Words beyond words


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Category: Children/Teenagers Date: 01 Dec 02

A young male voice was on the phone.

Respectful, articulate, bright.

St 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.

As an adult I know that a child’s judgment can be brutal because it is piercingly penetrating.

There 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.

To 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 scrutiny.

The 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.

I could see behind every child, every crisp shirt and long pants, every jelled back hair, the anxious care of a parent.

I was ashamed by the fact that apart from dedicated teachers and parents who loved them, we adults were failing them.

Our 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.

Politicians were failing them with their narrow, self-interested policies.

Businessmen 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.

Dr 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 rarely see”.

She was right.

We read on our programme: ‘Be it resolved that, Poverty invalidates the statement in the First Article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”’.

It 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.

Stefan 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 courage.

While 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.

A 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 complex world.

The 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.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur