Post 415.

SCHOOL started back this week. I watched Ziya on her first day, following the teacher on her computer, thinking her energy seemed like she had already had enough. I couldn’t blame her. It’s a pandemic and she’s been isolated at home, doing school by herself in our living room for 13 months. Her energy felt like it could start strong, but would surely run down. Looking on, I thought I need a strategy to get her through the next two and a half months of homework, assessments and scaling up of preparation for SEA next year. 

Her marks dropped last term, but so did her class average, and I wondered how to respond. Does quarrelling work? Does that actually motivate? Is there even a magic formula? Is it about more lessons? We went for the long talk about working hard to be proud of yourself, and developing good habits to do well. She’d been through a lot of changes in her family, and had gone through various stages of managing, and it would only be normal for everything to which she had to adapt to have had some impact. 

She was doing everything she should for school, but seemed disconnected from it, like she was attentive, but on automatic while there. Perhaps, not learning among other children left her less motivated. Perhaps it has been harder to separate her school-self from herself at home. I have adult students saying how much harder it is to study without UWI’s library to go to. I’m tired teaching students over a computer and I imagine her just as tired of learning from a screen all day. Perhaps, she is just ten and these are unusual circumstances and this is her best. 

As parents, we are all negotiating the balance between our children’s emotional and mental health, their individual strengths and challenges, and the demand to step up to what school exams still require. I’m thinking about the students writing SEA in two weeks, and the stress even their parents must be feeling. How much to push in a pandemic, and with what costs to our children? I’m thinking about how I’m functioning less well, without quite knowing why. I also think my university students are barely keeping up. 

Studies conducted over 2020 around the world suggest that the home confinement of children is associated with uncertainty, depression and anxiety resulting from disruption in their education, physical activities and opportunities for socialisation. Children are more bored and less engaged. We may miss the signs of covid19’s impact on them. In a Save the Children study of 1,127 students in Latin America and the Caribbean (Dominican Republic and El Salvador), four out of ten children indicated that they needed counselling.

Alternatively, I’ve also seen children Ziya’s age spend vastly more time on their devices, playing games for hours and unable to socialise without them. Now that children are on their computers, phones or tablets, with internet access, they are also on various apps much more, all of which are designed to keep them watching, checking, scrolling or playing. 

These devices have likely helped them to cope, but I think they are also rewiring their brains. This generation is the youngest to have such access ever in the world and, as the Social Dilemma on Netflix shows, there are costs. We cut Roblox after Zi wanted to spend time just to keep up with the children who were playing more hours than her, and socialising there as well. The less she played, the less she seemed to have in common, and all that required adjustment too. We purposely got her outside as much as possible, and off her screen, so that the cumulative impact of being in front a device all day could be reduced. 

A year ago, at the beginning of the pandemic, I proposed in this column that maybe we should opt out of trying to achieve as normal, recognising that children may be holding it together just as we are, but may just be going through the motions, connecting in and out, as it feels that my own students at university are similarly doing. I want to be sensitive to what is happening even as I want both my students and Zi to learn. I’m looking at her on the first day of school, and wondering about the best approach to both her marks and her mental health as well as her school motivation and social relationships over the rest of the term.

Post 411.

ALTHOUGH I am home with Ziya, there are days when she barely sees me. It’s hard to imagine as I make meals, wash dishes, sweep up her pencil and eraser shavings on evenings, supervise homework, and sort out ten-year-old difficulties. Yet it’s not quality time and I fear that this rare opportunity to be together, brought on by the pandemic, will soon pass, and I will have missed moments we could have had. As for so many parents, long hours of work and then exhaustion are like the flow of high tide, taking over time.

When you are not there, you don’t even know what you miss or what you should have been there for, and I think about the sacrifices Ziya makes for my life. I spend so much time preoccupied with violence or other issues, sometimes I can’t switch off early enough to give an hour for us, not to rush her through dinner or to bed, but to listen, counsel and give caring the priority it deserves. She appears quite independent, but needs me more than I may recognise. For those giving to their communities or contributing to social change, there are costs to their families that no one sees.

I had spent International Women’s Day focused on the facts of women’s lives, glad to engage the public in ways I hope helped to inform and inspire. IWD is such an important date for women; we commemorate the history of women’s struggle, the successes of their achievements, the world created through their labour, and the injustices still to transform.

It’s a day when my family shouldn’t expect me to be present, given its usual manic pace. However, events ran late and I missed the Walk Out for Women, an action organised in Port of Spain by Act for T and T, Conflict Women, Womantra, CAISO, Network of NGOs and other organisations to highlight calls for safer transport, a national plan to address gender-based violence, and greater emphasis on peace-building strategies to counter our increasingly violent society.

From the Caribbean Women’s National Assembly in 1958 to the Network of NGOs and CAFRA in the 1990s, each year, women carry the baton.

Whereas I would have rushed into town, everything slowed down. Instead of hustling up Zi as I usually do, I had time to hear her practise piano and see her delightedly play, fleeting gifts I would have otherwise missed. I chided myself that she’s my most important work because she’s a girl growing in a world in which gender equality does not exist.

Changing that world matters; raising a girl to navigate its harms and deceptions, emerge with confidence, and feel connection to her potential as much as to her feelings matters just as much. I suppose I’m better at the first than the second, though finding the right balance takes hourly intention and self-forgiveness. It was a reminder to value, not just public leadership work, but the loving labour of the private sphere, where gender socialisation can be challenged, where social norms are changed, where girls will find their greatest safety and be guided through to resilience.

At home instead of marching to Woodford Square, I found Zi in a home-made scrub extravaganza sourced through the internet. Her latest jar, a green concoction of sugar, salt, food colouring and essential oils, was filled with even greener glitter, the kind that washes down drains and rivers, and into the ocean, killing fish who think it’s food.

Parents can monitor viewing hours and block content, but won’t see every video their child watches. So we sat down and had a long conversation about the internet; how it presents dangers without providing warnings, how children don’t yet have the capacity to sort its good and bad messages, how it doesn’t show the potential harms and consequences of what others present, how adults will deliberately or irresponsibly mislead children, how content isn’t monitored for age appropriateness the way it used to be for television, how anyone can post anything, however fake or predatory, and how she shouldn’t believe or follow whatever she sees.

It was nearly an hour of serious reasoning with a little girl who thinks she knows what America is like from Youtube. It left her better able to protect herself from immensely perilous online and offline worlds she hasn’t begun to understand.

I fell asleep thinking about activism, mothering, costs and priorities. Another March 8 spent dreaming of a different world, and recognition of women’s rights and responsibilities.

Post 364.

Carnival is interwoven with our lives, but representations of it tend to focus on the public and performative. Our narratives also emphasize the big Carnival bands and big musical names. However, as we close this season, I’d like to reflect instead on the little stories we don’t see, particularly in relation to children and family.

On Carnival Friday, Ziya won her school Calypso Monarch competition with her entry, ‘Send Parents Back to School’.

The song was produced by her dad, Lyndon ‘Stonez’ Livingstone, who is a long time DJ and producer. Born into Trinidad and Tobago’s spoken word movement through Rapso in 1998, but having moved away from both poetry and performing as work and motherhood took over, I get a connection to the past through writing calypsos for Zi.

Though our marriage has moved on since the days when he would produce for me, when a DJ and a poet have a daughter, we get to nurture an intergenerational love and engagement with local culture. We also get to be better people and parents from having to come together each year to cooperate for her. Through the growing pains of creating new relationships and definitions of ourselves, it’s no small truth to say that calypso has helped to keep our sense of family together.

For a long time, we looked at our shy, cautious and hesitant child, and wondered if she would grow into her confidence. Now in her fifth year of a little school competition, and her second win, I was amazed to see a blossoming nine-year-old command her school stage; her stance powerful, her delivery strong and her performance bold.

She wanted the prize money, to buy Lego and mint gum, she had developed a sense of ambition and competition, and she was increasingly willing to take risks publicly. Other parents may have similar stories of Carnival’s opportunities for confidence-building, and may be able to say this about drama and sports, but it was calypso that did it for Zi.

There may be much to debate about the value and legacy of these last weeks, but this is one quiet and small story that Carnival has left with me. It’s like this around the country, in pan sides filled with youth, in family mas camps where children learn about the spiritedness of masquerade while still at the breast, in musical homes where young bards begin to follow in elders’ footsteps.

In each of these, there are not simply stories of fete and wine and rum. There are also real moments of separated parents sharing common commitment and joy; of little children learning about Carnival as hard work, shared effort and a labour of love; and the awkwardness of self-doubt blooming into new-found capacity to aspire and achieve.

As so many want for their children, we wanted Ziya to learn about what it means to speak up for her generation and to connect to others so that they can see their reality in what she advocates. We wanted her to see that a hook is a clear message which can signify an historical moment. We wanted her to know that the more she knew about her country is the more resonant her voice could be across time. We wanted her to know that social commentary had to be more than a lament, it had to capture imagination while being accessible to anyone willing to listen.

So, we kept the lyrics simple:

Children, what to say? Like Trinbago gone astray. Crime and violence is the rule. Send parents back to school!

Like adults forget all their learned. Set bad example with no concern. We fed up, fed up not being safe. Parents must learn how to behave.

So put on your uniform, shine your shoes. We giving tests and homework too. First class is basic civics, and revision until the country fix.

Ting a ling ling. School bell ring. Too much adults misbehaving. Ting a ling ling. School bell ring. Back to school every morning!

Tell Gary Griffith, we have a plan to fight criminals across the land, teach about the country we should have, put the future in parents’ school bag!

Children, what to say? Like Trinbago gone astray. Crime and violence is the rule. Send parents back to school!

As critics cross swords over what was wasted and gained, this is a story of Carnival’s possibilities for togetherness and growth.  As a grateful mother of a little girl, this is therefore also a small ode to kaiso.

IMG-3137

Post 324.

IT WAS a brief, breath-held moment of unexpected confidence. As a mother, I felt as if I had managed to do something right. This rare feeling wasn’t dependent on her marks or good behaviour. It came as I watched her be brave as if that’s what she was born to do.

Ziya’s typically a little shy and hesitant, but Friday was her fourth calypso monarch competition at her primary school. We never understood how she agreed to go up on stage in the first place. The last thing she wanted was the awkwardness of public performance and attention, what she described as “too many people watching.”

We figured that, somehow, being the daughter of a DJ and a poet maybe had genetic influence. We thought that maybe growing up in a production studio made her edge a little closer to familiarity with music. There isn’t a clear answer, but she was up there when she was five years old expressing a self that seemed unusual for a girl who would still hide behind me when she met strangers. She stood on the school’s auditorium stage then; small, focused and fixed to the spot, remembering her lyrics.

We sent her up twice more, finding topics that filled a space for children in Carnival and focused on the little ups and downs of their lives. So, her first song, Mosquito, complete with a dance and drawing the interest of the Ministry of Health in their fight against dengue, was followed by a composition about losing her pot hound, Shak Shak, when she ran away one day.

True story: Shak Shak was found a week later far away in Las Cuevas, inexplicably distant from Santa Cruz, and well looked-after. She had, somehow, hopped a drop to the beach and the song found the humour in searching high and low, almost from Tobago to Toco, calling and calling. The chorus, “Where’s Shak Shak?,” got the whole audience to participate in solving this mystery.

Last year, we decided to start experimenting with soca, bringing calypso story-telling to pace and production which children could dance to. Have you ever noticed that there’s no music just for children at Carnival, their own soca genre that draws from the best of call-and-response refrains, and exuberant happiness? We began to aim to create that content.

Though Zi would alternately agree and refuse to compete, as shyness recalibrated with the push of coming second place, in the end she was there singing, Pencil Cases in the Air, a tune about packing your school bag. “Before the school bell rings, every morning check your things: erasers, sharpeners, rulers too, scissors, pencils and your glue,” she listed. Now in her third year, she was bouncing a bit more, tapping her foot on the stage’s wooden floor, but still contained like a child successfully performing what she had rehearsed, not yet able to leap into connecting with an audience.

This year, it’s like she grew up, as children so quickly do, one day more capable at a particular skill than they were before, as if the cumulative effort of years of parenting suddenly met with the right age for another step in life to be conquered.

Singing about the tribulations of having to learn times tables, we wrote lyrics for eight-year-olds, about the pressure of having to know the answer to two times eight, about revising for tests and being up late, and about it being true for every child that, “times tables coming for you.”

It isn’t often that you get to tell a story of Carnival as a space for growing up, whether for children singing, stilt-walking, playing pan or playing mas. On stage this year, she moved like an experienced performer, channelling the humour of Rose and Sparrow, the populism of Iwer and Machel, and the sweetness of Shadow’s horns.

I had never seen her this confident. One day, children grow into a lesson and get it perfect, maybe in English, math, music or sports. Then, if you are a mother who often doubts if she’s making the best decisions or one who quietly regrets her many mistakes, you exhale because such bravery was all you had hoped for, and you give thanks with wonder, rather than pride.

Although this is a story of Carnival, calypso and growing up, and of finally winning through many tries, such momentary magic of together getting it right is one with which parents anywhere in sweet T and T can perhaps identify.

 

IMG-3162