Updated: Jan 24
Barrelling down to Gasparillo along the Butler highway last week, I got stuck for a while behind a van whose rear windscreen bore a message that resonated with my current labours, which were the editing of a documentary I shot years ago in YTC, the youth prison.
Generally, messages and aphorisms painted on the automobilies of this island excite in me no more than a very mild curiosity. Why, I sometimes wonder, are so many vehicle owners concerned with jealousy and envy? I have, you see, observed the most common slogans are: “Jealousy Kills”, “Don’t envy me” and “No weapon formed against me shall prosper.”
Last week, however, somewhere on the left lane just before Chaguanas, the van that trapped me in a slow lane for a few moments before it branched off into Caroni, left behind in my memory the message emblazoned on its rear windscreen.
As I said, it resonated because in my documentary the lads at the Youth Training Centre are flogged mercilessly for their delinquencies. Behind those fences education was administered as it had been in my childhood and adolescence when, as Naipaul puts it, teachers weren’t paid much but they were allowed to beat as much as they wished.
In the photo Miquel Galofre is behind his camera, Kasi Foster seated on the right recording audio, and I between them am interviewing then Assistant Comissioner of Prisoners Sterling Stewart, who had formerly been the Superintendant of the Youth Training Centre.
Mr. Stewart was a man who cared deeply for those youth in his charge, and he expressed this care by severely flogging them with his guava switches for what he saw as their folly. One of the biblical principles implemented was Proverbs 22:15 - Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.
He explained: "I believe there’s a time for talking, there’s a time to do all the programmes but there’s a time for the rod of correction and that is why here at YTC they does call me 'Order doh cross the border'. Because it have a lotta mischief and folly in the heart of some of the young boys here. A lotta darkness."
There, behind those fences the rod was administered as it was in my own childhood. And having grown up when strokes were as de rigueur in primary school as they were arbitrary, I've had a horror of them ever since. Which is precisely what the van I tailgated last week brought to mind.
Actually, my partner, who is far less cynical than I, suggested it might have had more to do with music than corporal punishment, although those were during my childhood not mutually exclusive either, as per Shadow: Mammie beat me with music stick.
I swear if I'd had sons back in those dark ages I'd have home-schooled rather than suffer them through that. As it were I am blessed with daughters, so my pedagogical duties were limited to passing on the primary school rhymes I'd absorbed when I was barely older and considerbly duller than they.
Several such poems have been purged from the canon in the cause of decency. Offhand I can think of “Eenie meenie miney moe,” which has been rewritten in the interests of racial correctness, and rightfully so. "Chinee, Chinee never die..." has also gone the way of all flesh although I never found it insulting and kinda regret its passing.
I console myself for its loss through the recitation of the following lines, first to one daughter many years ago and then slightly fewer years ago to the other:
Ting-a-ling-a-ling/the school bell ring/teacher panty tie with a string./String pop!/Panty drop!/Ting-a-ling-a-ling/the school bell ring.
Walcott woulda be proud of such word-craft.
“Ting-a-ling-a-ling...” and you see the old bat clanging away like a soca Baptist. The bell echoes in your ears like the crack of a slavedriver’s whip that lined hordes up. Then:
Two short staccato sentences convey not just the tyrant’s downfall, but the suddenness, the unexpectedness with it always happens.
As a literary man myself I am naturally duty bound and indeed enjoy transmitting to a younger generation the delight and intelligence of great literature. In this case, however, “Ting-a-ling-a-ling” has a double or even treble appropriateness today because of its profound subversiveness.
To an adult it’s a horrific image, that of Teacher Mildred’s string popping, and her panty dropping, especially if it comprised little more than string in the first place. But children in their innocence can still secretly laugh, which is almost the only defence they possess now that schools have reopened their doors to reveal therein a surprising number of hogs left over from colonial times.
I discovered that to my shock and dismay decades ago when I trudged from primary school to primary school in the city to find one for my younger daughter, and met or observed in action some of their principals.
The worst one kept anxious, suppliant parents standing hours in the blistering sun outside the gate waiting for application forms while she harangued (from the shade) the sweltering children for not all attending mass every Sunday of Lent. I stormed off in disgust - I'd never put a child of mind in her charge - but what could those innocent ones there do?
"String pop!" Kyar kyar kyar.
Alas, even scarier were the others, who comprised it seems the majority of principals and teachers then as now. These are kind, sympathetic men and women whose concern for educating children is truly touched with compassion — let me be generous. Their only fault was having bought into Sparrow’s “Dan is the Man” argument that education must be rigorously practical. That is, aimed at preparing you to pass exams and eventually make money.
They didn’t flog, even if they wanted to the law prohibited them; they didn't humiliate. But in the “interests” of the children theirs was a tough love. Two years before Common Entrance or SEA or Ready-Setty-Go!, call it what you will: extra lessons till their poor little heads are spinning. Cut down the PE. Read, don’t run around at recess getting sweaty. Their only exercise is dragging around bookbags that heft more than their own bodyweights.
As for the arts: deal out music, dance, drama; school is only for swotting. And then, to my shock, they introduced extra lessons during the long vacation. And that with the connivance of parents who, as Derek Walcott put it, “Check out they house and look/You bus your brain before you find a book.”
Grooming the children earlier and earlier for the rat race, an education system turns its back on the pursuit of happiness. Insofar as it is successful, it discards sociability, generosity, creativity, curiosity and ultimately the hunger for knowledge.
Sir Kenneth Robinson, who died a few months ago, thoroughly and irrefutably discredited the approach to education embraced by the authorities, i.e. parents, teachers & government officials.
Fortunately, the nation’s children possess their own culture, or at least used to, which allows them to imagine a reality different and more enjoyable than the rat race. Why you think it’s a child who saw the emperor had no clothes?
It allows them to deflate the pernicious idea that life is only about passing the test, getting the certificate, earning the fat salary. It's also about joy and laughter.