When I attended primary school, I remember those who were classified as the “dunce” children. Such a label on anyone—a dunce is a person who is considered slow at learning or stupid—could cause irreparable damage to one’s self esteem. Those children were placed in the ‘B,’ ‘C’ and ‘D’ classes and, sadly, many of them slipped through the system because of the absence of the attention they needed to cultivate whatever natural abilities they had.

THINK ON THAT 3They were children just like me. Most of us were coming from the same backgrounds. We had hardworking parents who were trying their best to ensure our needs were met. For many of those children, the tales of their parents were similar or identical–they too would have passed through a school system that did not fulfill their needs.

I remember looking at my peers at times and thinking that they were fortunate to not have the pressure that we, the ones in the ‘A’ classes, had. It often appeared that it did not matter whether they did their work or not, because they were the ones who would end up in the Community High Schools.

The Community High Schools, back in the 90s when I wrote the Common Entrance Exams (now the National Grade Six Assessment), was painted as a place of shame–a place where you, by no means, wanted to be placed because then everyone would know you were a “dunce.” There are many stories of parents who would have physically and verbally abused their children because they were placed at Community High Schools. I remember often hearing that the Community High Schools were failing the children because originally when they were established they were meant to focus heavily on skills training. By the time I became aware of what the Community High School was back then, things seemed to have changed and there seemed to be more focus on the academics.

Although the focus and preparation in primary school was for those Common Entrance Exams, I remember we still had time to enjoy our childhoods. There was no end to games, such as ‘chinee’ skipping, hopscotch and ‘ketcher.’ In the countryside where I grew up, it was tradition when you got home from school in the afternoons. Boys and girls played together, sometimes, until it started getting dark.

During the day at school, we also took advantage of the breaks to enjoy ourselves. I cannot recall having to take extra lessons until a year or two before I was due to write the Common Entrance Examinations.

The pressure came the closer it got to Common Entrance. All around you were talks of “top schools,” with the expectation that you would be placed in one of those schools. I remember how nervous I was when I wrote Common Entrance and I cannot remember completing any of the papers. In my day, you had 60 questions and 60 minutes to answer. As a child who liked to take my time to analyse things, the time just wasn’t enough for me. I remember feeling disappointed in myself because having not completed my papers, I was worried for weeks about how it would affect my marks and placement. Eventually, when the results were released, I was the top of my school and my village, but had not placed at the school I desired and the disappointment continued. There I was, as a child who had done well, but yet still it did not feel good enough because I was not going to go to the “top school” I wanted to. Now, imagine the plight of those considered “dunce.”

Today, many young children attend hours of extra lessons and hardly find time to play as they prepare for Grade Six Examinations, all in the hopes of being placed in a “top school.” There has been a lot of talk about the pressure parents are putting on their children and many believe that some parents are living vicariously through them. I do think there is truth to that, but maybe we are too quick to judge some of those parents. After all, who doesn’t want the best for their children? In the society we live in, being the best equals going to one of the “top schools.” Maybe some of the parents were called “dunce” or felt disappointed by the way they turned out. Maybe some just want to be able to brag about their children. Whatever the reason is, the children are the ones who should matter and they should not be robbed of a balanced childhood.

There are many children with the innate drive to compete and do well and there is nothing wrong with that. Then there are those who would rather not have to study so hard and would rather spend more time exploring other aspects of childhood. There are also those who are considered the “dunce children”–the ones who no one really celebrates. The time has come to change that.

I carried my disappointment with Common Entrance into Secondary School and by the time I got to third form, I had lost interest in what school was offering. I knew by that time that I wanted to be a writer and I did not feel that the school offered enough to help me develop my gift. I went through the motions of writing exams and waited patiently to be done with school.

In my opinion, the way we educate our children needs reform. We must stop labeling children as dunce. An environment must be created where children are able to learn at their own pace and where their talents could be developed. We must ask ourselves: Are we preparing them for life, or just for exams?

I remember someone who worked at the University of Guyana telling me that many of the children who attend the “top schools” burn out by the time they get to UG because they would have been put under too much pressure, too soon.

Not all of the children will fall into law or medicine or education. There is nothing wrong with the ones who will become construction workers, drivers or sales people. There is a place for everyone in this life and every honest job has a purpose that adds to the society. We must get to a place where regardless of what career we choose, we must be able to live comfortably with the money we make.

And if we take time to check in on those who were considered “dunce children,” we would find that some of them are doing extremely well as adults, some are making the best of life and some would have fallen by the wayside. If we check in on those who were considered the “bright children,” we would find the same.