When it comes to nurturing and maintaining good, healthy, harmonious human relations, a little empathy always goes a long way. Empathy, sad to say, is a quality which is woefully lacking in our harsh and often uncompromising Barbadian society. Indeed, the lack of empathy is a major obstacle standing in the way of Barbados becoming a kinder, gentler, more caring and understanding society.
What do I mean by empathy? It involves, to use the words of contemporary British philosopher Roman Krznaric, “stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions”.
Another explanation says it is “a constant awareness of the fact that your concerns are not everyone’s concerns and that your needs are not everyone’s needs and that some compromise has to be achieved moment by moment”.
The lack of empathy is seen in the terrible way people are often treated in Barbados, especially persons who are considered poor, powerless and can be easily walked over by the so-called system. By so doing, society unwittingly creates monsters out of inherently good people who come back later to haunt us by exacting revenge for the injustices earlier meted out to them.
It seems empathy has been lacking in the issue involving the 15-year-old student at the centre of the Springer Memorial School imbroglio, which has dragged on for the past several weeks and has been dominating public discussion. Keeping the child out of the classroom for eight weeks for simply refusing to pick up a piece of garbage, and then unilaterally transferring her to another school without the agreement of her parent, is, to my mind, unreasonable and excessive.
Notwithstanding the need for discipline in our schools, the bottom line is: however you look at the issue based on the information in the public domain, the order amounts to an injustice against the child who obviously saw it as an indignity. Her position is understandable if empathy is applied.
In schools, children who are disciplined are sometimes the butt of jokes for other children. Children can be quite cruel.
When I was at school, boys who received a flogging were sometimes laughed at for days, especially if they were known to have cried after receiving the punishment. Imagine what it would be like for a child to be ridiculed by her peers as a garbage collector in a society that is known to look down on such workers who perform a vital and invaluable social service.
In the eyes of some people, garbage collectors are nobodies. I have heard the shameful story about a sanitation worker who asked for a glass of water from a household, only to see the same glass in the garbage the following week when he returned to do the pickup. Let’s not bury our heads in the sand about these things.
We sometimes take strong objection when Peter has to pay for Paul, but somehow, in this case, it seems all right with some people based on their criticisms of the child and her mother. Justifying their position, some critics say they too had to pick up other people’s garbage in their schooldays, so what is the problem?
I too had to do so in my time, but that does not mean it was just. In fact, children in my primary school days, as part of the sanitation team swept the school, cleaned the drains with a bass broom, and the yard. Such would be considered child labour today; but it was accepted back then. The practice ceased when a janitor was employed.
Regrettably, Barbados has a tradition where children were always seen as not having rights. I grew up in that dark era where a child was supposed to “learn to take its place”, including passively taking whatever was dished out by adults. Total obedience was expected.
We were not supposed to raise as much a whimper of protest. Fortunately, I was raised differently by an enlightened great-grandmother.
That dark era happily is now behind us. However, some in our midst, especially a few pedagogic dinosaurs who continue to extol the “virtues” of beating, are struggling like drowning men against the strong tide of change which, thank God, has brought us into a more enlightened era with a much more humane approach to discipline.
Discipline within the school system must be maintained but it must be applied with fairness and empathy. I am not one of those Barbadians who will say teachers are always right. They are not. Some teachers, from my own experience, can be biased and unfair, especially if they dislike a child for whatever reason.
I cannot say this is so in this particular case. I have encountered a few unreasonable teachers in my time who picked on children but, on the other hand, there were several others who genuinely cared and earned our enduring love and respect. A good example of the latter is the immortal Colin “Couchie” Reid, revered Foundation Latin teacher.
I lay no claim to be a legal expert, but the child’s treatment, in my layman’s view, does seem to be in contravention of some of her rights under the United Nations Convention On The Rights Of The Child. The Government of Barbados is a signatory to this international law and is obligated, through its various agencies, including the Ministry of Education, to ensure delivery on the commitments.
The articles which seem relevant in this case are 12, 13, 28, and 36.
Article 12 states that “every child has the right to have a say in all matters affecting them, and to have their views taken seriously”. Article 13 gives every child the freedom “to say what they think . . . as long as it is within the law”; Article 28 emphasizes the right of every child to an education and states that “discipline in schools must respect children’s dignity”. Article 36 commits signatory governments to protect children from unfair treatment.
The big question is: why couldn’t this matter have been amicably resolved much earlier? Was it a case of adult egos? A child refusing to comply with a teacher’s order to take up a piece of garbage is a minor issue, considering the bigger and, in some cases, more dangerous problems in our schools today. Unfortunately, the child has already been exposed to ridicule, which is unfortunate.
At long last, Minister of Education Ronald Jones is expected to intervene in the impasse tomorrow. Hopefully, from this meeting will come a settlement satisfactory to the parent, the child and the school so that the child can get on with her education and also receive the necessary support to get over what obviously has been a traumatic experience.
I wish her and her mother well. They have suffered enough.
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and long-standing journalist.