His eyes were transfixed into nothing, lost into the distance of his thoughts. Standing a little beyond the throng of people gathered around the makeshift podium, he was oblivious to them as they were to him.
With limp hands, he held the little piece of paper that he had just fished out of the yellow Manila envelope. His lanky frame seemed to droop even more than usual. It was as if all the fight had been taken out of him. Gone was even the restraint to hold back the tears that welled up and silently rolled down his face.
A northerly breeze was ushering in a spray of mist that day, turning the day bleak as it hazed out the surrounding hills in a white-grey blanket as it so often does on afternoons like this. Bringing in the quiet chill of Mountain Mul, it cried with him as it whispered melancholically through the spindly leaves of the ancient rustic casuarina tree by the school fence.
He would finally break from his reverie as others in lighter spirits revelled in the celebration of happier news. Dejected, he turned away, and in one swift motion crumpled up the offending piece of paper as he wiped away the tears from his eyes with the back of a faded blue flannel sleeved arm.
I was in Grade 1 and had no idea why my cousin reacted the way he did.
“Kang Pita nii fel em o”, was the word that would eventually reach me. Peter had “failed”, so they said around the fireplace that night about my cousin. He did not get a placing in high school, and it was Christmas of 1985!
The image of that long-ago Friday afternoon outside the sky-blue classroom halls of Bukapena Community School has stuck with me for some reason. Perhaps because of the peculiarity in the absence of family members accompanying him on that day when every other kid had their family members to share that moment with.
Did they abandon him because of his results? Was there more to the back story that would exact such a reaction? Was there trouble waiting for him when he went home that day? I did not see him again to query him further with those questions. I would not see him for another fifteen years or so.
Peter’s experience is the story of many other young kids in Papua New Guinea. It is an all too common sight that gets a rerun every November and December when so many expectations come crashing down.
Making it to high school has always been the holy grail of every primary school-aged child and their parents. It was a validation of one’s intellectual prowess. High school signified progress. For the kid, it was a progression into freedom from parental oversight and thus a giant leap into adulthood, or so they thought.
While school exams and assessments tested one’s intellectual abilities, our traditional coming of age ceremonies like initiations and song and dance put to the test one’s maturity while admitting them as functional members of society. Thus grade 6 exams proposed the misconstrued notion that it was an equal substitute for our traditional cultural coming of age ceremonies.
So goes a tangential story where Peter’s uncles Yapi and Komet – who were his peers by age – made it to high school. On their first term break home from school, their parents asked them to go fetch water in the nearby creek for cooking. Yapi and Komet exchanged incredulous glances at each other and then at their parents.
“Are you kidding me?”, retorted Yapi.
“We’re in high school. Can’t you send Roland and Nickson?”
Yapi had bought wholeheartedly into the fallacy that his high school certificate signified adulthood, and so warranted some sort of free pass, and thus he was absolved from the menial chores often associated with kids, like fetching of water and collecting of dry twigs for firewood.
Expectations and yet more expectations.
Perhaps what was missing then and is needed more of is a better heart to heart dialogue. Conversations. To lay down all our expectations and reality on the table. In failing, we end up crushing our kids with disappointment when they don’t turn out to fulfil our often ridiculous and unreal expectations.
In spite of the setback of that cold December’s day in 1985, Peter would go on to become a technical trainer. He now serves as a senior lecturer and a long-standing staff at a leading technical institution in the country.
*Nickson Piakal works in environmental advocacy and sustainable development. He is passionate about storytelling, culture and history. You can read more of his work on his blog: https://niicaux.wordpress.com/