Schools open tomorrow. There will be the tears for the first-timers. There will be tears in the eyes of some parents who will watch their precious cargo take their first steps at leaving the nest, not that leaving will come anytime soon.
There will be screams in the schoolyards as returning children meet their friends, some of whom they had not seen for the past six or seven weeks. Then there will be the teachers, many smiling and some glaring at children who could be real darlings, and nuisances at times.
In the recent weeks I saw parents behaving like the proverbial squirrels, putting away little things at a time for the back-to-school. I saw many going to the stores to buy footwear and uniforms and other accessories.
Watching them took me back to so many decades ago. My mother had to get five of us to primary school at any one time. I was the eldest and I learned to work during the holidays to help raise money for my back-to-school items. There were no free exercise books back then, but there was the slate and pencil.
I don’t see slates anymore. But they were ubiquitous back then. Children up to fourth standard, which is today’s equivalent of today’s grade six, used slates. They could not keep notes for revision, as is the case with the exercise books, but they were good for writing.
We would scrub or scrape the frames so that they looked new. We took pride in our things. Desks had ink wells and the bigger children wrote with fountain pens (I haven’t seen one in ages).
People talk about the good old days, but they were rougher than today. Money was scarce. We walked long distances to school compared to today when many children board buses for drops no more than one or two miles.
There were no fast food outlets, but there were the vendors who sold the things children love — sugar cake, channa and other tidbits. For the greater part we walked with our lunches in bowls. There were no plastic containers.
Teachers were respected; everyone was ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’. Discipline was rigid. The headmaster had the cane on a wall behind him or on his desk.
Schools had no cleaners back then. It was the duty of children to clean the school and they did it by classes. There were no classrooms in the primary schools.
Back then focus was on reading, writing and arithmetic – the three Rs. Almost every child who left primary school could read and write. We would be called to the front of the class to read a passage from the textbook, which in my day was the Nelson West Indian Reader.
Whenever a parent had to visit school, the entire school was quiet, because each child knew that his colleague was in trouble. And it did not always have to do with school business. There were those parents, mothers in particular, who asked the headmaster to discipline her child, because boys sometimes get too big for their mothers, the ever present person in our lives.
Today’s parents are different. Many of them see the school as a kind of daycare centre for their children. Many do not check their children’s books to even see whether they went to school. My mother was no scholar, but I could ask her to help me at times.
I remember me getting some arithmetic homework and going home to get my mother to help me get the answers. I never did after that experience. My mother got every sum wrong and I got a licking in school. I decided to pay more attention to the subject.
My brother and sisters had it a bit easier, because I was there to help them.
Back then, too, the entire village was our parent, so we were always on our best behaviour before the news of our indiscretion reached home before us.
Especially in Georgetown, adults say nothing to errant children on the road, because there is always some parent who would say that no one should talk like that to her child. With that support, many children do not even bother to listen to even the teacher.
I have heard of numerous cases of parents going to a school to fight with a teacher. There were fights and sometimes the teacher won. There were more men in schools back then.
Today, people talk about child abuse, something that was unheard of in my day as a child. I always believed that my mother would kill me if she so desired and I did not want to die.
Male teachers were there to keep us growing boys in line. They played cricket with us and sometimes walked along the road with us. Some had bicycles, but none had cars.
I cannot forget the days when inspectors visited the school. Even teachers seemed scared, because their promotion depended on it. Many schools have never been visited by inspectors. Teachers had ‘Notes of Lessons’ that detailed how and what they would teach. I don’t believe that such things exist.
Teachers analysed children; they knew who had problems at home and sometimes would visit the home.
We had hungry children, but no matter what, they always got something to eat in rural Guyana. Many of those children later left these shores to do well in an adopted country. In fact, it was as if Guyana was preparing children for life outside the country.
Anyhow, tomorrow is going to be the start for some and a new start for others. Secondary school should be a challenge for all, but there would be those who would simply move through without even being able to read.
In my lifetime, this is the largest number of illiterate young people I have seen. I go to police stations and I hear, repeatedly, “I can’t read and write,” from miscreants. Why?
I note the drive by the Education Ministry to turn things around. There have been efforts to recruit retired teachers. There is a move to get the slower child to look at technical vocation. Yet, tomorrow is going to be full of excitement.
(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper)
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