Thursday, 2 July 2009

“You SHALL go to the ball!”

Graduation- the season of the year for Aishalton’s fairy godmothers to go toke with the wands.
Students here do not give a lot of input into the design of school events. Unusually, for Graduation they were offered the chance to decide on their graduation outfits. They chose deep blue, between gentian and regatta blue. I didn’t know what to expect: American gown-and-mortarboard silliness? School uniform but just in a different colour?
The fabric was ordered in May. It arrived two weeks before graduation. It’s pale lilac. So much for protagonism! The students are matter-of-fact about the lilac. The boys will have black trousers, lilac shirt and tie. The girls will have lilac dresses.
Thirteen girls and two boys are graduating. Exam results will not arrive here until early September (about two weeks after students in Georgetown get theirs). So graduation is simply a celebration of completing five years of secondary schooling. There are 75 students in my first year classes. That is quite an attrition rate.
The day arrives. The school auditorium (i.e. the wide corridor from one end of the building to the other) has been decorated with lilac and white paperchains, ruched lilac curtains tied up with string, balloons advertising Century21, Brazilian car dealers, Budget car hire, Happy Birthday and Its-a-boy! balloons, Christian proselytising balloons.... We begin with a procession of the graduating class, to the strains of the school song, played with one finger and a great deal of flourish to a disco beat on a synthesizer. Here come 13 bridesmaids- tarty bridesmaid with red bra strap, embarrassed bridesmaid whose mother had gone against trend with a short skirt, girly and womanly, stumbling on unfamiliar borrowed heels, made up like a 50-year old matron, in they all come. What dresses! Lilac satin, strappy or strapless, mostly floor length, all fitted. It bears far more resemblance to a beauty contest than a school event. One boy has not turned up (whether because he couldn’t afford the outfit or couldn’t afford the loss of street cred I couldn’t ascertain). The solitary man looks striking, responsible, stiff with borrowed enjoyable formality.

Our programme is long. It seems that all Amerindians have a very high boredom threshold, and can sit through days of thoughtlessly delivered tedium. Perhaps it is simply good manners. We have several speeches, into which any thought that has accidentally stumbled has been solely dedicated to appropriacy rather than diversion, interest or, heaven forbid, delivery style. All of us are seated on the children’s benches, pressed close together. It is as usual over thirty degrees in the school, and the zinc roof presses ever lower as the sun rises ever higher.
Finally it is time for the certificates and trophies. B bought me fifteen sheets of card in Georgetown, so we had managed to print out certificates with eagles watermarked in colour to represent the school motto, ‘Fly to the Top’. Six of the fifteen graduates have won a trophy- best academic, best sporting, most cooperative, most disciplined, most improved, best dormitory student. One of the fathers has bought his daughter a trophy from himself, just for finishing. He is invited to the podium after the six prizewinners have been called out, and he awkwardly calls his daughter forward, stiff in her dress and the embarrassment of a carefully dressed up father, and presents her with a grand trophy. He has found a way for his daughter to be queen of the occasion for one brief moment: the first member of her family to finish secondary education.

It is dignified against all odds. The ballgowns are 1980’s Disney. The auditorium is shabby, the decorations mockable, and Synthesizer Man faintly ridiculous. The speeches are dull and the students’ achievements modest. And yet. For many of those graduating today, this is the grandest recognition they will ever receive. Most will soon be parents. Few will ever have formal employment. A life free of officialdom can also be pretty sparse in affirmation. So the fairy godmothers stay up late stitching, fathers find a way to get a trophy ordered from Georgetown, and the students look solemn and walk carefully on this, a day that ends one era and catapults them into a future without structure.


  1. This is one of the most moving things I have ever read. Thank you for putting such care and respect into your description of the day.

  2. This sounds both a wonderful experience and a little sad at the same time. I'm glad they get some affirmation from somewhere and the man who bought his daughter a trophy of her own sounds great. It's set in stark comparison to the graduation ceremony's that are going on around the country at the moment. Yours seems somehow more genuine, more heartfelt.

  3. Wonderful description. Can't wait for the photo!

  4. Great that they have recognition of their achievement - so important at that age, and also poignant, as you explain why it is unlikely to recur.

    They all look so lovely in their shiny dresses with floaty shawls, and the picture of the girl and her father with the trophy really captures their emotions. Quietly moving.

  5. Yup, the photos are wonderful

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  7. I have mixed feelings about your description of the day, but first, thank you! True, there is probably little 'hope' for the students and perhaps even the community. But were the graduands and their parents happy? Was it really resignation? Didn't the children and their parents have some sense of achievment (if not of grades, of finishing) against the odds? Guess I'm saying that the entire affair has seems to have been described from outside the skins of these children. Easy of course for me to say, removed as I am from the hopelessness. Or is it just impossible to combine 'objectivity' and 'empathy?'

  8. Dear Thomas, I tried to answer this one the other day but it didn't load. But thank you for your thought-provoking comment. Very interesting to see the blog from the outside!

    There is a lot of hope for this community, and I'm sorry to hear that it didn't come through the blog that way (see the Community Development Plan entry 21st Oct if you'd like to know about a very hopeful newer initiative here). It is opportunities that are lacking more than hope. We were all happy, although I did find the day poignant.

    But certainly it's written from outside the skins of the children. I'm a foreigner, and I'd be fooling myself if I tried to write from their perspective. I think if I tried to empathise, I would end up putting my (Western-from-birth) worldview into their heads and what came out would be untrue, 'Sarahthromorphic' and patronising.

    Thanks again for the comment, and do please have a look at the last couple of entries if you're interested and give me more feedback on what isn't coming through! (Critical feedback is rare and therefore precious! Are you Guyanese, by the way?) Thanks, Sarah