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Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Bajan Invention—Part 1

ArtsEtc ushers in a brand New Year with a series of blogs by editor Robert Edison Sandiford on what he calls The Bajan Invention. A challenge to our ways of thinking and being, the four-part series will look at aspects of Barbadian society and culture. Following is Part 1 which takes a look at an issue from the latter half of 2012 that had parents, teachers and students divided…

The Great Barbadian School Uniform Debate: style over substance?

Whenever my friend Danny did something he wasn’t supposed to in high school, his father sent him for a haircut.  We’d see him a Monday morning, his rocker’s locks buzz cut.  “What happened to you, man?” we’d ask.  His astonished reply: “Came in late from a party Friday, had a little too much to drink.  Dad freaked, y’know…” 

It seems Matthew Farley, the principal of Graydon Sealy Secondary School, takes a similar tact to Mr Williams when it comes to the problems faced by his students.  He sent home 265 of them last October for not wearing their uniform properly. 

“The main infraction,” he said in an interview with Barbados’ Sunday Sun, “was in relation to the lengths of the overalls and skirts.  There were a number of instances where boys were wearing pants that were oversized at the waist.” 

Matthew Farley, Principal of Graydon Sealy Secondary School

That was the reason given for the weeklong suspension of just over a quarter of the student population (28%).  As is the case with many Barbadian schools and their students, there are deeper underlying problems that need to be addressed.

Does this strategy begin to do that? 

Principal Farley indicated in responses to the public, who seemed generally supportive if going by radio call-in programmes, that the Barbados Association of Principals of Public Schools and the Ministry of Education had “agreed that hemlines would be two inches below the knee, that scarves would be banned, that cell phones would not be in schools…,” without exception. 

But it did feel, as Harrison College Principal Winston Crichlow suggested in a comment on the matter, that “these little things [mass suspensions] can be a distraction from education.”  PR-stuntish, so to speak; more politically motivated to stir public support than academic minded; meant to have Barbadians focus on the style of a complaint rather than its substance. 

Unless the low hemlines and dropping pants are merely Principal Farley’s metaphor for those deeper problems: with drugs, teenage pregnancy, bullying, plummeting morale among staff and student body alike, and parents who have given up on their children.

Statistics correlating all of this—for instance, that show poor dress in Barbadian schools leads to poor Caribbean Examination Council scores—would be useful.  What may be asserted with some certainty is that Barbadian students (and not only the students, and not only the black ones) suffer now more than ever from a lack of pride: in country, in school, in self.  They have doubts about themselves and their environment that are either surprising or shocking almost 50 years after their hard-earned independence.   
It’s not that we as a people don’t know who we are, but we seem afraid to claim our identity.

Maybe we need reminding of it occasionally.  I suspect a number of students know neither who established their schools, how long ago nor under what circumstances.  And we tend to wear a uniform with more respect when such things like its history, tradition and pride are understood and, more significantly, when our role in the perpetuation of the legendary and the mythic and the heroic in our nation is defined.

It is not clear Principal Farley’s exercise will better instruct the student body in who they are or should aspire to be in this place, or lead them toward true emancipation from what really binds their hearts and minds and souls. 

“Caribbean institutions have developed mainly along the patterns bequeathed to them for their European pioneers.  The school, the church, the public service, and the judiciary have all sustained a close allegiance to the historical antecedents through which they were nurtured in former times,” wrote West Indian theologian Kortright Davis in his classic Emancipation Still Comin’.  “The people of the Caribbean have not yet taken hold of the basic roots of their own institutions, and therefore have been unable to transform their existence toward an emancipatory and affirmative dynamic.”

In other words, problems like parental frustration, teacher apathy and student restraint are often best dealt with at the source, their roots, starting with the home and family.  Freedom often has to do with choices, far less with the ability to do whatever you want…or can, because it is within your right to do so. 

And here I go back to Danny: throughout high school, he complied with his father’s edict.  But that was in much the same way the 265 students complied with Principal Farley’s.  Danny wasn’t a bad kid (nor Mr Williams a hard man), just misguided, as most of us are or were as teenagers from time to time.  I don’t know if Mr Williams’ solution ever solved any of the problems Danny was then dealing with, either.  The change to Danny was as cosmetic as tightening a tie, meant to show him whip-quick who’s boss, and a way for father to avoid talking to son about what happened and why. 

This makes me think there may have been a better way for Mr Williams to deal with the excesses of youth.  Principal Farley, too.— RES

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