“Prestige School” Ponderings

I have a kind of psychic claustrophobia. A fear of anything that confines me to a prescribed amount of space in the world. Labels, check-boxes, baggage, stuff like that. I’m so averse to it I wrote a one-woman play (soap box) about it called, appropriately, Pack Light.

Trinidad is so small that no matter what school you went to, people tend to tote — or try to bestow others with — baggage, and lots of it, as though the contents pertain to who we are in a lasting and meaningful way. It’s perhaps even more acute with the “prestige schools”, and lethal in the “west” of Trinidad. For me, the baggage-handling becomes tiresome. I’m inclined to hurry to lose the excess baggage, rather than be burdened with labels which reduce me to an alum of any one school, or member of any one tribe.

I can be such a zealot about it that when people ask me what school I went to, I have declined to state. Calling the name and dealing with people’s reactions around it has amounted, to me, to “sound and fury signifying nothing.” Nevertheless, the society is still overcome by the impulse to “brand” self vs other, which to me is one of the most natural but potentially destructive of human inclinations. And if we’ve benefitted from such outstanding educations, one would think we can and should be beyond that.

So with that in mind, and a little bit of embarrassment about the stereotypes assigned to my alma mater, I would plead “no comment” if asked to speak on my high school experience. But here I break my silence. Yes, yes, I read Attillah’s article in Caribbean Beat. Ironically, it freed me from any impulses to identify or disidentify with my alma mater. I spent ages 11–18 at St. Joseph’s Convent, Port of Spain. And…? Am I a “Convent Girl”? Steups. There are a slew of Convent schools across Trinidad, so other than going to a Catholic school with a past or present connection to a Convent, what does that mean? Are there issues that come with attending a Catholic school, like there are issues with being raised Catholic? Sure. But it doesn’t negate what positives there were, either.

What do I mean by that? And what does it mean to have gone to SJC-POS (or any “prestige school” anywhere in the country, or in the world)? The up side was, since it was hard to get in to, there is a sense of accomplishment for having managed to get in. This can (but does not necessarily) build confidence. The underbelly of that is the test-taking hell that T&T students endure for far too long, where not excelling results in a quality of education which is inexcusably poorer than at top and “prestige” schools. And even when in the coveted school, the pressure to excel and constantly perform one’s “exceptionality” could be crippling.

SJC was my first choice school at Common Entrance, followed by Bishop’s, Holy Name, and Providence, because those were the best public schools in my area. Far from some of the reductive stereotypes about it, going there introduced me to some of the most outstanding teachers and mentors (shout-out to Maria Nunes for history, Jeanette Williams for human geography, and Carol Montserin and Lorraine Neaves for English, among others), who taught us early and emphatically the importance of critical and independent thinking. The kind of thinking that can make you appreciate but also be mindful of your school’s or tribe’s shortcomings. It set me on my way to a National Scholarship, and graduating with highest honours as the first and only Performance Studies Major from the top liberal arts school in the US. At the same time, I don’t have any blind loyalty that would preclude me from engaging in criticism, or articulating the reasons for the aforementioned (and now largely expired) embarrassment I felt.

Do I wish I had gone somewhere else? No. Now, if there was some excellent non-denominational, public school with excellent teachers, then maybe there. But I’m not sure that place exists in Trinidad. Do I care if anyone else (mainly from one other school) thinks I really secretly do wish I’d gone to that (ie their) school? *giggle* No! Do I think anybody else is deprived or jealous or anything else because they didn’t go there? No. I don’t default to thinking anyone who has a different perspective or background from me is a “hater” or “jealous” of what mine is, so have never understood why there are others who do.

Maybe it’s just me, but high school feels like a long time ago my outlook and interests are so different; my desire to have an interesting, talented, and diverse cross-section of friends and colleagues who will both affirm me and challenge me so strong that I can’t imagine being overly attached to any tribal identity, high school included. Particularly if you’ve since completed undergraduate or postgraduate programmes, or have been working for any length of time, or travelling out of this space…I wonder what degree of relevance high school even has on who you now are. Does no more growth or anything more interesting happen after? So much so that your high school tribe remains the ascendant one in your consciousness? Don’t get me wrong — there’s nothing wrong with tribes and communities. The trouble comes when our loyalty and pride around them blinds us to any sense of balance or perspective, and feeds an “us vs them” mentality…or, worse yet, a “we are better than them” outlook.

No doubt there’s some truth to all stereotypes, and there may be trends and correlations among or between different student populations. The sad part is what those are, and why. And all of us who have benefitted from any good education — whether from good schools, or from being self-taught — should be looking at ways to work together to make a good education available to everyone. Because without it, and many other public systems, our country is unravelling. There are enough excuses in the world to unnecessarily polarise ourselves and make caricatures of those different from us (both on this small island and around the world) that the high school days you couldn’t pay me to re-live should not, in any conversation, even make the list.

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