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Raffique Shah


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Making the ordinary look extraordinary

By Raffique Shah
October 26, 2016

When an act of kindness that should be an everyday occurrence is cause for national celebration you know the society is in moral decay.

Further, when academic achievements by pupils who come from ordinary homes in so-called depressed communities are hailed as extraordinary, Trinidad and Tobago, we have a serious problem.

I am not dismissing the human compassion displayed by teenager Lillyan Williams towards a wheelchair-bound man as trivial or not worthy of the widespread commendations she has received.

Indeed, I agree that Lillyan is an exemplar for others of her generation and even older people who are so immersed in their mobile devices, they hardly notice anything around them, far less some suffering soul silently crying out for help in the midst of the madding crowd.

That Lillyan felt a moral compulsion to leave what she was doing and dispense the milk of human kindness to a fellow human being who was in distress speaks volumes for her upbringing, for the values she must have been taught at home.

That her actions were considered so unique that they brought her fame is a sad indictment of the wider society, especially parents and elders who have a responsibility to shape the minds of children. They, or maybe I should say we, have failed to instil humaneness in our offspring.

Acts like helping the elderly, the infirm, the destitute, which were considered routine in times gone by, are seen as extraordinary in modern society.

There are few children who greet elders with a respectful "hello" or "good day". Sometimes when they do, you are so shocked, you fail to respond.

A blind or wheelchair-bound person waits forlornly to cross a busy street, but no motorist or pedestrian would give way or offer help.

Hell, some public offices that deal with services for the aged and infirm have these poor souls suffering, at times standing in queues, in order to access their entitlements.

So in this uncaring, some might say hostile, environment, a rare act of kindness is seen as heroism, which is a hell of a thing.

I hasten to add that there are still many good, generous souls out there who readily respond to appeals for assistance.

Persons and organisations that are behind the drive to render aid to devastated Haiti will confirm the overwhelming response they got and continue to get.

On the issue of academic achievements by pupils from crime-ridden, depressed communities like Beetham Estate, I accept that such scholarship winners deserve not just commendations, but further assistance as they pursue higher education. I agree, too, that the parents who persevered with such pupils, invariably against immense social and economic odds, also merit praise.

However, I think such scholars and the people in those communities need to be told that the now-notorious districts of East Port of Spain, Laventille and environs have a rich history of academic achievers, pioneers in culture and entertainment, as well as successful entrepreneurs. Most current residents know little or nothing of this aspect of their history.

I cite two personal stories in arguing why they should be so informed, maybe through the organisations that have worked hard to reduce crime there, and the new schools initiative launched by the Government recently.

I know this prominent Indian medical doctor, but never knew that he had spent his formative years living in East Port of Spain. In a rambling conversation we had one evening, he told me the story, and proceeded to name scores of other professionals whom he knew from back then who also grew up "behind de bridge". I was amazed by the names he called, maybe because of my pre-conceived notion of the area.

In 1960 or thereabouts, a new Latin teacher at Presentation (Chaguanas) also came from that community. He would regale us, boys who had only heard about Laventille, with stories about Desperadoes and Hilanders, the people there, and his fellow achievers. He would become a medical doctor and practised in California in the United States until he died a year ago.

Later in my life, I'd meet many eminent persons who had roots in those communities. They had one thing in common—the determination to succeed in life, to rise above the noise, the rubble, the violence, the distractions, study hard and work hard to achieve their goals.

This formula for success does not apply only to pupils who attend the so-called prestige schools, all of which are denominational.

While they continue to dominate the scholarships board, there is a minor but discernible shift in which the much-maligned government schools are asserting themselves.

It is up to the teaching staff at such schools, the parents whose children attend them, and the pupils themselves, to work together and rise above the stigmatised rubble in which the education system has dumped them.

They can make what seems extraordinary today quite ordinary tomorrow.

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