The first time I wrote my First School Leaving Certificate Examination (FSLC), I failed.
This exam is said to be one of the easiest exams in our academic journey but I failed it at first attempt.
I remember coming back home from writing the exam frustrated and near tears and I still remember vividly, my dad's words when he saw me.
Upon enquiring how the exams went and my reply that I wasn't sure I would pass, he asked if there was a lot of listening comprehension and dictation involved which I replied yes. He only told me this : 'Never mind, whatever comes of the exam, you did great and I am proud of you'. Those words served as cushions to land on when the results came out and I failed. They also propelled me to go in a second time even more determined to succeed.
Why could my dad tell me he was proud of me even at the face of a possible failure? Let me explain.
As many of you are aware of my journey, I live with sickle cell disease. One of the complications of living with sickle cell is the possibility of developing hearing loss. Mine came early. I lost my hearing even before I could complete primary school.
Back then, it was difficult to see kids with hearing and other disabilities being sent to school. It was even more difficult to find any sort of support in place for those whose parents dared the odds to send them to school. And so, the first and possibly only support such kids would get was from their immediate families and later some empathetic teachers and class mates. If your family was the kind that found you a burden, chances of going to or even staying in school remain slim.
Fortunately, my family has and continue to be, my biggest cheer leaders. Between navigating the corridors of hospitals wards and rooms because of being constantly hospitalised from sickle cell induced pain crisis and other health challenges and facing a school system without support systems for the hearing impaired, it was a challenge going through school.
Yet, I loved going to school. I loved reading and I was fortunate and blessed, to have a family that stood the test of time and helped fanned this quest of knowledge instead of quenching it. In my community, people with any form of disability are usually often stigmatized and most often, discarded as not amounting to much. There are even derogatory words and names used to refer to persons with all sorts of disability. The deaf and hearing impaired were referred to as 'Mumu' and someone with sickle cell was called 'half die' amongst many other names. These two were those that were commonly inferred to me by some in my community.
So you see, I was living with two issues that were already seen as taboos in my community- what I today like to refer to as visible and invisible disabilities and in addition to that, I was a girl child now woman. It would have been quite easy for my family to easily discard me in the face of all this but thankfully, they didn't. Not only did they shower me with unconditional love and support, they took the unofficial position of being my strongest and most loyal cheerleaders till date and under their love and care, they have proven again and again to be the strong winds beneath my wings enabling me to flap and soar.
And that is why, as earlier mentioned, when I failed my first school leaving certificate exam for the first time, my dad didn't sweat it. He was in no way encouraging mediocrity or thinking I was incapable from achieving anything. Far from it. He understood the challenges I encounter going to school with no support systems in place. More than that, he understood my potential and thus, couldn't tie it down to a failure of such an exam and because of this assurance, I was able to rise up, pick up myself and get back into the same class during the next academic year and sail through it like a boss.
But that wasn't without some lessons learnt. When we realised there was no way to avoid the listening and dictation parts of any exams in the future, I was encouraged to focus on honing my writing and reading skills. These proved to be of great help and value which continues to serve me till date and I was always amongst those with the best compositions and reading comprehension marks. This focus was going to be of great help to me through out my academic journey. You see, with primary school over and secondary school opening up, the challenges got even heavier. In primary school, most of our notes were written on the board and we could copy directly into our books. In secondary school, almost all my teachers dictated notes. It was a really challenging moment. I was usually often lost and lagging behind except, I sat with a bench mate who understood my problem and would let me copy from them while teachers dictated. The downside here was I was always at risk of copying wrong notes because, young as we were, we wrote what we heard the teacher say.
I was extremely careful to make sure I read the notes before I could copy. woe betide me if I sat with someone whose writing was illegible! There were few humourous situations which while it wasn't funny back then, looking back always made me laugh. For example, I had one of my favourite bench mates an Albino. When teachers dictate notes, he 'listens' for us and I copy from him and when they write on the board I 'see' for us and he copies from me. And the fun side? Our names were both Arrey so we were like Mr & Mrs just perfect for each other! Lessons from my primary school days helped me to stay ahead. Most times, I could get frustrated with always lagging behind because of fear of copying the wrong notes that out of frustrated anger, I would close my books and sleep or get busy reading something else and at the end of the class, I would try to get the notes from a more diligent classmate.
I was always copying notes and worse, some school periods I would stay home or hospital for weeks due to ill health and come back to school with more notes to copy! I guess I could have made a perfect copyist back then. I think it was during this period too that my life long dream of becoming a medical doctor switched. I always wanted to be a Dr but with the way our system is set up, it was a challenge to grasp and understand the science subjects which would have paved the way for that so, I switched and started focusing more on literature and other social science subjects.
The same experience in University. Relying on bench mates for lecture notes as most lecturers only came, gave lectures, handouts and left. Those who followed and jotted down notes, I would borrow and copy to be able to read through to get the essence of the lectures. It was also during this period that my family, especially with the support and sacrifices of my eldest Sister Gladys, got me my first hearing- aids. It was a great help but still couldn't completely correct matters. So, it was mostly still bench mates and hand outs and text books which saw me through university.
It has been more than 30 years since I first set my legs into a school. And sadly, not much has changed. While the attitude of parents towards their disabled children has shifted drastically, many children with different disabilities still navigate school corridors in their quest for education without much support in place. Maybe in other places, there are more advanced inclusive systems in place which makes it much easier for these differently abled kids to rise and maximize their full potentials.
In my country Cameroon, it remains a challenge. Granted, some things have changed. More children with disability now go to school. There are a few more private owned specialized educational institutions which still remain far from the reach of poor parents.
I have my family to thank for beating the odds back then to help me soar despite everything else. I am also grateful to the friends who joined them and didn't judge my intellectual capabilities based on the fact that I was most often than not, relying on bench mates for notes to sail through school in the absence of more effective support systems in place and while I am happy that more kids with disabilities today have an opportunity to go to school as compared to my time, it still saddens me to see that in this era of inclusiveness and talks of disability justice, not much has changed.
There is an urgent need for the powers that be to see the potential that people with disabilities possess and strive to make access to opportunities to hone these potentials and make them valuable and productive members of their various communities. Only then could it be said the society has evolved because, there is no doubt that an inclusive and just society is a progressive one.