Memoirs of a Public School student {2}

I wish I could say Secondary school was as much fun as Primary. It wasn’t. I found myself sent again, to a school where the average class size was 70. But I felt no fear. Confident that I had finally discovered myself, I concealed a wicked smile from everyone. They had no idea what was coming for them, did they? I wanted to teach every one of them a lesson. I planned to relegate them to the back of the class.

If you know kids, you know they cannot fight the temptation to compare with their mates. Toys, experiences, a kid’s joy is truly full when he has confirmed that he is better than his peers. They compare everything, and in this case, Common Entrance scores. I remember the pride with which I called out my score to the guys with me on the assembly line on day one. After all, I had finished as the best in my centre, what reason did I have to be humble? “How did you manage to get in here”, they had asked me.

You see, when you are on your high horse, it’s very difficult to see what others are seeing.

Take my response for example: “Oh, this school is close to home so I figured you know, I’d settle for this”. Then their probes made the situation crystal. “No, I meant how did you manage to get in? I had 565.” Another said he had 525. To be honest, in the space of 15 seconds, my horse had shrunk into a mule. I was the lowest scoring entrant in the 6-student radius, to my front, my back, my left and my right.

Now, here’s a lesson for the wise. The truly humble take on the world! When you feel like you own the world, any efforts that actually yield you the world mean nothing. Did you not just lay claim to its ownership? But when you see the world from the lenses of the less privileged, the disadvantaged, the grateful, any piece of the world that you get then, is a plus. I found myself humbled involuntarily, but humbled nonetheless.

A lot can be said about my experience in secondary school. The wide range of subject teachers evened out the large population of the class. Offering 17 subjects in Junior Secondary School 1, for example, and having up to 24 teachers for those 17 subjects made me realize something: the teacher-to-student ratio was about 1 to 3. This diversity led to specialization. The teachers were good at their jobs. They had comprehensive notes in each subject and students were afforded a chance to discover their passions in various fields, but competition was stiff. Classes became battlegrounds.

Here’s one mystery though – We didn’t really battle against ourselves in isolation. We battled to gain the love and admiration of our teachers. We had favorite teachers, we had favorite subjects and we battled to gain recognition of the former and in the latter. A pattern began to show, you see? Some students were able to maintain excellent standings in every subject. Others from this early stage, showed remarkable strengths in certain subjects and couldn’t care less if they flunked others. The report sheets had also been designed to reflect students’ individual performances in each subject. It was common to see a student come 2nd in English Language, 2nd in Yoruba Language, 1st in French and 65th in Mathematics in his class. It was possible to see some students come 1st in all 17 subjects.

The “competition-based” system had its merits. There were many demerits too. For example,many students were lost in the fray. They slipped between the cracks. It became increasingly difficult to focus on students’ specific strengths. The competition drove some students to unethical lengths in a determination to keep their positions in front of the class. It became common finding A-grade students who cheated because they wanted to augment their efforts. They became unsatisfied with merely attempting their questions and developed the unhealthy habit of not leaving the exam hall until every question was answered and if their efforts could not satisfy that, they looked for dishonest alternatives. It became increasingly difficult to look at a student’s report sheet and intelligently ascertain where his interests lay.

What about team work and collaboration? Resting In Peace somewhere, I reckon. One day, or so the story goes, team work asked to share his opinion in a class where the best man wins and gets all the recognition. It never made it out of the class alive. Collaboration did one better. He made into the exam halls. He developed a network students began to call Voltron. They subscribed to his network for answers to questions in topics they never studied. You never saw collaboration when students had homework. They hardly discussed ideas about academic content. Everyone hoarded his secrets on such days, but every exam day was a birthday for Collaboration.

Here’s a short anatomical preview of Voltron in the classroom. It consisted of

  1. The HEAD – The originator of the information. He studied, and that makes him the authority in this framework
  2. The EYES – this was the student who kept a lookout. He watched for invigilators and oversaw the smooth synthesis of information.
  3. The HANDS – he was the courier of the information.
  4. The LEGS – the information passed ended here and he was in charge of getting rid of the evidence.

Each role was rotational. The head could be the leg in a matter of seconds. And there you have it. The VOLTRON.

Are team work and collaboration crucial skills in the 21st century? You bet! They help members get projects executed all around the world across time zones and continent landmarks, in real time in fact. But there is a need to address what these really mean in the classroom. Where do we draw the line? I have thousands of witnesses who would testify that our competition-based system never prepared them for what their future held in stock. Teachers need to breed true team work among students and collaboration should not be designed to cheat the system. I wish the story ended there. It didn’t. It got worse!

The first standardized examination that students take to scale from Junior Secondary school to Senior secondary school is the Junior West African Examination. I’ll be blunt. The invigilation process was airtight. I have not had the opportunity of witnessing many of such large-scale examinations, but the few I have experienced had impressive invigilation protocols. The students learnt to rely on their hard work and the results were reflective of those efforts. I say it got worse because the decision to be a science student had not been taken by me. No one had consulted me on the matter that would shape my future. My opinion hadn’t counted. I simply resumed school in Senior Secondary School 1 after finishing in the top 10 of my 600-population junior secondary school to learn by virtue of my performance, I had been selected to continue my education in science class.

Retrospectively, I believe they made the right choice, and this is going to come as a shock to you. Someone, or more appropriately, some system took a chance with my future; took the coin that decided what path I would follow, tossed it into air and based its choice on the outcome. I had been getting unbelievable scores in social studies and economics. I mean 99’s and 98’s. But, I had been getting 85’s and 90’s in Integrated Science and Introductory Technology. I mean, I loved these science subjects but if my scores had been anything to go by, they would have shown that the art and commercial subjects were my bread and butter. In an unprecedented turn of events, I found myself where I fit in, only by luck…and I know this, because I believe that they made the wrong choice for so many students.

Many who knew what they wanted and knew they wanted science were irrevocably lumped in the supposedly less-challenging Arts & Commercial classes while few who wanted Arts & Commercials were forced to remain in Science classes because they had done well in a standardized examination.

This same injustice persists till date. We use it to murder passion. We use it in this country to silence personal goals and aspirations, stratifying our future leaders into paths many had no choice deciding.

It transcends beyond the Junior School West African Examinations. It eats deep into our selection of candidates for University, Polytechnics and Colleges of Education. The universities get the first pick of the best performing students in yet another “STANDARDIZED” examination while the remnants get picked by the Polytechnics, then the colleges of education, again in that order.

Now, let’s see what we have in the end: classrooms filled with students who have been subjected to unfair systems of examinations, categorized and segregated by virtues of their performances in these unfair examinations and then forced into conforming with settings they never wanted, to start with.

The final piece of the puzzle was my adventure in Senior Secondary School and University.

[Part 2 of 3]