Horizon at Sandy Point

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Random conversations: education and work

The old are always wise. The young are always catching up. Are the needs and challenges of the 21st century more or different than in generations past?

Our education system is turning out the wrong people.  I agree. But inside I reflect, how could people be "wrong," it has to be the system that's not appropriate any more, that's outdated; lost its way - perhaps because there was no "way" in the first place. Yes, our ways of teaching children must be different. This envisages a different approach from parents; teachers; and the need for mentors, coaches and role models. The Trinidad education system is by its nature, conservative, a "factory" approach for twenty-thousand new entrants each year, unwieldly, inflexible and archaic. Through the system, we dispense information, with the love for learning an accidental by-product if it is ever engendered at all. One only has to look at the schools - large, institutional, impersonal.

The product of one of the best schools in the country, I absorbed everything like a sponge. The teachers couldn't decide whether I should be streamed to science or literature, geography or mathematics. I didn't choose. I tried to do everything. But math was my favourite; and I had great math teachers. I grew up on a farm; and school was the escape from manual labour. Farm work however gave me hours in my own head, day dreaming about everything and nothing. My mother made sure I could cook, that I knew what weeds to pull out of the garden beds. I became an expert with a broom and vacuum cleaner. My sister, on the other hand, with the same home and school background, gravitated to sewing and art.

I like to think that I grew up in a "golden age" Trinidad, without pressure and plenty potential. Today, I think that there are thousands of children who are lost inside and outside the pressurised education system, who are being deprived of the opportunity to make sense of who they are and what they might be good at. And who is to change that? Every one of us who grew up in the "golden age" must shoulder the task: in every interaction with children. Indeed, how did we lose our golden age?

The big companies would like to import labour. They can't find people to do skilled labour. Can't find, or can't keep? We weren't taught to respect the work of people who had to learn skills, do manual labour, who went to craft school. If there's a shortage of these skills, maybe it's because there's a shortage of respect for these skills. So good technicians are promoted to managers; and we have too many managers and become top heavy! There's something to be said for a system in which there's greater equity between manual and intellectual resources.

From an early age, we figure out it's demeaning to work with our hands. Most parents, even those who work with their hands, want the child to be something "better" which means doing something more respectable. It's re-inforced in schools: the academic over the trade. Most people coming through the school system want to work in an office. School does little to open the child to the possibilities of enterprise, making things, fixing things, cooking, building, manufacturing and services. Indeed, the "service" side of every profession is poorly developed. Being a doctor seldom conveys the notion of help and care. We fear doctors in the way we fear people with superior knowledge.

Bring in more people from China. They are good workers. You think I could borrow a few to build my house? So what are we saying: let's revive the indentured (and slavery) systems that brought so many of our ancestors here, shall we? Because those systems ended in us, they must have worked well, eh! Are our people inherently lazier or less skilled - or have an inclination towards brain work - than in other countries? Trinbagonians generally do well in other countries - in manual or intellectual jobs - where they conform to better systems. Why not at home?

 How do we change the education system? Should we educate heads or hands? We need to change expectations among people, from as early as possible. An early childhood education centre for every child that's born is a good thing. But we all know that learning and teaching is more than being in a pretty building. Teachers in these centres need to see themselves not as teachers, but service providers to a community. Each child represents a family. The child takes home the learning. Perhaps we need smaller schools, more intimate classrooms.  We certainly need teachers with purpose and compassion, seeing themselves responsible for the next generations. Teachers who identify disability, shortcomings, special talents, and who can provide useful alternatives for children who are gifted or challenged. Perhaps we need different approaches to training and motivating teachers; develop a version of national service in which everyone teaches for two years.

And what about those who don't even get to school? Social officers need to be the bridge between home and school for the children most "at risk." Children at school should be children at play, in an environment that encourages learning, and doing, and working. Some schools might again become sanctuaries for those who want to use their hands, as much as their minds. All schools should take their places once more at the heart of their communities.

And the Chinese workers? The fault is not in the Chinese or their workers. It is in our desire for grander buildings than we need; for more than we can use. It is the nature of our greed.

Are we who are wise, too late to make a difference? What might we yet do, so that the young may find the way that we lost.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Wild no more!

A certain familiarity with wild things was part of my life. There was the monkey that was kept on a chain at the back of the shop in Woodbrook. When it escaped, it led my father on a merry chase across the rooftops between Ariapita and Tragarete roads. It's not strange that all these cute and adorable wouldbe pets look to flee at their earliest opportunity. Monkey was not the only one. There followed a succession of rabbits, agoutis, iguana, tortoises, a couple snakes, pairs of finches and even cage bred birds that preferred to be free than hand fed.

Woodpecker in the tree off my porch

The monkey incident happened when I was about four. I don't remember if we got him back; and if we did, what happened to him after. Daddy also had budgerigars, picoplats and other cage birds. And there were tubs and ponds - with fish called mollies, koi, angels, telescopic gold - arranged in the narrow backyard in Woodbrook. Later, on the farm, guppies, guabine, oscars, coscarob and tayter, tilapia and cascadura swam in ponds, amusing customers to our poultry farm and hatchery.

When we first moved to the seven-acre farm in Santa Cruz, in the late fifties, we were sandwiched between a strip development and another farm,  but as far as "town people were concerned" we were in the bush "behind God's back." There was no end of possibility to find or keep wild things. My mother's great fear was snakes. Us kids feared nothing.  We roamed like wild beasts from the river that bounded one end of the farm to beyond the front gate.

In season, my father hunted with a neighbour or two, running - with or without dogs - through the forested hills that linked Santa Cruz to other valleys. They brought back agouti, manicou, armadillo (tattoo). On one rare occasion, when they may have gone further, stayed overnight or longer, they brought back a leg of deer dried and smoky from the forest boucan (French, smoke oven). And I imagined the camp, the riverbank, the woodfire as I tasted a small piece of the meat: not so dry as jerky but not moist either, something to keep chewing on. Wild meat was not something I could desire or develop a craving for.

There were times at the start of the rainy season when they would head out into the hills above Maracas-St Joseph or Arima to see if the manicou crabs were running. If they hit the right moon and rainfall, they would return with a couple crocus bags filled with these sweet brown crabs which were quickly cleaned and stir-fried in a sauce with hot pepper and shadon beni. As kids, we loved the communal casual way of eating with our hands, cracking the joints with the back of a big spoon, sucking the meat and piling up empty shells on the newspaper-covered kitchen table. We could eat crabs until our fingertips wrinkled, as if we'd been in the sea too long.

I actually didn't like the idea of eating any game animals; especially when we would have to see them dead before they were gutted and cleaned for cooking, before they looked like meat. Their pathetic small bodies, eyes staring, fur bloodied and matted, neither pet-cuddly nor meat. The stiffness of death is terrifying to a child, so rigid, unmoving, unnatural. No one could get me to taste even a little piece of 'gouti, far less manicou, and iguana - never. I would think to myself, we have chickens, ducks, pigs, goats - what need to eat some poor wild creature that had to hide and forage for its food; to eat what we would not count as food.

I did love the crabs, though, until I realised I was almost fatally allergic to shellfish. I well remember as a preteen, eating crab through the itchy throat, the "mad blood" welts on my body. But I had to stop, had to eschew crab, shrimp, and every other kind of shellfish; and then I realised I couldn't even be in the same room where shellfish was being cooked.

I like that the corbeaux are as curious about us as we are about them

Turtle too. Leatherback turtle - in the fifties - was on every hunter's list, the bigger the better. But there was a last turtle hunt for our family. My uncle had taken my father's pick up to Matura: a van load of young people, driving for two or three hours to get to a beach to slaughter a large turtle and then to return on a more treacherous ride in the predawn. I woke that morning to see my father hustling to get a ride to Grande, where the van had wrapped around a lamppost, cracking collarbones and disfiguring my aunt's face. Before that, turtle was a sweet and nutritious meat. But enough is enough. We didn't need to eat turtle did we.

On our farm, we had domesticated fowl, ducks, pigs, goats and some pond fish. We kept agoutis and a couple tortoises; the moroccoys were bigger than big watermelons. They might originally have been intended for some special Chinese meal but they were with us so long, no one could imagine slaughtering them. They would stand on their hind legs and dance against the fence when it rained. They too walked away at some point.

We've found snakes in the watering can, on the porch, on the gate and over the front door.

Much later - when I was the mother of two small children - we had snakes. First was a small rainbow boa, that would wrap around a wrist like a leather strap, a bracelet that moved. Once, it escaped in the car. For a week, we could not find it. The husband burnt hot pepper and blew the smoke in the car. Nothing flushed it. One day, I was driving and felt as if a shoe lace had brushed my ankle. It was Tuesday, the rainbow boa. Not long after, she escaped - or was released - somewhere on the farm.

Then came Charlie, a six-foot ten year old macajuel that had been captive raised by a friend. It was convenient to keep Charlie because we could feed him - with rejected baby chicks from the hatchery. He was followed by other boa constrictors taken off people who might have been planning to sell or kill them. There was Thursday, and there was Sky, both boas with their lovely gently patterned skin. Not sure which one bit the husband on his nose. These are, after all, wild creatures, unaccustomed to being handled even affectionately. They don't belong in human homes. Eventually, they all found their way to the zoo before the farm was closed.

In my present domain, still in Santa Cruz, there are iguanas, agoutis and manicous; we hope they are happy and safe in the high bush; we hope they stay away so the dogs - and humans - don't see them. The corbeaux watch from the trees. As do the woodpeckers. Scores of birds serenade us with their chirps and songs. They fly through the house as if this is still their space. Hummingbirds too dazzle us with their colours, their energy, their feistiness at the feeders.

It seems that I have lived with wildlife all my life. It makes me happy to reminisce. I am delighted to see  wild creatures, alive in the environment, even and especially if it has nothing to do with me. It's not necessary for me to possess or pen a wild thing. I don't need the engagement of the chase. I know already that every wild being is cleverer than I am; for being able to fend for itself and its young without walls or agriculture, without toiling or spinning, and especially without my having to do anything but leave them alone.

What was the evolutionary arc that took us from being one with the creatures, to dominion over them? If we can never go back, can we at least imagine the barrenness of life on earth without wild creatures. And if we can, then let us imagine what we ought to do to make sure that there's always life in the wild world.
Some days, lets try "not eating anything with a face" was one conservationist's advice.
We agree.

(A two-year moratorium on hunting was legislated in Trinidad and Tobago on October 1, 2013. Let us use this period to re-learn how to "live" with the wild. We certainly don't need to eat turtle, quenk, agouti, iguana, parrot, crab, manicou or armadillo to live.)