I remember once I was waiting, in the hallway at a school, to read. The kids were being called to assemble. Yes, I would be reading to the whole school – read: shouting words to an entire school full of shuffling, distracted, uninterested, baking-in-the-hot-Caribbean-morning-sun kids. I would have to read something performance-worthy, only I’m not a performer. Anyway, while distracted by that, I heard a steady beat….and it took my brain a minute to process that it was a beating, or beatings, taking place behind the closed door of the principal’s office. At least that’s what my brain figured it was; instinct and memory, and no concrete evidence to dispute it. I felt sick. A combination of nerves and just being around something that though part of the routine of school life in Antigua, a routine I had become familiar with as a student years before, left me feeling queasy. I left the hallway, intent on leaving the school altogether, I think.
I’ve been squeamish around beatings since I was a child, and, as for my own beatings, I don’t have fond stories to tell the way some of my peers do. Oddly I’m not completely opposed to corporal punishment, I just grew up in a world where it seems it was dispensed so indiscriminately and so often, I don’t have the stomach for it. Quite recently, I heard children screaming and froze for a half-a-how-long before my brain processed that the screaming was laughter…breathe, no one was getting a beating.
If you’re Caribbean and you’re reading this, you’re probably shaking your head and choopsing by this point at my weak heart.
I suppose sensitivity to such things is part of the writer’s curse. It imprints.
There are brutal moments in The Boy from Willow Bend but it’s the epic school beating remembered in Dancing Nude in the Moonlight that seems most relevant here. It’s one I bore witness to as a primary school student that I’ve never been able to shake, that one administered by the mother who came to the school with the black leather belt in a brown paper bag. A part of me half-suspects that beating traumatized me more than it did the actual recipient (huh, recipient, like it’s a gift)…after all, I’m the one who had total recall of it enough to write it, needing to write it, without romanticizing it, as we do childhood things, in order to exorcize it. *SPOILER ALERT* There is a bit, though only a wee bit, of ‘old school Caribbean style discipline’, mostly off the page, in Musical Youth, written in a way that felt organic and authentic and yet tamer than that scene in Dancing and other scenes I’ve written and published. Yet one editorial note described these moments as “quite cruel” in a way that caused me to pause and re-think what was normal to me and how I might need to leap a little bit further to help the reader appreciate the context. Though I didn’t agree it was “quite cruel”. I’ve seen quite cruel acts; if not in my home exactly then certainly in the communities I was a part of growing up. Musical Youth may as well be the Sound of Music by comparison.
All of that said, a recent case here which has resulted in the death of a girl and the incarceration of her grandmother should prompt some soul searching on our parts re our approach to discipline. The one-size-fits-all spare the rod mantra has become worn and one dimensional. And in fact one of the things I like about Musical Youth, an essentially happy book, is the intergenerational relationships – Shaka’s interactions with the adults in his life especially, a sharp contrast to Zahara’s experiences. Though I hope readers don’t come away seeing Zahara’s Granny Linda as a villain. She isn’t. Just another mother/mother-figure trying to do her best. Oddly, I also understand her type – like Tanty in Oh Gad! when she thought her charge was stealing. When some, granted not all, Caribbean mothers intone “spare the rod spoil the child” there is no joy or glee in it, but there is a keen sense of the responsibility to raise this child into someone who will not steal, will not kill, will do right. It’s like that scene in Survivor’s Remorse where the mother asks her son, an NBA star trying to salvage his wholesome reputation, how he expects her to apologize for “whooping” him (which she had boasted of publicly, hence the need to salvage his reputation) when they both agree that he turned out to be the person he is, a person they agree is not only a successful person but also a good person, because of how she raised him. Mothers like this are willing to be the bad guy to make what they hope will become a good person. For many of them, this is the only way. I don’t agree that this is the only way. It’s a complicated issue; I believe discipline is needed (that sometimes you have to be okay with your kid hating you – and no, that doesn’t have to mean hitting them; some days they’ll hate you just for breathing but you’re not here to be their friend) and, at the same time, I guess I’m one of those who thinks tough love must be balanced with compassion and communication and creative approaches. But what do I know? Seriously, what do I know? If I had all this stuff figured out, I’d have absolutely nothing to write about.
I will say I think it’s a good thing that with programmes like the friendly schools initiative, we are re-thinking our approaches to discipline here in the Caribbean. As for that other matter, death under these circumstances is the kind of thing, no matter what I witnessed and experienced growing up, that I never thought would happen here, and I hope it draws a line in the sand for us, one never to be crossed again.
I’ll end with this apology; I’m sorry, I really didn’t expect this post to get so heavy…it just kind of went there. It really was just supposed to be a re-telling of the time I almost ran away from a beating that wasn’t even mine. The anti-climax of that story is that the teacher caught up with me, brought me back, I did the reading, and the shuffling, distracted, uninterested, baking-in-the-hot-Caribbean-morning-sun students were predictably unimpressed. Some days it’s like that.