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Before dawn


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To read the second part of this article, please click on this link: https://lubnah.me.ke/before-dawn-part-2/

What exactly constitutes making it in life anyway? 

Is it an enormous bank balance with multiple health problems accumulated over the years? Is it owning three companies while having strained relationships with your children because you were never there for them? Is it being a workaholic only to be let go the moment you get sick? Do we all have to become doctors and engineers to be counted as worthy children or citizens (as many in our society perceive)?

This mindset problem is not only within the school systems but with the majority of parents too who’d rather see their children slaving around than ride a bicycle during a weekend. A child’s performance in school should never determine their validity or worth.

Most times, all these kids need is someone who will hold their hand with love and guide them through life until they find their calling, rather than constant admonishing and mocking. I am not saying you don’t push them to do better but don’t push them off the cliff either. You can’t measure a fish’s intelligence by asking it to climb a tree. What if this child is a fish and she is best at swimming? How will she know what she is capable of if you are all confining her in a box with your set standards of intelligence?

How many first-class degree or master’s holders are currently in low-paying jobs, despite their endless hard work? And how many students that were considered ‘failures’ are now thriving in life because they followed their passion and achieved their dreams? 

The greatest joke of all is the thought that once you start working you can finally settle down and have some peace of mind. Says who? 

You spend the next two, three years after university, tarmacking, in search of a job. If you’re lucky you have a spot saved for you at your family business or like others, you resort to giving bribes and nepotism just for a chance at an interview. 

By the time you get that job, you have tried five different businesses that failed miserably. At one point you even worked as a type-writer at the cyber in your neighbourhood despite your hard-earned glorious bachelor’s degree. Sometimes, even with your master’s degree, you end up working in a different field. How many intelligent and successful individuals with high academic achievement and degrees have we seen on the news selling water or working at salons? Some opt to go outside the country in search of greener pastures and the debate has always been: is the grass really greener on the other side? Very few privileged individuals get an opportunity to choose which job to go for. We mostly just grab the first chance we get regardless of our passion, our dreams, our capabilities, or even our academic field.

Having a job doesn’t guarantee you rest either because now you have to arise early to avoid the terrible traffic jam to get to work in time, and your days are now a matter of clocking in and clocking out. Most Kenyans also have to work more than one job or get employed while also having a side gig in order to survive the tough economy in our country. A mundane and very tiring routine but you gotta do what you gotta do right?

You will get the time to rest. 

That’s the biggest scam that is fed to us when we’re young. It never gets easier. The responsibilities double and triple. You get out there and see how everyone is hustling and fighting so hard to make it. It is survival for the fittest, and if you’re not a shark then you get eaten at the first chance. 

The reality of life is that it has no formula. None of us can ever be sure what will lead to our eventual happiness and satisfaction in life. We might think we know until we realize we don’t. We’re all just trying our best. So we might as well do everything in moderation; studying smart, working smart, and living smart. None of us has to die from burn-out for a job that would not mourn us more than one day. The perfect illustration of this is how many employees got fired between last year and the current one due to the pandemic. We do understand that the pandemic was beyond anyone’s control and that the entire world has suffered physically, emotionally, and economically. Nonetheless, it is proof enough that slaving for a company can never guarantee your place in it. Competence and integrity at the workplace are highly recommended but they shouldn’t lead one to poor physical and mental health.

I don’t know who came up with the idea that the future should be about survival, but it shouldn’t be! Instead, it should be about thriving, supportive families and providing a positive, conducive environment for growth. It might be too late for the majority of the adults to change their childhood experiences or how they perceived life then, but we can make a difference now for our children and students. This is the generation known for its abundance in information and self-awareness, for the bravery and courage to break ‘generational curses’. And so we’ll use that to be better, both for ourselves and for future generations.

If I was ever given the chance to go back in time to when I was a child, I’d sleep more. I’d play more. I’d read more books. I’d take care of myself. I’d stop worrying about an endless future. I’d work on my writing talent more and build myself. I would make more friends. I wouldn’t cry myself to sleep just because I didn’t get a 98% or 100% in maths. I wouldn’t skip my meals in a rush to get to school. I wouldn’t allow the pressure to seep into my veins. I would ensure I had the best childhood I could afford to have. 

Right now, what I consider important is very much different from what I thought at school. You grow up and realize the importance of good health and physical fitness, of mental wellness, of having goals that YOU chose for yourself, of nurturing talents, of having faith and integrity, of a good support system and social network.

To whoever it may concern, let these kids be kids. Let them play, let them be silly, and write silly letters to their best friends. Let the only hurt they feel be because their friend refused to share food with them or that their knee got hurt while playing or that they can’t race faster like their mates. They will never be twelve again. Life doesn’t get any easier from here. Please, let these kids be kids.

Before dawn, I see these kids and my heart sinks. Home-schooling seems like a very attractive thing to me right now.

BACKGROUND SOURCES:

https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-021-10732-w#:~:text=Prior%20research%20has%20demonstrated%20that,mature%20into%20adulthood%20%5B23%5D.
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/350174401_Competency_Based_Curriculum_CBC_and_the_end_of_an_Era_in_Kenya’s_Education_Sector_and_Implications_for_Development_Some_Empirical_Reflections#:~:text=The%20Competency%20Based%20Curriculum%20(CBC,served%20Kenya%20for%2032%20years.
https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/entertainment/lifestyle/2001299303/campus-suicides-over-20-students-have-ended-their-lives-most-due-to-love
https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/entertainment/local-news/2001254274/class-eight-pupil-hangs-himself-in-classroom-for-coming-second-in-exam

Before dawn, while I am still yawning and full of sleep, I see these kids trudging across the street, hunching from the weight of their school bags. I see them rub their eyes, the older one pulling the younger to move faster. Sometimes, it is just the older one, running while peeping at his watch every two minutes. I bet he has missed breakfast today too. 

Sometimes, they leave for school before their parents leave for work. And my heart sinks. 

When did we become okay with this? 

Isn’t this some form of slavery? 

Will children ever be allowed to be children?

***

When you walk into a therapist’s office, one of the first things they will ask you about is your childhood, regardless of whether you’re there for drug addiction or seeking to resolve your marital problems, or when grieving the loss of a loved one. It is by no chance nor for the sake of striking a conversation do they ask you about where you come from, the dynamics of your family, or even which school you attended. It has everything to do with who we are, how we view the world, and even the manner in which we deal with problems. The nurture debate in developmental psychology is proof enough that the environment in which one grows up in has a significant impact on one’s future. 

Previous research has shown that childhood experiences affect one’s health in their adulthood. Children who experienced several adverse situations are at a higher risk of developing mental illnesses like depression and anxiety, developing substance abuse habits, and detrimental health behaviours as they grow up. The opposite is also true: children who grew up in a positive environment and with supportive families are said to have better health as adults. The effects of one’s childhood don’t end here. Research has also shown that parenting styles are handed over to their children, who then parent their own children in a similar manner. Children who were abused are likely to do the same to their children, and those with unresolved emotional problems become disorganized with unhealthy attachment styles and exhibit more frightening parenting behaviours. It thus becomes a chain of unhealthy behaviours and lifestyles from generation to generation for the majority of families.

How does this relate to our school system? 

Our Kenyan education system is such that a child, of very tender age, starts spending the majority of their time within the school compound. This means that the school environment, the teachers, the schoolmates, have a great influence on a child’s growth, the shaping of their behaviours, and their worldview, sometimes more than their parents.

The truth is, we come from a society that really glorifies hustling and the idea of bending over backward in order to achieve our goals. We’re told, ‘wake up at 2 a.m. to study; arrive at school at 6 a.m. sharp; conduct prep studies until 8 or 9 p.m.: basically, do whatever it takes to be number one in class and with consistency.’ We’re led to believe that the only way to make it in this life is if you continue studying even with a torch while the rest sleep in the dorms. We’re made to think, the more you work, the more you thrive. 

We’re brainwashed to assume that skipping sleep and lying down for just three to four hours makes you a legend. 

We’re talked into believing that it is either now or never, whatever the cost is. 

We glorify the future.

We invite motivational speakers and make children feel that without 400 plus marks (out of a possible of 500 for primary school kids) or an A at the end of secondary education, then you can kiss your dreams and goals goodbye.

Most parents blackmail their children emotionally, with famous statements ranging from ‘I had to walk 20 kilometers to get to school’, to ‘I had to cross the river barefoot every day in order to acquire an education or ‘I used to stay hungry the whole day because we were very poor but I still achieved good grades.’ 

Granted, to some of the previous generations, hardships had to be endured so as to acquire an iota of a decent education. They indeed deserve all the respect for striving so hard. However, the struggle should never be glorified in such a way that we expect our children to also slave in order to achieve what society defines as success.

The past has everything to do with the future. 

And unhealthy beginnings filled with overwhelm, sleeplessness, and wild expectations can never give a child the proper foundation for a future that supports them according to their abilities, talents, and IQ. The pressure placed upon school-going children to succeed later translates to adults working merely to pay bills, with no passion, and many times, filled with sadness. 

Remember when we were young and the adults then would have us believe that we’d finally get to rest after successfully completing our primary school education? And then once we were done, we had to prepare for secondary school where the workload was twice as heavy, coupled with more intense competition for grades and as a result, more hours dedicated to study? 

The teachers would lead us into believing that this is the phase that will determine whether you will ever be somebody in life or remain invisible forever. So, everyone joined tuition or extra-school academic program, including group discussions that went on until after dusk. The non-academic extra-curricular activities were mostly there for show. Physical exercise was done scarcely throughout the year, while life skills classes were taken up as a free lesson to finish assignments. The only active clubs for several schools were drama and debating clubs, which would organize activities only once or twice a year. The only dreams we could afford to have involved Mathematics, Physics, and Chemistry. We were denied family time, with all these assignments and exams always lurking. We would come back home feeling like zombies, with eyes half-open, the only thing we’d want to see is the bed. We would barely have time for madrasa. For anyone who cared to be somebody someday, life was a robotic experience.

***

I remember when I was in primary school, we had a mathematics teacher I would now call Mr. M. As a form of punishment, he would cane us for every wrong answer in his tests (and those tests were almost on the daily!!). Those who received 98% on the tests were not spared. They would get a cane for giving an incorrect answer to that one question. That also meant if someone got a 50% they would get 25 good strokes!! 

He had this fine and strong cane that he would use on us, and he would cane us right below our thighs with so much vigour that my skin would turn greenish-black. According to Mr. M, this was for our own good. It was the best way to make us improve in maths. However, the only thing it did was make us terrified of him and maths.

Our whole day was spent dreading that it will soon be maths class. 

Other than that, it made us feel less of ourselves. 

When someone jumped or cried whilst being caned, the rest of the class laughed, even when all of us knew we would get a taste of the same cane. So, you can imagine how it must have been like for the students who would get 50% or below, as the whole class watched and laughed at them whilst receiving twenty-five strokes of the cane on their little thighs.

I for one did improve in maths slightly, but in retrospect, it made me hate the subject entirely. It made me detest going to school. I used to have a maths phobia and sometimes before an exam, I would panic about failing the subject. And this went on for my entire life, I would avoid anything that had any math or even had the slightest similarity to the subject. Sometimes I wonder what happened to Mr. M, whether he is really proud that he made us achieve better marks in maths by causing us such unnecessary dread and panic, despite the cheating that was done by some? What exactly is the point of putting these young kids under so much pressure? When will teachers understand that all kids have different abilities? 

I didn’t realize it back then but when I look back now I am convinced that that was plain old-school bullying. Mr. M broke my self-esteem, just like several other teachers along the way. I am not anti-disciplining; I am just anti-bullying. The saddest part is that several of the teachers who were known for their brutality and nastiness don’t even realize how much they have scarred students over the years; some to the extent of making their students detest school, transfer elsewhere, or drop out and gave up entirely…

***

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