Why the hustle to get into certain elite schools isn't worth the hype

It is that time when parents all become fussy about schools. A common misconception is that it amounts to an education. In my earlier times, I worked with the Ministry of Education. The offers for admission to certain schools were rough. A stranger once offered me millions in shillings to gain admission into a certain school. A classic response from the headmaster once I had organized a meeting between the two parties was, you were in school X and you turned out fine? I don’t see why your son can’t profit from the same experience.

I understand the fuss for parents to have their progeny get into the elite boarding schools. In the case of Uganda, they are less than 20 functioning schools of repute. If you have grown up around the banana republic, it is hard to weed out the disadvantages of not being a member of the exclusive club. All these schools offer a practical advantage, except CHAAPA where the devil sometimes dines. As an adult, I am more conscious that, above all, my association places me in a comfort zone many strive to reach and fail. 

Let’s clean out the fact that your child will probably afford to have a doctor, lawyer, accountant and many professional services almost pro bono. He will probably get into exclusive spaces without paying the bill. He will probably jump every queue that is disguised as bureaucracy because he probably books appointments on WhatsApp or evening drinks. He will get a free ride to University. If he fails at a scholarship, at least you will be content to pay out of your pocket for something worthwhile. A good friend of his will probably secure him an internship or he will start a business with one of his friends and ride off to the sunset, writing a book about humble beginnings and my favourite tagline, rags to riches. If he is really mediocre, he will end up at a comfortable station where he manipulates to survive the harsh vagaries of the third world. Always being able to get a character reference through conversation. We can go on narrating the perks of a birds-eye view, they won’t end.

Hidden beneath this veneer of respect are many traps to make the school experience unbearable. It starts with the dreaded PTA meetings where the fees rise uncontrolled. In a period of 7 years, my tuition rose from 220,000 to 645,000 per term. I dread to look at the bank slip now. Any fees increment would always be followed by the poorly disguised threat for you to withdraw your son and find “your” level. It makes no sense that most of these schools are government-aided. Never forget the numerous “projects” that you have to contribute to voluntarily, just that you are reminded sternly to make sure your pledge is honoured over and above your payment of school dues. Well, at least our headmaster got to move around in a SUV and have a mansion we are still envious of today. Rumours have it all those headteachers and some teachers founded their own institutions. I did a year twice for an outstanding fees balance. Since I failed to pay the last time, I should repeat a class, pay the outstanding and waste a year. Clearly, for a school holding bright people, that was well thought out.

The school rules and regulations that made no sense. My sister was suspended for refusing to eat potatoes, like really? As a parent, you dread the inevitable suspension, or being frozen out of your schedule to attend to some archaic meeting discussing what adolescent boys are doing. It is a failure on the school’s part to summon a parent for misbehaviour since, I mean, they spend 9 months a year with the children and the parents barely spend time with them. This is an elaborate scheme to keep parents frightened. I did see grown men pleading with school administrators to readmit errant boys who by now are quite exhausted by the whole experience and would rather leave, but the guilt of changing schools is akin to being promoted to pariah status.

The trap of religion – I was once in a religious school and diligently “chopped” prayers. For my second role, I was fortunate that I only visited the chapel after 5 years. I couldn’t avoid it as it also served as an examination hall. For other places, horror stories were passed on how compulsory mass was. I can’t imagine being forced into prayer. No wonder we have very many charlatans who are confused about god. I can’t stop making fun of my “saved” friends. I mean they are searching for a deeper purpose with the wrong persons and places.

Passing vs. performance – almost every school schedule is fitted around the final examinations of the year. The fuss over the whole exercise makes most students freeze in fear. The number of breakdowns that occur because of the dreaded tests are numerous. For all this mental pressure cooker, I don’t remember any help being extended to the students at this time. Failure is pure castigation. In some cases, you could have very good marks but not enough to regain your admission which will earn you a demotion. As an adult, I wonder what the whole heck it was about.  Many boys I know who attended elite boys schools develop a phobia for interviews and structured tests. Well, the fear of failure will always override the desire to enjoy your success. Oh, I passed the exams but everyone around me did as well. I had figured out early on how the law of association works. Maybe they should have examined me in my real duties at school which included inspecting the neighbouring slums in search of a quick drink. On the other side, many left with almost no skill or presentation outside classwork.

Structured apartheid – I won’t start on this topic. How students are tiered. That is a whole thesis on its own. If you have a mind, your son heads to therapy straight out of school. Your son will probably get a nickname depending on a physical feature, his village or his station. Those things stick late into life.

Ghosts of future past. Schools like these survive on legacy. Oh yes, an academic record from the 1970s that never seems to be passed. Whatever you do, you will never be good enough. As a local legend, I had to be a warrior on the sports field, put up an exceptional performance at national examinations, beat everyone at debate, write a glorious essay about the tides. Oh, and I am remembered for 2 things, being the guy who received a letter from an angry lady (aptly describing me as the nightmare), and those notorious seconds where I was unfortunate enough to be left for dead on the rugby field just moments after I had joined the fray.  I can also boast of having scored most tries in a rugby game in school history, something all budding rugby players are reminded when they step onto the hallowed fields. They have played at levels I only chanced or dreamed of but are still compared to the ghost. Truth is the opposition were 2 games old in this game at the time.

Enforced social conduct – the career choices are always limited. Given most of these institutions are a legacy of a colonial past when natives could only aspire for clerkship, they haven’t changed much. Almost all the grooming is for the white-collar future, even when the market dictates otherwise. I still enjoy the embarrassment I caused when I opted to study sports science. An intervention was prompted. Lawyer, Engineer, Doctor, Accountant get thrown around a lot. I studied with so many talented students whose abilities were diverse and varied but were forced into conformity. One of the finest pencil artists I know is a practising Medical Doctor because the world is full of starving artists. I dreaded those career guidance pep talks. It is always a relief to meet an OB of mine doing something ordinary, not that whole the sky is the limit stuff.

Mannerisms and behaviours that sometimes cloak the whole crowd into a single mind mentality. The individual could fail to emerge from the darkness of adapted behaviour. It is bad if many of your peeps are associated with by the words arrogance and pride. It affects the way you build relationships. I wonder why my female friends find me very difficult? I still hang out with my “boys” and get to cool off at a discount, if the family owns the establishment. You shouldn’t have your identity pinned to the memory of having been a member of a certain school.

Sexuality. I don’t even remember having a discussion about sex with an adult all through school. It wasn’t in the school manual but it was kind of agreed upon that you wouldn’t have sex on school premises. As for homophobia, that was at an all-time high, of course with the backing of the almighty God. Think of the students who were expelled for association, I barely remember any procedure being followed in these cases. All it takes is an accusation, off you go and the hushed tone is employed to keep it mum. I don’t want to go into the gory details of how many of my peers first had sex and how it has affected the views they have of sex going by the amount of porn shared in our social commentaries. Or the porn habit that I try to kick out. Even as an adult, it is still hard to have an open discussion about sex and sexuality.

The truth is like many before us and those after us, we miss the chance of being socialized properly into our society because we perceive ourselves to be better, or that we have been given a lot and so don’t deserve more. The English way of life. I am still bothered that for all my school life, none of the dishes native to my home were present on the menu. Did they have to import European culinary habits into our pallet? Have you ever paused to think of how that affected our growth? The demonization of the use of local languages. As a parent, raising your child isn’t a worry of if tomorrow will bring good tidings, but rather a path of self-discovery.

To end this whole rumbling, I can’t believe those guys called me LOCAL for loving “tindatine”. That song was the business. I have since gone on to date ‘local girls’. Who cares, mehn? It is just vanity. My grandmother was illiterate and I am not even a weapon in her war.

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Written by Zeno Othieno Owora (1)

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  1. ZOO. Am so proud that we played on the same team. When I read through. It’s gives me all those vivid memories at the School. Back in the days we accessed those premises by our grades. Which unfortunately may not be the case today.
    Their is a perpetual state of useless hussle. Aimed at individualism. Be nature doesn’t obay the law. Pple will make it however unleveled the ground

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