The backpack syndrome

My son began school this month. Junior Kindergarten; his first layover in a long and exciting  journey in Canada’s school system. I couldn’t help but think about my school days. I don’t have much recollection before second grade, except for the fact that I loved going to school! I loved stationary and prepping my backpack. Heavy, back slouching bags that miraculously indicated how smart we all were. Homework, exams and grades were an inseparable part of our lives.

A while ago, I was part of a conversation where some Indian and Pakistani women were discussing the Canadian school system. I just stood there baffled by how much we as Pakistanis have in common with India, even in the way we perceive education. One Indian lady had qualms about the way her daughter’s class fellows dressed. How and why jewelry was permissible? And that not having a uniform was distressing. Most part of the conversation was about how the teachers did not teach the children anything.

I understood where they were coming from. I am also a product of the same grade slavery  environment. I spent many nights crying over the horrendous thought of a bad grade. But after all these years, after meeting some of the most intelligent people who were never technically great students in school, I think differently. I also understand the kind of teaching those mothers were referring to. Excessive bombardment of books, homework, assignments, exams, cramming,..did I mention exams?

I suppose when you don’t have large backpacks sagging with books and non-existent homework to deal with, complaining about a foreign school system would be your first instinct. Back home, it’s all about the exam shebang! Children have to give deadly entrance exams even to get into Montessori. Mothers bragging about their three year old’s knowing the alphabet by heart, front and back is a common sight. What would the world do without such intelligence, I often wonder? In our world, a child’s intelligence is directly proportional to the grades or marks he or she gets in school.

Like I said, I have been there and done that. I have no personal vendetta against grades, or tests. They are meant to evaluate our knowledge. But how do you evaluate an evaluation that does not even come close to identifying a child’s proficiency level or intelligence? I got good grades almost throughout my school and college years. But I flunked almost all my school entrance exams.  What does that show for my standing as a student?

What I have a problem with is the undue association of a person’s brilliance with his or her exam results. Pakistan’s educational system solely revolves around that. I acquired  high grades in subjects that I did not understand then, and I do not understand now! Good grades came my way because I had no other choice. It was part of the system and it was something a good student had to do to prove his or her worth.

Pakistan has produced some of the biggest brains. Children continue to break world records when it comes to getting the most A’s in O or A-levels examinations. Yet our school systems have not changed much. This matter has been scrutinized at all possible levels. Yet no tangible solutions have been chalked out. No one wants to change. It’s still more about stuffing the entire pie in your mouth first and then trying to pick out the main ingredients from that hodgepodge. Rather than working along with the basic ingredients of the pie from the very beginning.

This has nothing to do with the children. They were brilliant then and are even more extraordinary now! Yet this educational system has crippled their thought processes. One of the main problems with a one-track education system is that children lose their individuality. Their unique quirks, passions, innate talents; everything gets sucked back into the vacuum, ultimately hanging children out to dry. Even in this day and age, many Pakistani parents want their children to become doctors, bankers or IT professionals. But hardly anyone encourages painters, social workers or writers.   As archaic as this sounds, it stands completely true.

The Canadian and American school systems have flaws too, which I will surely discover in the coming years. Yet they must be doing something right, because people from all over the world leave the comforts of their homes and pay good money to study in their universities. Whether we like it or not, they exemplify outstanding education. These people know how to follow their passions. They know how to break free from the stereotypical molds of what a person should or should not study. Interestingly so, Canada has been named as the most educated country in the world, “where more than half its residents can proudly hang college degrees up on their walls.” . I would not be surprised if most of these graduates were immigrants from China, India or Pakistan. That should be an interesting research actually; how students from different educational systems still outshine local residents in some of the best universities of the world. But, for another post, another time,

My children and I have a long way to go. I know I am in for the ride of my life and many of their school years are going to come as a huge backpack-shock to me. I hope I don’t end up complaining about how my children are not learning anything. Or even worse, I hope I don`t banish my children for not wanting to be doctors. Hopefully, they will grow up to be bright young minds who can take on the world. Who have the determination and wisdom to follow their innate passions and talents. And most importantly, I hope I don’t become an insufferable grade-obsessing mother, because from what I know, there is still no vaccine for the detrimental backpack germs.

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