Saturday, 14 March 2009

They can buy anything but they can't buy backbone

Last night at the pub, an unanticipated topic came up: schooling. One woman had gone to a public school in Cork; she was lamenting that they didn't have a swimming pool. They could only play basketball and hockey, she said. But she had an arts studio and a drama stage.

Another guy had been to a private boarding-school - one of those flagship English schools. Naturally, he had all the sporting facilities, and much more. His single-sex education, combined with students living in the school all through the year, led to interesting encounters!

What about you, Ahmed, they asked?

I went to public Nigerian schools. At one point, we had 80 pupils in our class; we had 30-years-old men in class; we had no swimming pool and no sporting facilities, except for a football pitch; no library. Arts, music, drama: no sir, nothing. In fact, we'd have periods in which the teachers simply didn't turn up - just 'cos.

Then I went to a free, public university in Egypt. I specialised in computer science, but we had only one computer room - to which we did not have access until our second-to-last year, for two hours a week only.

The college library stocked books as new as 1973 - in 1990. And the woman who fetched you the book from the dusty collections got off work at 1pm, so if you wanted a book, you had better get there well before one, because you have to fill in a form, and if she's in a good mood, she told you to go wait in the reading room. Half an hour later, while she's in the middle of a conversation with a colleague about her daughter's progress at primary school: "I review all the lessons with her, sit next to her for the homework, I don't know what more I can do. I told her, you must ace the exam," - and you interrupt them to remind her that you're waiting for a book. "Where you sitting? I'll bring it over. Let me finish."

Still, my old friend B never forgets how I used to conspire to get to the library and borrow an only copy before he could.

In Nigeria, my parents could have sent me, like most foreigners in our Nigerian town, to a private, international school with a US curriculum. But, on principle, they didn't. My father rejected these "schools for softies". Likewise, my parents could have sent me to a private university in Egypt - like the AUC. But the mere thought would have sent my father berserk.

Both my parents are products of middle-class, public education in Cairo - though my mother did go to a private French school run by nuns, where if they spoke a word of Arabic in the playground they were reprimanded. My father, in particular, is testament that good education is not facilities; it is teachers and keen pupils. His vivid recollection of his English, Geography, or Arabic Grammar (nahw) lessons astounds me.

My education in Nigeria, flawed as it might have been, was good. I do not recall with the same kind of vividness that my father has, what and how I was taught, but most teachers were effective, and I was there to learn. Every now and then my parents checked to see the quality of my learning.

Returning to the conversation I had. After listening to my experiences at school, my Irish interlocutor said: "Oh, I hadn't realised. You've done well. My, Ahmed, you've done very well, then."

And I laughed in my head.

I realised this is _why_ I've always felt angry when people said to me I come from a privileged, elite background.

"Just remember, they can buy anything but they can't buy backbone. Don't let them forget it." -- from the movie Rushmore.

Want to read my future posts? Don't forget to subscribe


Meg said...

Wow - I had no idea!

Ahmed said...

Hehehe - I made it all up. ;-)

You've not blogged for a while, haven't you?