Post 389.

I’m writing this on the first day of primary school, as I start the school year working and mothering from home. I started out the morning feeling like we were on top of the world’s crisis and able to ascend it like mountaineers on the Himalayas, and by midday was significantly humbled.

Even with practice from last term, and better ideas of how to organize Zi’s time and mine, it’s still demanding.

I now pack Zi a lunchkit so that I won’t be in the kitchen in the middle of work hours, and there’s a table in the living room with access to a computer and connectivity. It’s as enabling an arrangement as possible, which is why the stress I’m experiencing, despite all these privileges, is so important to acknowledge.

Losing my work space, and being unable to switch my mind fully to work, has unhinged my focus, productivity and ability to think. Half of my brain is minding child all day, and ten work hours are not as efficient, and yet are more tiring. I leave my desk earlier to spend more time with Zi because she needs more social interaction. She’s entering Junior 4, so her workload will increase, as will the time I’ll need to put to her homework and revision.

It’s been months since I wrote a column with the luxury of one uninterrupted hour, and so I get up earlier or stay up later to find some quiet. By December, my sentences may read like computer code.

Even with schedules carefully explained and daily chores outlined, one eye has to be on their roll-out. Did you drink enough of the water I packed? How much of the sandwich did you eat? I said to read for half an hour, wasn’t that just 15 minutes? This is how you did your chores? Without extracurricular activities, the hours stretch.

Unless children spend excess time on a device, time has to be filled. As every parent knows, too much quiet is highly suspect, suggesting some surreptitious activity, and little happens without parental supervision even while work simultaneously calls. Unless you are in a two-parent household, an unequal burden of care means hour-by-hour attention in two different directions. Even in two-parent households, many women will put in more care work, with impacts on their mental health, work capacity, other responsibilities and exhaustion.

Last term, Zi deeply missed time with other children, reminding me how much childhood is meant for social development, and outside physical play. I have to figure out how to manage our isolation, because this second time around will likely wear her down. Even if we create a bubble with a school friend, as parents looking out for our children’s well-being, how to ensure safety from risk?

And now that children over eight, in a private car with their parent, must be masked, even taking a drive has become claustrophobic.

All new realities with which children must discover how to cope. Beyond my walls are women who cannot work from home, and have nowhere to leave their children, with no plan from the State nor from employers. Working women with children with special needs. Women whose partners may be essential workers and who, therefore, cannot leave children with grandparents as they used to, because their family is now a risk. Women working from home, with more demanding child care responsibilities than mine, whose employers may not be understanding. Women without the quality of online teaching that Zi will get, who will have to work, care, teach, revise, and balance everyone’s needs at the same time. Women who are not working, whose children do not have internet and computer access, and those who may be living in violent conditions or with others whose behaviour is unsafe. For many of them, this was Day 1 too.

The majority of UWI students are women, and some of these mothers may be in my classes. As I prepare to teach, I’m thinking about Ziya’s context for learning, and adapting to theirs too. This term will be a daily learning experience of how to be more organised, care for families’ health, and stay sane.

I keep telling myself that none of us know how to do this well, or at all. It’s like regular parenting: mostly you improve because you’ve made mistakes.

On just Day 1 of this challenging school year, as a working mother, I’m recognising how much survival will require realistic expectations of ourselves and each other.

Post 291.

Minister of Education Anthony Garcia needs extra lessons on what not to say about the SEA examination.

Last week, he found it important to note, “The student who placed first in this exam, in other words the student who scored the highest, was a male student…For some time we have been noticing that our girls have been outperforming the boys where first place is concerned…From the fact that a boy was able to top the exam, it seems as though our male students have improved.”

These statements reflect appalling and invalid assumptions.

Traditionally, families didn’t invest in girls’ education because girls were expected to marry, be helpmates and be financially provided for by boys. Boys were expected to have access to better paid employment, be able to invest more in their careers, and to exercise leadership and authority in spheres of work more greatly associated with or dominated by men.

That changed over the last decades. We began to think of girls and boys as human beings with an equal right to educational achievement and economic independence. Reforms also significantly reduced gender stereotyping in school content even if it continued to rule the hidden curriculum of girls’ and boys’ socialization.

Are boys’ struggling against beliefs in their natural role of caring for children and greater economic dependence? What’s the basis for emphasizing a boy ‘topping’ girls in the SEA examination? What historical inequality or entrenched sexist ideals are boys overcoming that we want to highlight?

Shouldn’t we also consider the significance of one boy doing better than all the other boys? Does it only matter that he dominated the girls? Why does that matter at all?

Public response to girls doing well in education has been moral panic about emasculation. From girls’ success emerged baseless opinion about women teachers’ inability to be role models for or competent teachers of boys. This insultingly assumes that women cannot be role models for all human beings, and that there is something wrong with boys seeing such adult humans worthy of emulation.

‘Single mothers’ were also wrongly blamed. Greater poverty and absence of fatherly sharing of care and costs are factors, but blaming boys’ exam ranking on resilient mothers managing many challenges again shortcuts to emasculation as the issue.

Is it that boys must have dominant manhood enforced in order to do well? And, if so, what are the implications for girls, who will grow up in a society where, despite their educational successes, about 35 000 women will experience male partner violence in a twelve-month period. Are we prepared to pit boys and girls against each other whatever the costs?

‘The war on boys!’ was a backlash slogan which positioned girls’ beating books as an attack on masculinity itself. As if boys didn’t have a long history of reading, as if school had not always involved hours of sitting still, as if boys and not girls needed more play and active learning, and as if the demands of subordinated styles of teaching were not bad for all children. This view misdiagnoses current schooling as biased toward girls. At the same time, it is unable to explain how boys can still do well.

Panic also extended to blaming girls for doing too well or being too distracting. More than UWI Principal thought it cool to slight thousands of graduating women students by highlighting, not their historical and hard won success, but their apparent ‘outperforming’ of boys, and the expectation that they take on additional responsibility for helping male peers do well. Our message to girls is that their pursuit of power, capability and achievement should not intimidate boys and men, nor threaten the ‘natural’ balance of patriarchy.

Boys’ educational improvements are necessary, but what do they have to do with girls? Should girls not aim for first place? What, besides a moment of youthful resurgent male domination, is being celebrated here?

When we rate girls’ successes in terms of what they mean for boys, we continue to position males as the standard by which females’ lives are understood. This is called androcentrism. It refers to thinking that continually centres men and boys, and protection of manhood as obsessive priorities. Boyhood and girlhood are wholly irrelevant to children’s achievements unless these ideals in some way hold them back.

Headlines should focus on the urgent national concern of thousands of girls and boys whom schooling fails. For them, violence, mental health, learning challenges, class inequality and gender provide more complex explanation for SEA success and failure.