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
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
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
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
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
_ Next week: Addressing the graduates.