young male voice was on the phone.
Mary’s College was holding its Inter-Class Debate final. Would I consent
to be one of the judges? As a child I understood that children could be
mercilessly cruel because they are honest.
an adult I know that a child’s judgment can be brutal because it is
is irony in an adult judging adolescents because we are no longer equipped
with their kind of instinctual honesty. They still have an open bird’s
eye view of the world. Their curiosity has not been whittled or dulled
with experience. We adults have already huddled into tiny corridors to
cope with life’s many vexations and horrors.
see clearly, we have to cut through so many learned prejudices, wade
through our own “issues” of insecurity, and come to terms with our
limited vision. The question I put to myself was not whether I would
“judge”, but whether I would be able to withstand their piercing
next morning the other two external judges, Mrs Wendy Yorke and Dr Lynette
Welch-Phillips and I (after a warm welcome from the principal, Father
Ronald Mendes), were ushered into the Centenary Hall, by teachers and
internal judges towards a long table in the middle of the hall.
could see behind every child, every crisp shirt and long pants, every
jelled back hair, the anxious care of a parent.
was ashamed by the fact that apart from dedicated teachers and parents who
loved them, we adults were failing them.
society was letting them down by leaving wide, bored spaces for them for
crime and quick-fix violence and pornography. We were offering them a
society devoid of decent museums (or at least lively up to date ones)
libraries (rather than one intimidating structure in the middle of
Port-of-Spain and out of the way for many children), decent sports fields,
science centres where they could learn about exciting discoveries, art
schools, vintage cinemas, Internet cafes, spaces other than malls, where
they could get together to ignite ideas — consider themselves in the
context of a world where we are about to allow some seven million people
to starve to death in Zimbabwe, and the world was at the brink of war
initiated by the US and the UK, for instance.
were failing them with their narrow, self-interested policies.
were failing them with their message that all that counted was the bottom
line — at any cost. And even in the intellectual community we are
chewing cud stuck in the rut of following the petty movements of petty
public figures. These boys had an up-hill battle ahead.
Welch-Phillips nudged me out of these depressing ruminations as she said,
looking at the debaters on the stage. “This is a side of schools we
read on our programme: ‘Be it resolved that, Poverty invalidates the
statement in the First Article of the Universal Declaration of Human
human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”’.
takes a great deal of courage to stand up in front of an entire school at
16 or 17 to debate this complex issue. Yet four boys did it.
Harrison, Christopher Skinner, (who scored the highest points with his
ability to roll out figures to support his arguments, and remain
unruffled), Rushil Pinto-Periera (who I swear will be a politician with
the manner in which he commanded attention) and Devin Escallier had that
presenting the results and remarks on behalf of the judges, I spoke of the
individual strengths and weaknesses of the boys’ debating skills. But
there is more I wanted to say: That the ability to express themselves is
one of the most powerful tools they could ever equip themselves with.
Language would allow them to explore and articulate their own emotional
and intellectual thoughts, so they would understand why they were
compelled to do this or that, whether or not it made long-term sense, or
was good for them.
passion for words would brighten, quicken every area of their lives —
from their relationships with girls and mothers to providing them with
that supreme gift, lifelong engagement with this infinitely interesting
ability to communicate, to command attention, had the power to change the
destiny of millions. It could start or stop wars. It could save seven
million starving people in Zimbabwe. It could allow each one of those boys
the opportunity to fulfil their potential and change the landscape of our
history. I wanted to tell them to continue to love words because words
propel and plunge us into the heart of life itself.