Of Past and Future

 

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Category: Reflections 06 Jul 14

 

When I got the invitation to be the feature speaker to the graduating class of the Parvati Girls Hindu College in south Trinidad, I felt a strange emotion. Shame. When I heard this story from the creators of the Facebook page People of Trinidad, I knew why.

How could I, representing our society today, possibly have “advice” for young people, when I’m part of the problem? What could I give them but a hoary, hypocritical, platitudinous diatribe that would either make them sick or bore them to tears?

I write, yes, but I am not a social activist or an agent of change. I don’t sit in the middle of the road protesting that over 60 days has passed and not a dent on the investigation of Dana Seetahal’s assassination.

I don’t protest road deaths, the rising corruption index, the government-funded make-work gang culture that fuels crime. I do not bang on doors asking for the social workers to show their faces to the abandoned children in homes.

The story: A Trini youth was sitting in a maxi taxi minding his business, when an elderly man of the other majority race in T&T attacked him verbally with racist vitriol. The boy’s eyes welled up when he felt an unexpected cool hand on his.

He looked up and saw a girl of the same race as the waspish senior citizen. The two young people, one African, one Indian, smiled at one another. She said, looking him in the eye: “Don’t mind him. He is the past. We are the future.”

Back in 2007, the late senator Angela Cropper, who was literally one in 1.2 million embodying the spirit of civic citizenship (the kind we have never seen since), was asked to speak to graduating students in UWI. For those graduates, Angela Cropper came up with the seven deadly sins of our culture and how they have infected our very souls. It’s worth naming them, followed by a supporting quote from her speech.

Sin One: Materialism. “This is leading us to being disconnected from our physical place and from one another.”

Sin Two: Individualism. “Each person for herself; ‘me’ at the expense of the ‘other,’ breakdown of the authority and stability of family, school, community; and scant regard for the value of those relationships for creating and sustaining the social order.”

Sin Three: Civic complacency. “We do have that capacity to rise up as a body

politic and let our voice be heard, and to rescue ourselves from our five-yearly caricature of democracy, but we don’t bestir ourselves to do so.”

Sin Four: Violence. “Violence has been a long-standing aspect of political, family and gender relations in the Caribbean; but it is now becoming the routine means for dealing with even inconsequential conflicts.”

Sin Five: Corruption. “We take pride in finding loopholes or getting around regulations, or evading the law. The longstanding perception of the ‘Trickidadian’ by our Caribbean compatriots is not without some basis. ‘No damn dog bark,’ ‘all ah we tief,’ ‘politics has its own morality.’ These statements have become emblematic.”

Sin Six: Half-ar--dness. “And then there is the Caribbean tendency to do only as little as would get us by; to go for cosmetic rather than fundamental change.”

Sin Seven: Nihilism. “The above facets accumulate towards an absence of feelings, of value for non-material aspects of life and relationships; a disregard for moral principles; and absence of soul.”

I wish Angela were here. Last week my parched soul was filled up with the oasis of the Parvati Girls Hindu College’s graduation. There were academic prizes, yes, the school underfunded and so hopelessly understaffed that they cannot offer A-level students any subject other than business studies.

But there were also prizes for dedication, for service. There are no science facilities. There are enough teachers countrywide— but not evenly divided in schools.

Like one big family, the teachers, students, parents and a few sponsors put the show together with scant resources.

The principal, Ann Marie Tewarie, is a wonderful woman who treats all the girls like her own children. The teachers are like young sisters, who “beg” teachers to fill in, who battle against the stereotypes of “coolie” rural schools, who push students towards excellence, national competitions and training opportunities. The principal is bringing up generations of girls who are the opposite of what Angela was afraid of.

I saw excellence there, a determination to complete every task with pride, respect for elders, a culture of merit, of curiosity of other cultures, races and religions as part of life’s treasures. I saw compassion, service, exuberance, humility, a lively curiosity for languages, books, travel, science and art.

The girls—despite the fact that the Ministry of Education overlooks their staff and equipment needs—drive the school with their soul, with integrity and gratitude for being taught.

That morning as they sang in Hindi, spoke beautiful English, understood Spanish and French, they displayed integrity and a gentle sophistication that one expects to encounter in first world countries. Teachers with degrees, who could be earning much more in other places, stay in the school.

As I drove home past the tall grass gleaming in the sunshine, and rolled down my window, I breathed in the air of hope. We are the past. They are the future.

_ Next week: Addressing the graduates.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur