I recently attended a workshop in the hills of Trelawny with fellow creative writers. On the drive back to Kingston, we got to talking about education. As I expressed my concerns about the state of the Jamaican education system and questioned whether or not I was really making any meaningful contribution through my work, someone asked me, “Do you think you would feel more fulfilled if you were working at a school where students were less privileged?” What she meant was, whether I would find more fulfillment working at a non-traditional high school in the inner-city or in the country. Innocent as her question was, it raises a common misconception. Questions like this stem from a deeply entrenched societal belief that “rich kids” don’t have real problems.
Let’s just debunk one myth from the get-go. It is a popular belief that all or most of the students who attend these traditional high schools located in upper middle class communities are “rolling in it.” That is simply not true. While the percentage of students who would seem to “have it made” is unequivocally higher than at other schools, many of the students come from simple working-class homes and others come from very low-income families. I, for example, attended one such uptown school but I lived my entire school life in a tenement yard where termites made a daily meal of both my ceiling and my floor. And I was not the only one in a similar position.
Moreover, even the ones who do come from affluent or simply not-so-poor backgrounds have their share of issues. Some of these children face grave realities. Many students live without parents because their parents’ careers frequently take them out of town and sometimes even out of the country. Sure, you may say, “but they have gardeners and nannies and helpers.” But nothing compares to having your parents around, especially in those tough teenage years. And nothing can rival that tumultuous feeling in a young mind that their parents have chosen to be somewhere else and not with them. There was a young man I knew who lived with his tenant. His mother lived abroad but she had a house in Portmore. In one part of the house, she left her son; the other part she rented to a young lady whom she asked to give an eye on him. Imagine a boy at 12, 14, 16 years old living basically on his own under the haphazard supervision of a woman in her twenties who was the family’s tenant. Let that sink in. Another student lives with her five siblings, all under age 23. Her parents both work out of town and they pass by the house maybe once a week or so. She makes her own breakfast and lunch every morning, sometimes cooks in the evening, distributes her siblings’ lunch money, arranges who is supposed to do chores and generally tries to keep them all in line even though she is not the eldest of her siblings — all of this while preparing for upcoming CSEC examinations where she will be sitting exams in nine subjects.
These students grow up under immense pressure to succeed. They are pushed relentlessly by parents, by society and by the gremlins in their own heads to be the best at everything all the time, to do everything perfectly, never make mistakes, never miss a beat and never break a sweat. I see the psychological toll it takes on them every day as they live from one assignment to the next on an average of four to six hours of sleep per night.
If your cancer is Stage 4 and mine is Stage 2, do I need to ask your permission to complain ?
Many have to deal with divorced or separated parents and the issues that come along with that. On that same ride home from the workshop mentioned at the outset, I was told of an incident at a private school, where a little boy was supposed to be picked up by his divorced parents who lived in separate homes. Each thought the other one was supposed to pick up the child and each of them slept through the night, secure in the imagination that the other parent had their son at their house. Where did the child end up spending the night? With the school caretaker and his wife.
Even if you still view these as #UptownProblems, there are still issues these students face that are universally human. Death, illness, domestic violence, abuse and bullying are no respecters of money or social class. I have students and former classmates who come from rich families and suffer from polycystic ovarian sydrome (PCOS), obesity, juvenile diabetes, depression, bi-polar disorder, autism, extreme migraines, rheumatoid arthritis and auto-immune diseases and who have parents or siblings who have cancer, severe diabetes, Down’s syndrome and other handicaps. I remember comforting one of my friends in high school as she broke down in tears because she always dreamed of having a family of her own and was devastated when, at 14, she found out that she had PCOS and would most likely be barren for the rest of her life. One of my students has a rare autoimmune disease and is frequently absent from school because of severe pain in her stomach and her knees that leaves her unable to walk. Another student was raped by someone in her home. A girl in my class broke down on the day she was supposed to recite a poem because it was the day of the anniversary of her father’s death. A boy in another class lost his ability to feel anything emotionally after his mother suddenly died of an asthma attack last year. A sixth form student lost both her parents at once when her father shot her mother, whom he thought to be unfaithful, and then shot himself in the head. Are these not problems worthy of our concern?
Now, you might be saying, “Well, at least they have the money to get treatment for these diseases, at least they have the opportunity to get an education, at least they have somebody in their lives to push them, at least they have food to eat and somewhere to live, at least…. at least… at least…” And it’s true that no matter their circumstances, these children have much to be grateful for. But gratitude does not negate suffering. Somehow, being “grateful” has come to be equated with not having a voice to speak up about the things that affect you.
I am not in any way devaluing the very real problems of students at schools where the majority of the population come from high-risk low-income communities. Growing up, my aunt was a teacher at one of these schools and she had no end of stories of children who had no food to eat, who had watched parents, other relatives, neighbours or friends murdered in cold blood, who had seen things that no human is ever supposed to see, let alone a child, who lived entirely without parents, who were consumed by the pressure to become absorbed in gang violence or sex work, who became teenage parents and who had been raped or abused by people close to them. I’m not saying that the problems that face the students I have mentioned are worse than these. I’m saying, why do we need to compare?
If “our children are our future,” then all of our children are our future, not just the ones we deem worthy or needy.
If your cancer is Stage 4 and mine is Stage 2, do I need to ask your permission to complain? Do I have less of a right to be distressed than you?
If you have two children and one of them suffers from a handicap that has left her confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life, is it that when the other child comes to you in tears with a cut on his knee, begging for a hug and a band-aid, you say to him, “Go fix yourself. Your sister needs the hug more than you”?
If we mean it when we say, “our children are our future” then we must acknowledge that all of our children are our future, not just the ones we deem worthy or needy. All of them need to have their right to a childhood protected. Is our empathy and attention so meagre that we can only find room in our hearts to acknowledge some children’s problems and not others? If we persist with this attitude of scarcity and judgement, we will continue to view people who are different from us as “other” and, as a people, we will continue to be splintered and bitter and empty.
In the world already so steeped in a culture of ‘you against me,’ comparison is toxic. Instead of meeting with each other at the point of comparison and judgement, we need to find each other in the space where empathy meets compassion, where your heart says to my heart, “me too” — a place where we walk around in each other’s skin and unite in the understanding that we are more alike than we are different. We must cease this habit of ostracising the issues of a certain group of people because of their privilege. Whether they are #WhitePeopleProblems, #BlackPeopleProblems, #PoorPeopleProblems, #RichPeopleProblems, #FirstWorldProblems, #ThirdWorldProblems, #DownTownProblems or #UptownProbelms, the point is: they are somebody’s problems. Be they mental, physical, emotional or spiritual, the problems that affect one person are no more valid than those that affect another.
So no, I would not be more fulfilled working at a different school nor would I be averse to the task of reaching a different demographic of children if my life leads me there. For now though, I do what I can where I am planted because my work is still work and these uptown kids need love too.
Agree or disagree; I’d love to hear what you think either way. Comment below to share your thoughts and experiences.