In last week's edition of The Observer, May 25, I nostalgically wrote a tribute to my former head mistress Sr. Mary Louis Wahler, a founding member and first headmistress of Holy Cross Lake View, SS.
Little did I know that the article would trigger many stakeholders’ memory of the disappointments springing from the school’s veering off the original track - the track for which the school was categorically and uniquely designed.
Most of the once great schools have some things in common; they were founded and initially managed by foreigners - Caucasians mainly from Western Europe and USA. Secondly, most of them had very humble beginnings with the major intentions of serving the educational needs of the rural poor.
Thirdly, after several decades of successful delivery of education, they were handed over to either government or the local community. And fourth, most of them tend to degenerate into ghost versions of the once great institutions they used to be.
Two categories of death are common for most schools: one is where the school’s soul dies but the body remains. With this type of death, the school abandons all the core values that once made the school different from any other school.
However, the physical infrastructure remains intact – perhaps there is need to improve or upgrade to complex modern buildings. The schools might even needlessly buy school buses and more vehicles - for publicity stunts - even if those buses are virtually not used, except for a handful of times in a year.
The second category of death is the fatal one where both the physical infrastructure and the identity of the school suddenly vanished into nothingness.
The death of a school's should tends to be the commonest one. Important as they might be, there is a common tendency for some school’s identity to disappear as soon as the founding members hand over responsibility to others. Everyone reading this should use the information in whichever way they want to reflect on their former schools and where they are now.
Painfully, I am sometimes tempted to agree with veteran journalist, Timothy Kalyegira’s seemingly controversial view that there could be something inherent about some people’s inability to not only innovate but also maintain and sustain what has been innovated for them.
Take a pause and allow this to sink in. You go through a school that teaches so many things in academic, spiritual, cultural, and personal terms. In a way, your character gets shaped by the school.
But somehow, a few decades down the road, you not only feel embarrassed to identify with the schoolbut also cannot even dare recommend it to anybody you care about. In fact, when you cross paths with a fellow alumnus of the school, you begin the greeting by cautioning them not to bring up any conversations about the former school.
Unfortunately, one thing that the successors of great schools ignore is that after several years of existence, a school becomes more than just buildings, school buses and academic excellence; it is also a special vessel that stores generations of schooling memories, character, and identity formation for many.
It is for the same reason that regardless of how successful some former students become, they remain alert to anything that happens to the school that groomed them. Therefore, the serious sense of concern when one sees their former school lose its soul or degenerating beyond recognition is not a misplaced one.
Yet, if there is a will, reviving or maintaining the legacy of an already great school should be an easier task than starting a new one and steer it to greatness. However inflated the new successor’s egos are, there are always going to be spaces for expansion, expressing administrative wit and innovativeness without necessarily destroying the core values or soul of a school.
Sometimes, part of maintaining a school’s soul lies in treating troubled students as individuals by paying attention to their unique behavioural, academic, and financial challenges.
Also, although I cannot put a finger to it, there is something about visiting a former school and find some known or familiar faces. The faces can be those of former students who returned to offer their services to the school, members from the local community and staff who have remained at the school for several decades.
Such people form a crucial embodiment and reservoir of the school’s true soul and identity. Most importantly, the schools have access to a free pool of expertise knowledge from former students, teachers and even the founding members in situations where they are still alive.
It is the recognition of the continuity of the school’s soul and identity that might motivate a former student and teacher to not only proudly identify with the school but also confidently recommend anyone to join the same school.
The author is a Social Worker based in Canada.