To give a child a chance at school

 

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Category: Children/Teenagers Date: 12 Mar 00


Luck and lotto at play

 

In my rear view mirror I could see the child’s ponytail and the back of her feet as she crouched on the dirt in front of a car. She turned around and leaned against the car, using one small hand as an effective shield against the white heat.

 

Strands of brown sunburnt hair escaped from the rubberband and untidily framed her round face. I got out to get my ticket from the car park attendant and she came running over in a dress that was faded and two sizes too big for her and smiled - a big happy, toothy, childish, innocent smile. My heart turned over. The glare backlit her hair, into a flaming halo. She was a ragged angel.

 

The light had changed to chocolate gold by the time I returned to the car park. I saw the ragged angel. She was sitting still, her face buried in tiny hands with the dirty fingernails and remnants of red nailpolish. Tired now, the day was done.

 

The next day at midday she was there again. In the same dress. Standing next to her father in the car park without a booth. “Why you didn’t go to school today?” I asked, thinking how she didn’t even have anywhere to shelter if it rained or sit down if she was tired from morning to night.

 

Her father who had the look of a man whose innate cheer has been defeated by life said she didn’t get in. He applied to two schools in Port of Spain. “They don’t have room.” He said she was six and that her name is Kesi, that he had two other children, one of whom was in school that his wife was working. I didn’t ask about the other child.

 

That evening, as I entered the car park, Kesi skipped up to me and smiled her free, open childsmile - more heartrending since I as an adult knew the rules that she would learn soon. That a lack of education, and poverty was enough to slam shut all the possibility that lit up her face. And that soon even that light would fade once she comes to understand rejection and what it meant. Not that she didn’t know now, children know a lot more instinctively than we think, but the hope was still fresh, would take a good more bashing before it hardened into bitterness.

 

She tugged at my shirt. “I could come with you?” That I had showed a little interest in her in one conversation was enough, plenty for her to place her life in my hands. The father waited. I hesitated, wanting not to say no, dash hope, wanting to be able to say, yes, and yet what would do I do with her? Bring her home on a sentiment? That might not last? She had parents. And feeling ashamed for not wanting to get involved, wishing children weren’t such a big responsibility, mumbled, “another day.”

 

The father handed me a tightly folded piece of paper. On a Play Whe form, an apt metaphor for Kesi’s life - which was left as much to chance as the lotto, with a similar probability of winning, he had carefully written down her name and the schools to which she had applied.

 

I spent the next morning ringing up school principals in Port-of-Spain. Just went through the directory. I pleaded - said she was only six, had never been to school, lived in a hot car park all day long. That she deserved a chance in life. “Yes yes yes,” they said, irate, as if they’ve heard it all before.

 

Principal after principal turned it around, and instead complained: their first and second year classrooms are jam, crammed, there’s no desks, no rooms, no elbow space; their teachers are already unfairly burdened, its unfair to the children to add another, they had to empty science rooms to create classrooms, that I had to be realistic, that they couldn’t promise anything; that so many people are working in town now that the city’s schools are overflowing.

 

Then, my lotto number came in! I got principal Patricia Williams who sounded like the kind of teacher who uses her power - to give a child a fair shot at life - with the kind of enduring influence that throughout the child’s life opens door after door to him or her.

 

Her school, like the others was overcrowded. “This year I am taking 50 students and I have 163 applicants.” There was space in schools, she said, but the problem was matching spaces to children. Beetham, she said, had a beautiful big school built for 800 but just had 100 children because of the stigma. “But,” she concluded, she believes “in inclusion, especially if a child is living in a car park and would interview her.” She said there were hundreds like Kesi, she wished she could take them all in, that most of them were creative, but not articulate, that she had started an in-house broadcasting course for children to become fluent, communications was the future, she bubbled and bubbled with the thrill of giving back possibility and magic to children.

 

I raced to the car park with a piece of paper with Mrs Williams’s name and school. Kesi her father said “had gone out to come back.” I hope that the next time I see her she will be in uniform, after school. But like lotto, and one principal out of 20, and one child out of hundreds, it’s all in the luck of the draw.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur