The education system in Kenya has been rigged to ensure that school is the place where creativity comes to die.
Children who dare explore different ways of thinking are often labelled as radical or undisciplined. Those who dare perform dismally in academics and for whom subjects like Mathematics are a deep, dark pit from which they can never seem to find their way out are labelled slow learners, thick or academic dwarfs.
Private schools in Kenya have been known to separate the fast from slow learners. The fast learners are left with the ominous task of keeping the school’s mean grade up.
Picture two boys in primary school called John and Johnnie. They are both in Class Five.
John is the studious one. There’s not a single A grade that does not have his name next to it. Every teacher in school asks the other hapless pupils: “Why can’t you be more like John?” John defines himself almost solely by the As he scores.
John will eventually become the school head boy and when he sits his KCPE exams, his face will be splashed on the front pages of national newspapers. He will also be the first item on prime time news. He will have a well-rehearsed message to the envious children and their hopeful parents across the country when asked his formula for success: God, hard work, discipline and obedience.
One is tempted to think that if indeed this is the formula for success, then the concoction should surely be packaged and sold in supermarkets alongside other school supplies.
And John’s dreams? He will say he wants to become a doctor, pilot, neurosurgeon, aeronautical engineer or the neat combination of these career aspirations. His parents will smile broadly beside him, satisfied that their son’s dreams fitted perfectly in the success palette they had created for him ever since the day they decided to enrol him in a private school.
For Johnnie, John’s classmate, his only claim to fame is that he danced like Michael Jackson on the prize-giving day where John scooped virtually all the awards for academic excellence. Johnnie, with his boneless body and killer dance moves, provided the entertainment every prize-giving day before the serious business of awarding best performers started.
Johnnie knows that despite the standing ovation he will get from elated parents and his classmates, his teacher will say: “Oh Johnnie, if only you took books as seriously as you did dancing!”
But Johnnie just wants to dance so he stays quiet.
The story of a little boy from Maai Mahiu reminded me of the Johnnies in the school system.
A week ago, the Class Five boy’s mother sewed up his mouth over declining performance in school. She was allegedly pained by her son’s falling school grades and decided to sew his mouth as punishment. The physical pain the boy must have endured is nothing compared to the emotional scars his mother’s actions will most likely leave behind.
And the world waiting for Johnnie and the boy from Maai Mahiu outside the walls of their classrooms is no different from one that glorifies academic excellence over any other achievements. The sad reality is that the children also end up measuring their worth based on the number of As they score. If they ever make news because of academics, then it will probably be because they committed suicide, unable to meet their impossible academic goals in their KCPE or KCSE examinations.
Children like Johnnie are often shamed and made to feel unworthy. But children like John, too, are sometimes victims of their academic success. A KCPE candidate in Homa Bay county committed suicide in 2017 after he was beaten to position two by a classmate.
While John’s academic brilliance will continue through high school, it will be assumed that he will know how to navigate the murky waters of life and adulthood courtesy of his brains. But just like Johnnie, John also needs mentorship and to be taught life skills. We forget to teach them that life is not a classroom. And that the formula for life does not exist in a Mathematics text book.
It’s about time we stopped burdening children with narrow definitions of success.
The writer is the editor, Living Magazine; [email protected]