Children And Testing – The Bajan Edition
My sweetheart sister Sancia pissed me off this past week. And if you know me, you know she’s my world. Born on the day I turned 4, I consider Sancia my best birthday gift ever! I’ve loved her from day one, and growing up, even though I was always the smaller one between the two of us, I always felt like her protector, like a big sister. She has always been a darling, thoughtful, generous, bright, one of the most naturally intelligent people I know, highly intellectual, compassionate, she possesses a sharp wit, and just like our mother, is fortitudinous beyond imagination. Like me, she loves a good laugh. Unlike me, she’s tolerant of people and their BS. Whatever our similarities or differences, my mom constantly says we have made her extremely proud. One of us has also made her a proud grandmother – my sister, with her gifted son, my beloved nephew, Nicholai. I’ve previously blogged about Nicholai in “I Got Mail – A Handwritten Letter” and in “My Little Track Star.” Just like his mother, Nicholai is tied to my heartstrings. There is very little either of them could do wrong by me. Over the years, as siblings do from time to time, my sister and I have had our differences, but whenever it came to her differences with anyone else, be it our mom or Nicholai’s estranged father, or whatever challenge Sancia has had to face, I’ve always found myself in her corner.
On Wednesday, the results came back for the Barbados Secondary Schools Entrance Examination, popularly referred to as the Common Entrance Exam or the 11+. The exam is taken by primary school students for placement at any of the island’s 22 secondary schools and tests their skills in English, math and composition writing. Here in New York, the equivalent (of sorts) to the 11+ might be considered the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test taken by academically and artistically gifted students. Unlike this select group of students, in Barbados, however, every pupil who turns 11 by Aug. 31 of an academic year must take the 11+. The higher their test scores, the better their chances of securing a coveted place at one of the more prestigious schools. Again, for my New Yorkers, consider the competition for and prestige of schools such as Brooklyn Latin School, Bronx High School of Science, Brooklyn Tech, Staten Island Technical High School, and Stuyvesant High School etc. In Barbados, the elite or older secondary schools as they’re called include: Christ Church Foundation School; The St. Michael School; The Lodge School; Combermere; Queen’s College (QC), and the institution that has traditionally been No. 1 – Harrison College (HC) a.k.a. Kolij. Harrison College has produced five of Barbados’ seven prime ministers and its students hold the record for winning the most government scholarships and awards to pursue tertiary education. Nicholai gained entry, or as we say in Barbados, “passed” for Harrison College. He is disappointed. My sister is depressed.
In Barbados, the issue of which secondary school one attends has always been a contentious one to say the least. Our society has long been known to judge a student and their potential for excellence by just the school uniform they wear. Unfortunately, some schools that fall into the “newer secondary schools” category have often suffered from this stereotype. Many students at these institutions have occasionally struggled with morale issues when compared to their peers at older secondary schools, so named because they were established in the 17th, 18th or 19th century. Most of the newer schools were opened in the mid to late 20th century. Older secondary schools arguably boast far more illustrious histories and prominent alumni than newer secondary schools. But they all provide pretty much the same education, similar syllabi, equally qualified faculty, same extracurricular activities, same exams to graduate and ultimately the same opportunities for a successful future. Perhaps, the biggest difference is the seemingly high “pressure” placed on students at older secondary schools to uphold the reputations of their respective schools.
When I was my nephew’s age, I was among the top students in my primary school class. I was also a champion track athlete. Like me, Nicholai consistently achieved high academic success and was a star athlete throughout primary school. He surpassed my accomplishments by going on to represent and medal for Barbados at the Caribbean Union of Teachers Track and Field Championships. Unlike his, my Common Entrance results shocked my teachers, family and me. Everyone thought I would have passed for Kolij, and I had dreamt of going to QC. This was also Nicholai’s dream. My scores were good enough to get me into The St. Michael School, but miraculously, I passed for a newer secondary school – Roebuck Secondary School (RSS), later renamed The Louis Lynch Secondary School.
I cried for days. I felt like a total failure. All my friends were going to Queen’s College, St. Michael, Foundation etc., and I was going to what seemed like a no-name school. My mother reacted like how many moms do when 11+ results are less than what’s expected. She was angry, disappointed and because of our stereotypical Bajan society, she was embarrassed that her daughter – known as a bright girl in the neighborhood – did not pass for a “top” school. She initially wanted to send me to a private school called Codrington College, but my uncles and family friends convinced her that with my ability, I could excel at any school.
Roebuck turned out to be the crème de le crème of newer secondary schools. Known for its well-respected principal Linda Jemmott, a strict disciplinarian, RSS students boasted impeccable deportment and rose “From Strength to Strength” to rival the academic success of some older schools. I ended up in one of the most competitive classes ever, with peers who just like me, had scored well on the 11+ but missed out on the older secondary schools. So for my first five years of secondary school, my classmates and I fought to outdo each other academically, some of us performing well enough to move on to older secondary schools/sixth-form or Barbados Community College for two years of Advanced Level studies. But my time at Roebuck was perhaps the best of my life. I excelled academically, represented my school in quizzes, debates, youth parliament, spelling Bee’s, I was a member of the school choir, photography club, foreign language club and a winning track athlete. In the latter capacity, one of my biggest achievements was being part of an under 13-girls 4X100m relay team that set a record at the Inter-School Sports Athletics Championships, a record that stood for almost 20 years.
It was at Roebuck, a newer secondary school where: I made some of my most cherished and lifelong friends; had some of the most caring, motivating teachers; where I learned to accept defeat, celebrate victories; where I built the discipline for which I’m known today; where I learned the value of a good education; and where much of my character was molded. Today, I’m a magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa college graduate and hold a master’s degree from an Ivy League – Columbia University. Today, among those from my graduating class at Roebuck who are making things happen are medical doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, teachers, marketing executives and at least one gutsy journalist.
Just like my own story, I believe any 11-year-old starting secondary school should be made to understand that it’s not the institution that will determine their success. It is how he/she applies himself/herself; it is about having a supporting and loving parent/guardian to help guide them along. My sister, a single mother for most of Nicholai’s life is one such parent and more, a super woman, I call her. And that is one of the reasons why her reaction annoyed me. Nicholai passed for the country’s most illustrious secondary school. Sure, because this little boy’s heart was set on QC, he’s disappointed; I can understand that.
Within the past couple of years, an increasing number of Barbadian parents have been opting for QC as first pick over HC when submitting the schools of choice for their children. This growing demand has apparently now made the scores to get into QC higher than those to get into HC. Some Bajans think this is just a current trend and not an enduring reality. Nicholai’s high scores made him eligible to get into QC. My sister, however, had submitted HC as first choice. She made this decision for a few reasons: HC’s status; Nicholai’s abilities; HC’s proximity to both where they live and my sister’s job as a teacher, which makes it easy to pick up or drop off Nicholai; the fact that HC is located in the heart of Bridgetown in comparison to QC which is further away to the west of the island and requires a bus transfer – she had reservations about this should Nicholai sometimes have to take public transportation.
I’m no parent, but I can imagine that any mother or father would share their child’s disappointment. My sister said she felt as if she’d committed a crime by not putting QC first. I wanted to empathize with her, to be in her corner as always, but all I could see as a realistic Bajan looking in, as someone who’s been through my journey, was that she made a conscious decision about HC. All I could see was, if she regretted her decision then she should take action to try to get Nicholai a transfer to QC, if possible. All I could see was, that she was depressed about her son going to Harrison College – the Eton of the Caribbean! Who gets upset at a thing like that?
All I could see was that my sister was making a pity party out of what should have been a celebration and a teaching moment for Nicholai. But what I saw most of all, what pissed me off most, is how some parents allow the 11+ results to consume them. The Common Entrance is not the end. The work now starts for these children. So parents, buck the heck up, encourage your children no matter what school they pass for, no matter society’s stupid stereotypes. Because one guaranteed thing in Barbados is that no matter if it’s a newer or an older secondary school, your child is going to get a damn good education!
~ I Keep it Irie ~