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Beyond the SEA

Posted: March 30th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments »

My younger daughter just sat the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA). The exam, which used to be called the Common Entrance, is the be all and end all of every Trinidadian and Tobagonian child’s primary school career. All seven years of primary school lead up to SEA; it determines what secondary school you’ll attend, and by default, if you succeed in school or not.

That’s a pretty harsh and extreme position, you might say. Well, it’s not. While anybody can succeed in life given the right tools and encouragement, the average secondary school child in this country isn’t given either. Most go through the system like a dose of salts, as one aspiring education minister unfortunately said on the hustings during the last election. This year about 17,000 students sat the exam, which starts at 9 am and ends at 12.30 pm and covers English grammar, creative writing and mathematics. Of those thousands, about two or three thousand will end up in schools their parents consider “good”–either the denominational schools that by and large top the secondary school scholarship lists every year, or a well regarded government school, of which there are a handful. Each of these schools takes in about 120-150 students, tops. What happens to the rest of students?

The government some years ago instituted a rule that no child would fail the SEA outright. Instead, the lowest scoring pupils who sat the exam would either return to primary school for another–and another, and another, if necessary–chance to sit it. Those who aged out would go on to government secondary schools with remedial curricula. Those who sat and passed with better scores would go to mainstream or tech/voc government schools. The government also paid for places for students in private secondary schools. All children now go to secondary school. But it remains an unfortunate truth that the majority of those innocents who sat SEA Tuesday will not have the secondary schooling they deserve.

Overcrowded classes, understaffed schools, a curriculum that does not seem to meet their needs, and lack of parental input conspire to leave many of our youths still at sea when they go to secondary school.

As for my child, The Lady, I hope she passes for my alma mater, Bishop Anstey High School. If she doesn’t, I will send her to whatever school she passes for, support, guide and love her and hope for the best. Your schooling is not the sum of your education.

But maybe I get ahead of myself. The results don’t come out for another three months, so she has a nice break from academia–she had lessons before and after school, Saturdays and all through the holidays. She gets a break from hours of homework every single night and the horrible pressure of knowing this was the biggest exam she has ever had to do in her nearly 11 years. And I get to sleep late again. Until she starts Form One, anyway.


Being there

Posted: November 29th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

Friday last week saw me on the edge of my seat at The Lady’s school Spelling Bee finals. The school has just started this school-wide competition and they hope to make it an annual event. The inaugural event was short and decisive; The Lady took the Std 5 championship after stumbling over “magnanimous” in her second round (but all the competitors also missed their words so the round was discounted).

I was overwhelmingly proud of her, not just for winning, but for actually learning over 300 spelling words in preparation for the tournament. (The last round in the finals, however, included words not on the list.) She stuck to it and was rewarded with the win.

Most of the girls who took part in the finals did so under the gaze of at least one parent or guardian, except for one girl who had no parent there to cheer her on. I wonder if that made a difference to her?

In my childhood my parents rarely, if ever, attended my school events. I might come home and announce I had won something, or taken part in something else, and they would be happy in an abstracted kind of way. Coming to those things was not a priority for them.

I wonder if it made a difference to me? I can’t remember. But I know The Lady wanted me there at her Spelling Bee and I made sure to be there on time as she requested. I sat up in front and beamed loving attention to her all through the contest. I think it made a difference, my being there.


fff#28–The strange tale of the pants cat

Posted: October 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: FFF | Tags: , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

I too-rarely participate in my friend elisha’s flash fiction fridays, a kind of writing exercise where you have to write a short piece of fiction using a trigger that she provides. The trigger can be an opening sentence, a closing sentence or a list of words you have to include in the piece. This week she posted an inclusion trigger. Here’s my attempt. It’s not actually fiction, but fmf (flash memoir fridays) doesn’t have the same ring, somehow.

fff#28 (inclusion) trigger:rebellion, fox, strange, mirror, pleasure.

True story: Fennec came to us in pants.

He wasn’t wearing pants. He was in the pants. Brian walked up to me while I was sitting on a wooden bench in the waiting room of the free dental clinic with Najja sitting next to me waiting to take out a baby tooth that was making a rider. Brian had a strange look on his face. “Look at this,” he said, holding open the pocket of his baggy jeans. Two sleepy kitten eyes stared out from the pocket and the barely furry face opened its mouth in a noiseless mew. I jumped off the bench, yelling, “What the hell?!?” A good moment for an interrobang right there.

We called him Fennec after the fox with the huge ears. His ears were ginormous, bigger than his head, nearly bigger than his body, truth be told. He was frail and dirty with scant hair covering his pink skin. His mother had had a litter of 16 kittens but most cats have between six and eight nipples. Not very strange that he was in bad shape.

Brian took the pants off and went home in his boxers with the sleepy kitten still in the pocket of his jeans. Regular feedings of milk-soaked bread gave him fortitude and within a couple of days the creature was toddling around like an actual kitten, peering into the mirror at himself with puzzlement and interest, batting at his reflection and running away with an awkward, teetering gait. Soon he didn’t want bread and milk anymore and was screaming in hunger at the merest whiff of meat.

Countless fleas lurked under Fennec’s dingy white fur, especially in its archipelago of brownish-gray spots running up his back to his tail. After Googling kittens and fleas we learned that although he was probably a little too young for a proper flea treatment we could wage a war of attrition against them with twice-weekly baths in mild soap followed by blow-drying him on low heat. It’s strange to suggest bathing a cat–it never sounded like a good idea–and Fennec, unsurprisingly, wasn’t a fan. A warm bath and chocolate-scented body wash, which was the mildest thing we had around the house, was punishment to him. His rebellion against this inhumane treatment took the form of vicious slashes with his razor-sharp claws and the occasional bite. He really didn’t want to be bathed. Ever. Again. But we did it religiously twice a week for about a month. He still has fleas but far fewer; a side effect of the regular baths was that his fur grew in properly and he was no longer hairless, even if his mammoth ears are still too big for his increasingly rotund body.

The nicest part about bathing Fennec was that afterwards someone would have to put him under their shirt to get him warm because he was shivering so much. He’d curl up around your tummy and subside into sleep, purring in pleasure. Maybe he was remembering how he came to us, snug in the pocket of a pair of pants.


What you don’t read in the baby books

Posted: October 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Editorial | Tags: , , , , | 5 Comments »

Two women I know are embarking on first-time motherhood and it got me thinking: what are some of the things I wish I knew when I was about to have a child?

Maybe the number one thing was that some of those old wives’ tales are true. Every time I look at my very round belly I think, “Why didn’t I band my belly like my big sister told me to?” The short answer, of course, is that I thought that idea was rubbish. Muscle springs back once the baby’s out, doesn’t it? (Uh, no, it don’t.) The truth is unless you’re into some kind of regular exercise with an intense ab workout component, you’re going to end up with at the very least a pooch, or in the worst case, a pot belly. Band it. It won’t kill you.

Breast feeding is not over rated. Do it for as long as you can. It’s the best thing for the baby, it’s cheaper than formula, it’s less work and more sanitary and it’s definitely better for the environment. Breast feeding also helps with your post-partum tummy. (See above.)

Relax. Motherhood is hard, hard, hard. Make sure you take time for yourself and get some sleep. Don’t make your job or husband a priority right now. They’ll keep. The baby needs a lot of attention and he or she will get it, but you won’t unless you make yourself a priority.

You’ll miss stuff in The World while you’re getting used to being a mother. Even when the kids get big, it might happen. Don’t worry about it too much; The World will still be there when you are able to and interested in going to see what it’s up to.

Love your baby. Trust me, this is harder than it sounds sometimes….

Get support. Your mom, in-laws, friends etc will all be lining up to help you. Don’t be proud, and don’t let their alternate ideas on parenting put you off accepting their help. Gently but firmly let them know what you prefer, but by all means let them come and help. It makes life a million times easier.

Babies are expensive. But the money always comes.

What are some of the things you experienced parents out there learned about that you wish you’d known when you were a first-timer?


Terror from the skies…!

Posted: August 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Editorial | Tags: , | 2 Comments »

I want to start a Society for the Extinction of Bats.

Yup, you read that right.

Extinction.

As in, “Population: Zero.”

I know everybody is all into conservation and all that. Whoever wants to conserve bats never had a couple of them living in their house.

Well, to be fair to the bats–a big one and a little one; we call the big one Chester, ’cause he’s like a member of the family now, a hated, feared, avoided member of the family–they were here first. My new apartment spent many years as the semi-abandoned unfinished apartment under a family home. The backyard is the forest, so it’s no surprise that all manner of forest creatures, including a colony of fruit bats, made this their digs.

Nevertheless, when construction started up for us to move in, most of the charming previous residents moved out.

All except Chester and his little furry paramour. Chester seems to resent my presence here, I swear. Why else would he be going out of his way to terrorise me at night? Even as I write this I’m ducking and screaming as he zooms around between the kitchen and the bathroom, the two darkest areas of the house.

My ten-year-old daughter reassures me regularly that Chester won’t hurt me. And my friend Gab echoed her in saying, quite rightly, that unless I look like a giant fruit, Chester won’t be interested in biting me. Still. Have you ever come face to face with a small, furry animal hurtling towards you at eight miles an hour? Yeah. It’s like that. No night-time pee-er is safe. I won’t get out of bed for a glass of water anymore. My own kitchen scares me.

The neighbours recommended incense. Annie recommended loud dancehall music. Sharon recommended putting up foil strips. They worked for a while, sorta. Now I think they just piss him off more. There’s bat poop on some of the foil. As if to say, “Here’s what I think of your little traps, Ma’am!” Gab has recommended moth balls. I’m going to get some. And a bat. A baseball bat. One small volley for Chester, a giant relief for Lisa.


Moving house

Posted: August 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Editorial | Tags: , , | 6 Comments »

So the last few weeks of my life–nearly a month, now–have been consumed with moving house.

I lived in Diego Martin for about six years and my rent increased pretty much annually. This year I knew I had to make some changes, because, despite quitting my regular job to take a chance on the NGO I founded, I plan to send my elder daughter off to school in Foreign. Do the maths: less income and more expense. Something had to give and that something turned out to be rent.

My new apartment is still a work in progress. It is a two-bedroom in Petit Valley (in the kind of neighbourhood that had the kind TSTT lady saying, when I called to change my service address, “You sure you want to live there?”) and so far, so good. My younger has school friends in the area and, to be honest, once the DVD player and the computer are working, she’d live in the pit of hell for all she cares. My elder, ditto, except you can substitute flushing toilet for DVD player.

We haven’t fully unpacked yet. The dozens of boxes, bin liners and reusable HiLo bags into which I packed up my life are mostly empty, but since one of things we haven’t got yet is shelving, there are some key items still wrapped up in cardboard and packing tape. The amenities are not what I’m used to, but then I have to remind myself that I grew up sharing a bedroom with two sisters, my mother and my brother, without indoor plumbing or a TV for most of my childhood. It’s all relative. You’d be amazed at what  you can get used to, either way.

As I wait for the completion of our apartment, grimy from concrete dust and ducking the damned bat that refuses to understand that humans live here now, I count my blessings. Health, happiness, a life mission, good friends and a lot of family support are not all I have. I also have a roof over my head–even if I do have to share it with the bat for now.