His good friend, the guard, thought otherwise.
"No Caleb" he said erasing with his palm the superfluous line on his capital A. "You don't need this line here. See?"
Caleb, being three, stubbornly insisted he was correct.
The guard turned to me and asked, "Mama Caleb, what position is Caleb in school?"
Me: "Um... do you mean, what rank is he in his class? I have no idea. He's only three."
Totally missing my point, he continued. "Well, what did he get on his exams?"
Um.... First of all, what exactly are you implying here, guy? My boy ain't no dummy.
And secondly: He's three!
Thirdly: THREE!! He still needs my help tying his shoes and occasionally wets his pants. He's three. Should he really be subjected to exams and rankings?
You know, I figured being in Kenya we could escape the Manhattanite your-baby-can-read cut-throat competitiveness that has been infamously creeping earlier and earlier. But then someone asks me how my three year old has fared in his "exams."
Truth is, schooling is a serious issue here. It makes sense that in a country with high unemployment, an enormous do-or-die premium is placed getting as much schooling as possible. And entrance to University is completely based on a test. GPAs, extra-curriculars, an eloquent admission essay get you nothing. Have a bad test day, and you're screwed.
It can help having gone to a good secondary school (high school), but to do that, guess what? You better perform well on another test. If you do, you win admission to a federal secondary school and are set up for further success.
Exams are so important that most schools have a "prayer day" in which parents are invited to come to school and pray with their children for high marks on exams. When I first heard about prayer day, I thought it was hilarious. Like the nation had enshrined a desperate teenager's hail Mary the day before a big exam, "Please God let me do well," into a formal tradition. But it makes more sense to me now. You do all the preparation you possibly can, and then you pray. Don't leave anything this important to earthly chance. May as well call in some deities.
The great expense and effort that goes into schooling children and helping them do well is one of the great under-reported stories from this continent. The most common financial struggle I've heard from people living on the margins is paying school fees. Every single mother I interviewed during my village stay mentioned obtaining enough school fees as her number one stressor as a parent. Primary school is now subsidized by the government (though this has led to overcrowding and an exodus to and proliferation of private schools), but secondary school is a big expense. Of those who can even afford it at all, parents spend, on average, 55% of their income on secondary school. That's more than half of their income on high school alone.
Tell that to anyone who says or implies that what keeps countries poor is people's apathy or inertia to better their lot. Living here you regularly see children walking to school before the sun is fully up and then coming home in the evening. You see them in school uniforms on Saturdays. You see them going to extra classes during their school holiday.
I'm not saying children should go to school all those hours and years. And I'm not saying anything about the pedagogy of the Kenyan education system. High stakes testing is currently driving out creativity and critical thinking in the US, and it's no different here. Too much time in the classroom leaves little room to develop other important life skills. There's room for improvement everywhere.
I guess what I'm saying is that even though I'm terribly annoyed that someone feels it appropriate to ask how my pre-schooler (That's his age group. Pre. School) is ranked in comparison to his classmates, I understand where this comes from. The drive to grab a slice of the pie is more desperate in a country with not enough slices for everyone. And that drive percolates down to the youngest ages. Even Caleb's class. A class called "Baby Class."
|Because each post needs a picture: A sample of Caleb's homework. (the teacher started it for him to show him what color he should use.)|