Of outrage and educational standards

There is a role for outrage. Even those of us who will never have children share the nation’s wrenching, speechless grief over six-year-old Keyana Cumberbatch’s gruesome murder and rape. These are things that unite us powerfully, despite our differences.

That is why Children’s Authority chair Stephanie Daly’s remarks to the nation about the murder were so chilling. We do not hear or see much by way of the Children’s Authority, the nation’s long-in-coming human rights body responsible for preventing what happened to Keyana. So what we heard resonated powerfully.

There is no sense in responding on each child and feeling that anything we can do would necessarily have prevented that particular child’s disaster…People have to recognise that it doesn’t matter how you strengthen legislation or what you put in place, there is no way that anybody can protect every child in the nation all the time…there will always be children who get abused because they get abused by the people who are in the homes, their families, when there is nobody else watching

We cannot protect human rights without systems. Verna St . Rose Greaves made that point eloquently wringing her hands, seated on the pavement in the shadow of the tall buildings on either side of Wrightson Road, after being ejected for disrupting Parliament. The sitting was suspended by Speaker Wade Mark for all of ten minutes.

But disrupt Verna did. Because that is how we make change, how we put feelings and anger to good use. How we prevent business as usual, as she screamed. Our Labour Day, after all, commemorates the 1937 immolation of a policeman. Words like Chairwoman Daly’s are not how you create a culture of child protection and human rights, or talk to communities in grief. Daly’s words are a recipe for cynicism and complacency and impunity about abuse. That is not the leadership children need, or the nation we ought to be building. The Children’s Authority needs to be effective and operational as quickly as possible. It needs sober leadership. But Daly’s leadership must also ignite passion about protecting children.

Of things rising from the west

On the subject of leadership, I turn to Speaker Mark, and the national conversation about his newly minted executive MBA. The University of the West Indies (TUWI, as some of us now joke, due to its senseless pedantry about sticking The in front of UWI) has one of the most evocative Latin mottos I’ve encountered: “Oriens ex occidente lux” Attributed to Queen’s Royal College Principal RM Homer, it is translated as: “A light rising from the West”. But its beauty is the way “oriens” is both the verb “to rise” and the noun for “east”, opposite west.

Although it dates to 1949, in the idea of light rising in the west, one can read a post-colonial mission the idea of innovation, of transgressive scholarship, of a New World.

But in 2008-9, as a postgraduate student at the university, I joked that the true translation of its motto was “I’m sorry: those are the rules”. Because, far from a 21st century institution, I experienced the university (or at least my own faculty) as obsessed with control and compliance, the colonial goals of education.

When I raised this at a student forum, a senior administrator (whom I initially thought was joking) approached me and said: “But we have to have rules”. When Banner (the online course management system) failed to upload a final assignment I and others in a class submitted within minutes of the deadline, after several efforts to clarify why I’d failed the course, I was told hard luck, I’d just have to retake the two new courses that would replace the one I’d failed.

I wrote an e-mail asking if there was an appeal procedure or if I could come in to talk over my plans to withdraw rather than repeat. But it wasn’t on Parliamentary letterhead, no one ever responded, so I walked away from an institution which, I thought, failed daily in many ways at being student-centred. As my programme’s student rep, I remember writing the administration advocating for a student paying full economic costs to be able to register or use the library, because the student had an international fellowship whose payments arrived in tranches that didn’t fit UWI’s deadlines and didn’t want to borrow money. The response that came back was that they totally understood the situation; no, they could not help.

So I wasn’t sure whether to be excited or deeply cynical that the Speaker through the magical power of his office has turned UWI into a place where, to quote Arthur Lok Jack director Miguel Carrillo’s comment to the media

One of the most important parts of being a student-centred institution which we are in the West Indies is that we will help the students, it doesn’t matter who they are, to be successful academically. We will support them…we might consider some concessions and those concessions are nothing special and are things that happen regularly in the UWI system

But I feel called to coin a new translation, unprintable here, for what is rising from The East and the West.

Forging the liberty to love: one nation…many bodies…boundless faith

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