Post 229.

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.

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Post 205.

Growing into parenthood is truly an opportunity for life-long learning.

As you prepare your little sapodilla for that memorable moment of starting primary school, you learn that your skills are really not up to that sticky, plastic wrap, book-covering thing. You learn from a next mother (for it seems that it is moms who cover children’s books), and after you paper all the copybooks in brown paper,  that they are sold already covered in plastic. So, you tell yourself you had planned it so to be more environmentally-conscious anyway.

You learn that you can actually iron those tiny school uniform pleats with love in the days before primary school finally starts, even though you hate ironing, and you know that you will likely not iron with such love by week five.

You learn to make new friends with parents with whom you may have nothing in common, but the collective, educational welfare of your children, and the fact that you will attend more of their children’s birthday parties over the next year than adult dinners, drinks or fetes.

You learn you might be the only parent who thinks its scandalous that the mandatory school swimsuit for a four year old costs $45 USD, precisely because education should rely on low cost resources unless those costs are for the best books, labs or musical instruments, and you realize, in a suddenly less naïve moment, that the children of UWI lecturers might be the poorer ones in the classroom.

You learn how to manage your self too, your philosophy and your ways of securing the kind of education you want for your child. I couldn’t find a school that didn’t believe in tests, homework, hierarchical ranking of students, or the idea of learning through competition, rather than in relation to their personal best. All of children’s educational experience from Reception is geared toward that master-test, the SEA, itself a grand, nation-wide, hierarchical and competitive ranking and, eventual, class stratification.

And while we think that discipline, structure, examinations, conformity and competition are the core principles of learning, I’d prefer to see care, cooperation, creativity, acceptance of eccentricity, and fearlessness for nonconformist experimentation emphasized, as these are historically the bases for art, activism, science, philosophy, invention and ecological conservation

So, I know I will have to learn how to negotiate my own values of alternative education with those of Zi’s teachers in a way that puts first her ability to feel at home and forge an enabling relationship with her school.  Zi’s already asking if its okay to make mistakes in her school work, just as she’s asking why its important that her hair be so neat, just as she’s already looking amongst her motley belongings for a present to take for her teacher, just as she asked me to let Miss know that she’s scared of the big children because they are too rough, just as she wants to know why no one else besides me thinks God shouldn’t always be referred to as ‘Father’, for that’s a hidden curriculum in every assembly, just as she will learn to identify who writes, reads or adds well, hopefully realizing children should help rather than judge others with weaknesses where they have strengths. So, listening, I’m aware of this new experience as a complex one for her, and the reflection it requires of me.

As always, there is labour and logistics. There is love and letting go. There is taking the best of what is offered while protectively nurturing a sense of the right and capacity to challenge the status quo in the best ways, based on what most creates confidence and independence, as well as instincts for justice.

There was pride and nostalgia shining like morning dew in mom’s eyes this week as we watched our children step away and into a new experience. Zi entered a school and class I was in, at her exactly her age, thirty-seven years ago.

Life long learning as a woman and mother over that time have brought me this far. As my sapodilla grows with each school lesson, her challenges will also challenge me to best support her learning, as well as her individuality and empowerment, in a holistic, harmonious, healthy and honest way. In this educational experience for us both, I guide, but she’s leading the way.

Post 197.

‘And you want to be a feminist?’, the well-known pediatrician and fellow columnist asked me, I hoped rhetorically.

As Stone, Ziya and I entered in his office, he eyed Zi’s bottle of diluted cranberry juice the way US customs officials profile suspected narcotics traffickers as they step off the plane.

‘No more processed juice’, he declared, like entrance rules of a worm-hole to some healthier space-time. ‘It’s processed?’ I countered, because I like to think we buy healthy. ‘Did it come in a box, tin, container or carton?’ he spelt out, because obviously it did. ‘It’s processed unless your squeeze juice from fruit yourself’, he concluded, because clearly we hadn’t.

Then, he seemed to stop himself from starting a radical, anarcho-feminist, anti-big pharma, anti-global-food corp critique, one he had no doubt been championing since the 1970s. Instead, he simply outlined that big companies fool us into thinking that what we buy is beneficial instead of defined by chemical colours, acidifying preservatives, emulsifiers, and harmful processes, especially for children. Just read labels. I mentioned that Zi has Kellogg’s bran on a morning with banana and, I swear, it was like watching Harry Potter bristle at a Death Eater.

I appreciated his hard core line on what we should feed our children. Like Zi’s teachers, who chastise parents for sending chocolate, fruit snacks and cookies instead of real fruit in lunch kits.

Except at birthday parties, Zi doesn’t access soft drinks, or eat those biscuits, Kiss cakes or other packages of salt, sugar, sorbic acid and various four-syllable poisons. I’ve stood in the Pennywise hair products’ aisle wondering, if I died tomorrow, who would take the time to buy her shampoo without sulfate. I pointlessly rant, as I am never home to do the cooking, about the harms of canola, corn and soy oils, and pointlessly insist, as I am never home to do the grocery shopping, on us buying more costly grapeseed and cold-pressed coconut oil.

Zi’s vegetarian because twenty years ago I read so much on the horrors of meat production that I was done. If meat was raised in somebody’s backyard on grass, that would be different. But, what we buy has often been raised with antibiotics, growth-hormones and genetically modified corn, usually in stressful conditions, and we don’t yet know what long term harm that does to children. Finally, she has never had milk because so many children are lactose-intolerant, and milk is the cause of far too many rashes, infections, upsets, sinus irritations and allergies.

We sought the doctor because Zi was suffering from mosquito bites that she scratched into sores, which wouldn’t heal for weeks. ‘Cut out juices and other products with sugar, including overly processed brans and granolas as well as cheese,’ were our final pediatric instructions as I imagined the Mission Impossible soundtrack ricocheting around the room.

It’s here I felt justifiably overwhelmed. Fresh juicing, baking with unrefined flour and buying more organic everything seemed like plenty more effort for one woman logging long hours at work. It seemed like even more effort to my pork-loving, three-kinds-of-carbohydrates-on-the-plate-eating, lettuce-as-a-vegetable-counting, skeptical-of-Gab’s-probably-unneccessary-consumption-commandments, but nonetheless supportive husband. Stone and I exchanged one of those married people glances.

‘And you want to be a feminist?’ He contested my politics when I contested his expectations. I knew better than to duel with a doctor whose crew is midwives, and fearless breastfeeding and reproductive rights activists.

Indeed, feminism includes building a healthier world, for us, animals and the earth. It includes giving consumer power to organic farmers and green markets rather than to the handful of corporations that make us stuffed, but starving, with shortening life-spans, and combinations of children’s diabetes, obesity and attention deficits.

If I wanted to be feminist, I’d have to defend the rights of my child, first in my own home, and value the responsibility and power of such reproductive time and labour. My soundtrack would have to be more Thug Life than Nestle, Pepsico, Coca Cola, Kraft Foods, General Mills and Wrigley.

As we left I thought of a joke, but don’t tell anybody. How many feminists does it take to make fresh cucumber juice? Just one! His name is Stone and we love him dearly!