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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