By Francis Ewherido
My friend was taking his eight-year-old son to school last week in his SUV. Near the private school he attends are government-owned schools. Then he turned to his father and asked, “Daddy, these children walking to school, who attend public schools, do they live in houses?” My friend was stunned. His first thought was a sarcastic response: “No, they and their parents live under the bridges and on tree tops.” But he calmed down and explained to his son that they also live in houses like them. He explained further that attending public schools does not make them any less human or disadvantaged.
He told him that the intelligent and focussed ones among them will end up being managing directors of big companies, senators, governors, even president of Nigeria. He told him bluntly that attending a private school does not necessarily give him an advantage over them, that what will count ultimately is what he does with his education and knowledge and then finding and living his purpose here on earth.
But my friend was shaken by the incident; that was how I got to know. Since then, he has thought of the boy walking to school on his own. After all, children of his age are doing that. But the school route is so busy; he is worried for his safety. Moreover, there are two busy junctions he must pass on the way to school. But the major obstacle he faces taking that decision is his wife. He dare not even mention it to her. Her only son and one of “only” three children; the accompanying earthquake will measure 8.5 on the Richter Scale.
My friend’s experience reminded me of my experience a few years ago. Many of the children going to school follow the route to my children’s school. My very curious son always marvelled at how I always stopped for the school children to cross the road and how his usually impatient father slowed down and waited patiently while the children played on the road as if they were in their compounds. During rainy season, I slow down when I get to puddles of water so that I do not splash water on their uniforms. Then one day, he asked me why I was always nice to and patient with the school children. Apart from telling him something close to what my friend told his son, I explained to him that my future son-in-law and daughter-in-law might just be among these school children. From the way he kept quiet after my response, I knew he got the message.
Come to think of it, how many of us in our 50s saw the four walls of a private school? From primary [there was nothing like crèche or nursery school then before we started primary school. At best, it was akara school where we basically played, slept and ate] to secondary and university, it was public schools all the way. Then the freefall in the standard of education started in the 90s and nothing has been the same. Nature forbids vacuum, and private schools, from crèche to university levels, have taken over and that is where children of many people who went to public school do all their schooling now. Consequently, many of today’s university graduates from rich and middle class homes do not know what life in a public school looks like.
But this number is still very negligible compared to the population of Nigeria. The implication is that the school environment of private schools does not represent the real world. When I came out of the university in the 80s, I also found out that the outside world was different from the university environment. But what I am saying is that the private school environment is even farther from the real world. So what reality checks are you giving your children to prepare them for the real world?
There was a top government official. In those days, sometimes after Sunday Mass at Church of Assumption, Falomo, Ikoyi, he would take his children to the general ward at the National Orthopaedic Hospital, Igbobi, or some homes for handicapped or under-privileged children. The first time he took the children to Igbobi, they were so shaken that when they came out, there was grave silence. Normally after these visitations, they would go back to their highbrow Ikoyi to have lunch, either at Ikoyi Club or buffet at some five-star hotels. On that first visit to Igbobi, the food simply refused to pass through their throat. The reality check was that impactful.
Another big man in Victoria Island has about 10 cars, ranging from small Honda Civic to G-Wagon Mercedes Benz, in his garage, but when the older children want to visit their friends, even in Lagos mainland, the wife describes the bus route to them. She does not allow them the luxury of a chartered taxi not to talk of one of the drivers taking them. She said, “Play, play like this, we dey born akamu (soft and naive children) say na children. Make dem jump bus. When I dey grow up, na waka I waka; I no even see bus enter.” Initially, she said she was always apprehensive until the children got back home, but she has overcome her fears. The only thing is that she insists they have their phones and identity cards on them before they step out of the house.
The truth is that many middle class and affluent parents envy children who are already streetwise and wish their children are also streetwise. They know that shielding their children from the outside world due to fear of kidnapping, armed robbery, accidents and other forms of insecurity, puts the children at a disadvantage later. No matter how long, they cannot live in isolation or interact only with their fellow silver spoon kids forever. Even if they grow up, live and establish their businesses in Ikoyi, Maitama and other “big men” areas, they will need cleaners, drivers, cooks and even office workers. Without understanding how life in the streets works, these workers will catch them mugu and can even ultimately bring down their businesses.
Children are like foetuses; no matter how long they stay in the womb and get protection from life’s shocks through the amniotic fluid, they will be expelled some day from the womb to face the outside world. What is your strategy to prepare your privileged children for life in the outside world?