a failure of the education system if children feel they cannot succeed in any environment they are planted.

This whole thing is just another manifestation of the blatant classism that is the fabric of our society. By virtue of our own ill-founded biases, we’re perpetuating a hierarchy that elevates the elite and devalues the real life situation of the common man. We’re still telling ourselves that we need to send our children to Eurocentric schools in order for them to get anywhere in life because the schools without a history of segregation and subtle racism simply aren’t good enough.

At the end of the day it boils down to (as all social and cultural problems in Jamaica boil down to) changing our mentality, the way we perceive things. And people are going to put everything they have into resisting said change – especially those who benefit most from the current state of affairs – but there is no way we can move forward by clinging to old ideas. The Hon. Robert Nesta M. really knew what he was talking about when he said,

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds.


University, exams & student protests

Protests last Monday on the UWI campus in Mona

It’s been making the rounds lately that certain UWI students are disgruntled (to say the least) about the way UWI has treated them. The university has barred them from sitting examinations because they haven’t reached any kind of satisfactory agreement regarding their tuition fees (and in some cases boarding fees). To add insult to injury, the university is also giving all students who can’t sit their exams because of non-payment a default grade of ‘F’.

The way I see it this situation stinks all ’round. UWI has been letting payments slide for ages, but they can’t afford to do it any longer. Times are getting hard. Meanwhile the same students who have been skipping on tuition either (a) genuinely can’t afford it or (b) are just abusing the system to get a free education. Obviously students who fall into category (b) are the real culprits here, but the good have to suffer for the bad.

The fact remains that at least in Jamaica education is a privilege, not a right. Does this need to be fixed? Yes, of course. Is it going to be fixed any time soon? Probably not. In the meantime what we’re stuck with are students with an overgrown sense of entitlement and a university that is struggling to pay its bills.

What this adds up to is angry students forcing their way into an examination room, not to sit the exams, but to demand that the students who haven’t been barred join them in their protest, then proceed to wreck the place when they don’t comply. I don’t care how self-righteous you think your cause is, you’ve got no right interfering with other people’s education. What’s next? Demanding free health care, then interrupting other people’s surgeries when you don’t get your way?

I am all for social activism, conscientious anarchy and good, old-fashioned antidisestablishmentarianism, but the innocent should never be casualties in your war against The Man. People who worked really hard to pay their fees on time while still cramming for exams shouldn’t have to deal with the added stress of violent protesters and rescheduled sittings. The collateral damage was just too high.

Your hearts are in the right place, guys, but will the end justify the means?

{16} 11 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About School in Jamaica

Thanks to Freshly Pressed and Rachel Shae’s post about school in Korea, I now have a topic for discussion in Project 52 today.

I find it nothing short of hilarious that the school conditions in South Korea could be so shocking, especially since
that’s exactly how I grew up in Jamaica. So I’d like to throw this one to the winds as my own two cents. Fellow yaadies, have a laugh.

11. An Overview
Our schooling system closely follows the British, so we have primary school (grades 1 through 6), high school (grades 6 through 12/13 or forms 1 through 5/6) and then tertiary education which can be either college or university. Before primary school you’ve got kindergarten/prep school. Oh, and prep schools are a fancy way of saying ‘private primary schools’.

10. Transportation
Students take public transportation. As early as infant school (somewhere between kindergarten and grade one), kids are going home by themselves. Some kids get picked up by parents or a hired driver, most kids take a bus or taxi home. School buses? Nah, those are for under-age drinking and other illicit activities (like statutory rape).

Schoolgirl don't ... inna de school bus

09. Lunch
Apparently kids in the States really do get stuff like chicken fillet, hamburgers and pizza for lunch. (Split second research findings courtesy of the US grad & undergrad students sitting right next to me). At my primary school – and I think this is true for most if not all primary schools in Jamaica – we got rice and peas and chicken. Standard fare whether you’re dining at home, a restaurant or a homeless shelter (the only difference is the price).

08. Extras
We don’t study any foreign languages in primary school. I know that prep schools (i.e. private schools) will offer Spanish as a foreign language, but in primary schools the teachers had their hands full trying to teach native English speakers how to speak English. Extra classes were practically mandatory once you got to Grade Six in order for you to get into a good high school. Co-curricular activities were also limited to things like dance, drama and speech, with primary school groups performing in the annual Jamaica Cultural Development Commission Festival Competition. This was a Big Deal. When you were in JCDC, you got out of class, you got out of exams and you got trips to Kingston. It was awesome.

07. Punishment
Corporal punishment wasn’t just spanking or slapping. I’m talking full on whacks with inch thick leather straps when we misbehaved, back-talked or when we were just plain stupid. Didn’t recite your times-tables with the rest of the class? Here’s three licks with the belt. As a form of discipline, I have to say that belt was single-handedly responsible for making sure we all toed the line. There are many arguments against beating kids, but I find most of them stupid. Kids don’t listen to reason or logic, or bribery tactics or threats. If you tell Timmy not to stick his hand in the fire and he goes ahead and burns his fingers, he’ll never do it again. Know why? It hurt. If you tell Timmy not to play in class and Timmy starts a game of tag, Timmy won’t do it again. Know why? Because he won’t be able to sit down for a week, that’s why.

Yeah, it's like that.

06. School Days
Primary school used to start at 8:30 and end at 3:30. This was not a big deal. We would get a break in the morning and then an hour of lunch. There was a lot of stuff to learn, and the teachers spent most of this time drilling important lessons into our heads that we subsequently forgot the next summer. (In fact, most primary school kids (in Grade 5 or 6) know way more about things like Geography and General Knowledge than their high school counter parts. This is because the Grade Six Achievement Test (a placement exam for high school) is focused on cramming as much information as possible into your pre-teen’s head.)

05. Uniforms
Of course we had to wear uniforms. I don’t see the big deal about sending kids to school in clothes they picked out themselves, or parents having to buy new clothes every so often because their kid feels inferior to someone whose parents can actually afford them. We wore uniforms straight through high school into Community College. No make-up, no jewellery, no outlandish hairstyles, no colour in the hair. Of course we found ways to cheat the system; lots of girls ended up being sent home with skirts an inch above their knees, coloured contacts and nail polish (yes, even the natural one).

It's nothing like that.

04. Teachers and students stayed in the same class.
The way classes were structured meant that one teacher had control over one class. Grades were streamed (according to your academic performance from the previous year), with a teacher in charge of each stream. The students would turnover every year, but the teacher stayed the same. That one teacher was responsible for teaching us Language, Science, Math, Social Studies and the elusive art of discipline. Some teachers failed spectacularly, but it’s no wonder why primary school teachers are a rare species these days.

03. Janitors, what janitors?
Back in my day, we called ’em ancillary staff workers. It wasn’t their job to keep classrooms clean, it was ours. It was always our mess, and we could and did get very messy. What else do you come to school for if not to learn how to keep your house clean?

We raise our girls right.

02. Vacations and holidays
Midterms were the best things ever in primary school, but by high school the term had taken on sinister meaning. Midterms were holidays in the (you guessed it) middle of the term. By high school, the teachers started pairing these blessed events with hideous exams. We got Christmas and New Year’s in December/January, and the summer holiday was generally two months. Month-long summer classes were optional, but most kids ended up going anyway because their parents didn’t have anything better to do with them.

01. Graduation Ball
At the end of your five years of high school you were rewarded with a long and generally boring valedictory service as well as a long but remarkably less boring Ball. Here we use Ball in the loosest definition of the term, to mean ‘dancehall rave’. Guys and gals would dress up and fork over a couple thousand dollars to eat, drink and dagger well into the morning, all chaperoned by responsible teachers. Of course.

Actual footage of an actual high school ball. Probably.

A lot of public high schools were single-sex. In fact, most state-owned schools (including primary schools) started out as a single-sex and quite a few of them continued that way. This led to the formation of brother/sister schools, and needless to say quite a bit of Flowers in the Attic action.

Welcome to Jamrock. ♣