Why I hated my school

posted 16 April 2002

I briefly debated whether or not to name-and-shame my former school on this page. Not, you understand, because I had any qualms about laying into the hellhole that was my school, but because it would provide a possible link to me in the real world that I don't control: all the other links to me provided by the site and the Internet in general are under my own control -- basically, they're all e-mail addresses. But nobody currently at my old school now would know who the hell Seldo was, even if you were such a stalker as to try and get in touch with the school to find out who I am. And if you somehow were clever enough to find it out from there, well, I enjoy talking to clever people :-)

I am a former student of St. Mary's College, in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. And I don't hesitate to say that I hated that school, and all the time I spent there. There are a bunch of reasons why.

Facilities

The first and most obvious that occurs to me is the facilities available. This is not really the school's fault -- the church and the goverment jointly (under)fund the school, so if better facilities are required it's up to them to provide more money. But the facilities are terrible. The school building is mainly an adapted colonial building, originally built as a boarding school and converted first for the introduction of electricity (the main building is 125 years old) and then later to cram extra students into the space. So the building is old and in some places visibly crumbling, and the conversion of former dormitories into classrooms leads to some classes being quite nice, light, breezy rooms while others are hot, cramped and dark. Air conditioning is non-existent in all but a few offices (belonging to faculty, of course), even in the height of the rainy season, when the country is hottest. Also, newer buildings have been grafted onto older buildings with not a great deal of thought or redesign, so there are numerous cramped pinchpoints where overcrowding always occurs during classroom switches.

The pain doesn't end there, though. The toilets are gruesome; men's toilets are typically not nice places to visit (for reasons I've never understood), and the absence of any toiletries, maintenance or any but the most cursory cleaning does not improve this situation. Food is available from cafeterias, but these are four tiny holes in the wall with no seating and seldom any organization in terms of how to be served. Given a school population now over 1200 students -- thats 300 students per cafeteria, with lunchtime being the same forty-five minute period all of them -- this turns lunchtime into a mob fight to obtain food. Desks and chairs are rudimentary and frequently in short supply even so. Laboratory equipment is on the whole ancient and insufficient for the needs of the student body; this is especially the case for computer science, where a total of 25-odd computers exist to teach computer literacy to the entire school, and due to faculty incompetence these are locked away from student use most of the time.

Most people would consider a school in such a terrible physical state to be a hellhole, all by itself. And this is probably true. But at St. Mary's College, this is merely the base point at which things begin to get really annoying.

Religious bias

St. Mary's College is also called CIC: this stands for College of the Immaculate Conception, a reference to the alleged "virgin birth" of Jesus Christ to Mary Christ (well, what was her last name then? If Jesus' last name is Christ, and God as far as I know doesn't have a last name, he has to have got it from his parents, who therefore must be Joseph and Mary Christ).

The name of the college should indicate that CIC has a clear religious bias: it is partly funded by the Catholic church, and as such is granted permission by the government to indoctrinate its pupils with whatever nonsensical dogma is favoured by the people who foot the bill -- if the Church of Scientology finds out about this policy, we should probably be even more scared. At CIC, Catholic education comes in the form of dedicated religious classes, daily prayers throughout the school day, and occasional "holy days" on which normal classes are suspended for the purposes of religious observances. I'm an athiest -- and I'll admit, a fairly militant one -- but I'm not going to go out and try to convince people that their religion is wrong about nearly everything, even if that's clearly the case. I wish the Trinidadian goverment would get the hang of the separation of church and state to the point where they could return the favour.

Schooling at CIC for a non-Catholic (far less an athiest) is a constant barrage of subtly demeaning references. You must keep silent while the Catholics say their prayers, you must attend school but do nothing on the holy days, wasting precious school time on religious observances which do not apply to you, and you are in general treated like a second-class citizen. This point is driven home during the third (and under certain circumstances, second) year at CIC, during which non-Catholic students are assigned to a subject held during the same period as religious education classes, euphemistically termed "Horticulture". Horticulture class is in fact a thinly-disguised excuse to use the student body -- specifically, the non-Catholic student body -- as unpaid manual labour to maintain the grounds of the college. This sounds farcical, but I guarantee that I'm not making this up. I'm not sure what academic skills are being honed by mowing the college lawn or trimming the hedges, but at the very least I'm sure it's not a skill lacked in particular by students who are not Catholic.

It is, in retrospect, unbearably unfair. One could argue -- in the particularly unfair case of horticulture -- that using students as a labour force is saving the college money which are benefiting all the students. But this can only really apply if all the students were being asked to perform these tasks. Getting non-Catholic students to do it is a disgrace to the school, the church, and the government which allows such a system to exist.

Mental atmosphere

These sterling qualities are still not the end of the story, however. A badly-maintained and bigoted school might perhaps be forgiven if it were a friendly, welcoming school that heartily fosters education. Unfortunately, this isn't the case.

The prevailing mental attitude throughout the school -- with a few rare, but significant exceptions -- is one of constant and open hostility on all sides.

The students hate: the staff, the administration, and most of the other students. The staff hate: the students, most of each other, and especially the the administration. The administration hates: the students, the staff, and the maintenance personnel. The maintenance personnel in turn regard everyone with equal contempt.

Staff and students alike form small cliques which survive in an insular fashion, and if you are unlucky enough not to fall into any clique -- or if enough of the other cliques band together against your clique -- life can be very miserable. Constant infighting between staff for influence destroys productivity, and incessant bureaucracy drives it still further down. Lack of co-operation between staff and students further degrades the quality of education, and the final nail in the coffin is frequently open hostility between students.

On top of this, there are all the problems one typically gets with an all-male student body: the desire to appear strongly masculine and maintain credibility means truancy is encouraged and diligence and curiosity retarded. Destructive and negative attitudes towards almost any show of enthusiasm means creativity is almost non-existent, both in recreation and academia.

Quality of teaching

Faced with all these problems, one still might be able to salvage the reputation of a school if one were able to assert that, for a sufficiently determined student, a high-quality education was there to be had. Unfortunately, this is just not the case. Teachers are underpaid and overworked, and as such the only individuals who become teachers are those to whom the money is unimportant and whom love the work -- dedicated academics, who are valuable as diamonds and about as rare in the educational system -- or those to whom no other career choices are available: in short, losers.

I say without hesitation that losers make up 95% of the teaching staff at CIC. These people are losers for a variety of reasons, but they all have in common the fact that the only reason they are teachers is that they cannot do.

  • Some are merely incompetent. They have some knowledge of the subject they teach, but little actual teaching ability. They are of little to no assistance in learning.
  • Some are past their prime. Perhaps once dedicated and even talented teachers, the government's regulations for collecting a full pension require that they work for a full third of a century -- precisely thiry-three and one third years. They long ago lost any will to teach and are merely going through the motions. Again, they are of little assistance in learning.
  • Some are quite frankly insane. They teach simply because any other sensible working institution would have them fired without delay. They are not merely bad teachers, but are in some cases a clear hindrance to effective learning and occasionally even abusive. They are a minority, but are by no means exceptional within CIC.

This is clearly a picture of a school diseased and in desperate need of attention; yet sadly CIC is still one of the finer schools in the nation. I dread to think what the rest must be like.

How to improve

Sadly, there are no real quick-fixes to the bulk of these problems short of complete overhaul of the school and, preferably, the entire educational system. But a quick wish-list is possible, the measures varying in extremity:

  • Increase funding. Provide adequate maintenance for existing facilities, and better pay for staff at all levels.
  • Improve facilities. Ideally, bulldoze the entire compound and start again: a complete reconstruction once every 125 years is not unthinkable. Better still, re-site the school somewhere outside of the noise, traffic and distraction of the centre of Port of Spain, where there is more room for bigger buildings and more students. Sale of the highly valuable property upon which the school now stands makes this even feasible.
  • Fire the losers. Increasing their pay is not going to be enough to help some of the staff. These people are not fit to be teachers; find people who are.
  • Lose the God talk. With enough funding, this is possible, and is already clearly desirable. Church and state should be separate, and as the US has learned it is vital to maintain this separation in schools as well. As a vastly more cosmopolitan society than the US, this is even more important in Trinidad. Religion should be taught in churches, not in school. A subject such as "comparative religion" for instance might take the place of such a subject on the timetable.
  • Change the attitude. Hopefully, the other changes will produce such an effect automatically. But if not, steps must be taken to improve relationships between all members of the school community; conflict creates stress, and stress destroys productivity. Industry learned this lesson decades ago, and it is time that the educational system caught up.

And that is why I hated my school. Along the course of writing it, the above changed from merely a description to an open letter to the people of Trinidad, hoping to bring about some positive change. But I like it anyway, and maybe it will at least make those responsible for the six most miserable years of my life feel a little bit guilty.