And no other child should, ever again.
09447. I found the well-preserved hole-punched computer card I took to the exam site four decades ago. Before we renamed it Secondary Entrance Assessment. Before we’d made a state-supported fetish of its rankings. My mother, a teacher with Ministry of Education contacts, heard a boy from my school topped the exam list. It might be either Vikram Murthi or me, our teachers deduced. Only later did someone confirm. My father bought Veuve Clicquot. I kept the empty bottle, cork and tag for years.
Like child marriage, SEA is a traditional ritual the families involved are deeply invested in, that is fundamentally destructive to children’s development, and we urgently need to abolish. If same-sex schooling—another problem—wasn’t so firmly engrained in our educational system, SEA would long have disappeared. Were boys and girls competing on equal footing for places, few boys would pass for prestige secondary schools.
My condolences to every pre-teen and their family who got results Tuesday.
To those who howled and wept at the biggest failure in their young lives, at the wasted lessons money, at the public shame. At the formal assessment of their 11-year-old fundamental lack of worth. For the bitterness reading “Take heart, some people does go El Do and still end up decent” Facebook statuses from people who went prestige school. Tell them go brave the violence in those schools, and volunteer their hopefulness. Make them join your new fight—now you’ve lost the lottery that preserves educational inequality—to ensure quality secondary education in every school.
Condolences, also, to you youngsters pappyshowed by political officials and the media, your force-ripe quotes about the reward of sacrifice, work-life balance and juvenile stress. I remember how awkward I felt, the sense I was being acclaimed for doing something normal.
As all of you enter secondary school, you are receiving an early life lesson—that rank and privilege deeply govern our social order, that you live in a country that does not distribute value or opportunity equitably or widely enough, and you must always strive to remain on the right side of that scale. That SEA lesson you will carry throughout life. It is one your parents know well.
I am saddened over those of you who will learn that your success is merely about your personal attributes, not circumstance or social capital you were born with, that even at your age, others are responsible for their failures—including others from similarly humble backgrounds. I, too, never looked back to wonder about the futures of my 1973 classmates who would end up with different opportunities, in other schools. But Christmas before, at a holiday party at the orphanage down the hill from my Auntie Shirley’s house in Grenada, when the caregivers took away a resident’s gift toy to replace mine that I had complained was defective, the guilt made me understand privilege viscerally, and taught me an early lesson about injustice.
I weep for those of you and your families who have passed for the best schools. What your country is teaching you is how not to fight injustice. It is a lesson our colonially-rooted educational institutions will inculcate in you daily. You will be taught to accept it, and then to enforce it.
I remember watching my mother’s 1930s newsclipping of her name among a dozen on the list of Exhibition results, marvelling how few students government provided then with free secondary education. I marvel similarly every year how, almost a century later, with secondary education now universal, the exam retains such deep social anxiety and transformative power over young destinies. We can’t build a society on a vision of equal opportunity as long as we continue a procedure that sorts opportunity by age 12.
I don’t have immediate solutions. Quality public education is a policy challenge internationally. What that also means is there are ample lessons and models waiting to be applied here. None seem to be being implemented. The best idea—expanding students’ access to digital technology—became a duncyhead game of political kicks and kickbacks, undescoring exactly what SEA enforces—a public sense some of our children are just not going to learn, and their families are wotless. A former PNM MP and career educator I really admire, campaigning in 2010, said students Kamla put into secondary school in 2000 passed through them like a dose of salts. I recall identical sentiments about the PNM’s expansion of secondary education the year before I went in, and I’ve argued with my mother that, if so, it was her and others’ failure as teachers and administrators. I know one of those students is now an Independent Senator.
The Children’s Authority issued wonderfully thoughtful SEA results guidance. Another thing we can do, starting next year, is end the ridiculous ritual—an ethnic one, some say—of assigning national significance to which children come first on a fallible exam. It does them little good; it does the losers worse. I’m yet to hear anyone come forward—like some do with licks—testifying how the trauma of SEA results is character-building and morally necessary.
When I’d nervously started writing this column, Martin Daly, in one of his titled “Fooling Ourselves,” quoted my observation that “we don’t realize that an education system that makes losers out of so many is a key driver of criminality and endemic violence.” I was thrilled. My insight wasn’t because I’d topped SEA; I just said something really obvious.