Obtaining an education - against all odds

Guyana Chronicle
September 6, 2001

RECENTLY, a CNN documentary featured the story of Dr Benjamin Carson, the Afro-American surgeon who gained renown for his wonderful work of successfully separating Siamese twin babies.

However, it is doubtful whether many people knew that Carson, a professor of medicine at a prestigious American university, had the most inauspicious of beginnings for a man who would become so knowledgeable and adept.

For one, he was the product of a single-parent home and his mother earned her living by cleaning other people’s houses. At about age 12, Benjamin Carson was already demonstrating signs of anti-social behaviour and was not doing well in school. Once, in a confrontation with another youth, Carson stabbed his opponent with a knife.

Fortunately, his mother, after giving him a serious lecture about paying attention to his studies as the starting point in turning his life around, gave him the first of several assignments. She told her son that he was to join the community library and borrow a book every week. After reading the book, he was to write a report on the tome, and read it to her at a specified time. He did as he was told, and thus began the intellectual nurturing of Benjamin Carson. What he did not know then was that his mother was herself unable to read and write. Today that proud woman is amazed at the heights her son has scaled.

In the Guyana tradition, there are numerous stories of poor, humble parents who have reaped the satisfying, and sometimes amazing rewards of seeing their children rise above the circumstances of their birth and their lowly social status to attain qualifications and awards that two decades previously may have seemed impossible.

The generations of early and mid-20th century Guyana are rife with myriad stories of the sacrifices made by parents to ensure that their offspring received a good education. Poor City women washed and ironed clothes - chores that were back-breaking because dirt-dissolving laundry detergents and bottled bleach were not yet invented. Besides, not every home had electricity and electric irons. Women also baked cakes, sweetbreads and pastry pies to supply “cake-shops” or to peddle at construction sites; boiled sweets such as peppermints and “never-done”; made nut-cakes, sugar-cakes, “nutting” and rice-cakes; parched peanuts, and prepared channa in various ways.

In the rural communities, poor housewives supplemented their husbands’ earnings by selling greens and fruits from their own farm plots; grating coconut for making oil; burning and selling charcoal and preparing and bottling fruit jams and vegetable pickles.

As recently as the late 1950’s, a common site at road junctures in Georgetown, was a grandmother wearing a broad-brimmed straw hat and pounding away at large pieces of stone to produce tons of bricks and pebbles to be used by the Public Works Department for road construction.

The mothers and grandmothers who carried out these tasks so that they could save a few dollars to help educate their offspring were not making any statement of female independence nor were they honoured by the rest of society for the sacrifices they made for the betterment of their children. Yet, their praiseworthy efforts are celebrated daily in the lives and work of those educated and trained Guyanese, who, whether they live in their homeland or reside in lands afar, are today holding their own as public servants, professionals and decision-makers.

In this age of designer clothes and ostentatious consumerism, schoolchildren may have little idea of the efforts and sacrifices their parents and guardians are making daily to facilitate their tenure of the formal learning process.

This, however, should not prevent the youths from making the most of the educational opportunities offered them.