I don’t remember being much of a good student in primary school. I was rarely in the top five, maybe once in a while in the top ten. I remember Common Entrance as terrifying. All I have in my head is a picture of sitting at a desk in a room full of wooden desks, with the bright light from a large window to my right and a ‘lucky’ stuffed toy we were allowed to bring with us in those days, perhaps mine was a white unicorn, in front of me, watching me writing, writing, writing until my hand hurt.
I passed for Bishops Anstey High School, while girls who usually had better marks than me, but didn’t survive that one exam as well as I had, cried and cried when results came out. It’s painful to think about even today, that pressure and those immense feelings of relief and failure, when we were so young. Nonetheless, I never attended high school in Trinidad, instead becoming a Queens College student in Barbados, and later attending three additional high schools in Canada. In all of these, I was undeniably, unremarkably average.
I don’t remember any passion for my subjects or any particular drive to do well. I barely passed physics and chemistry. I feel I like was on automatic, doing school because that’s what adolescents do, not necessarily connecting to a compelling reason, plan or future. I was a reader, and I liked writing poetry, but I had no real hobbies or areas of excellence. My mother most likely despaired, wondering if I’d turn into a delinquent, while I got through reality from shifting locations in my own teenage dream world.
Adults are so different from children that we should reflect on whether they see the world, and our expectations of them, the way that we do. Their inability to connect to our standards and aspirations might not be a sign of present or future failing on their part. They are just growing at their idiosyncratic pace, and partially living in their own world.
Parental expectations can also be wholly unrealistic. We want our children to do well in all subjects as if it’s a national norm for adults to be great at eight separate things simultaneously. By the time we grow up, we accept that we might be better at art and math than biology or creative writing, but we scan report cards with that very measurement rule still in our minds.
Ziya’s only just started primary school, yet parents are already concerned about revising classwork in the afternoons and reviewing term material for assessments, producing a sit down and learn practice, and comparing the percentages that children get at the end of term. I believe in none of these. Afternoons are for self-directed learning, including play. Revising for assessments hides what was actually learned, or not, in class. Sitting still and memorizing book knowledge gives concepts that can be regurgitated without understanding of their applicability or meaning. Percentages are great for knowing how your child performs in assessments, but not whether she or he increasingly loves learning, which is a wide indicator of when students will do well.
Any time spent with our children will tell us how they best learn to think, question, apply and remember, and which skills they have mastered or are still developing. Parents’ job is not to follow the Ministry of Education curriculum, but to do whatever enjoyable activities help to strengthen our children’s’ capacities, without resorting to more school.
All this sounds like letting education slide, but I’m more concerned with our despair when children don’t excel early on. Not all can excel every year for their entire school lives. Not everyone’s academic performance will peak when they are children. They might finally find their feet in university, in a job or in a course that offers an alternative to traditional subjects. That was me.
I began to seriously excel at university, finally. A surprise to many, I ended up with three degrees, plus focus, discipline and ambition. My mother need not have been so worried, and perhaps as parents neither should we. That’s the lesson I now try to live with Zi.