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Harsh lessons learned from years spent in school…The story of a top achiever.

08 Jun

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By Ben Mmari

Initially I wanted to call this note “How education ruined my life” But the thing is education never ruined my life, hell I probably wouldn’t be living in Cape Town, the design capital of 2014, working at a top technology/business consulting company – without my brilliant education. But rather it is the education system that has played a huge negative role in my life. And this is something that I am only noticing now at the tender age of 22.

It was great being the smart child, the intelligent one, the one who always knew what to do and when to do it. The loyal student, always in the top 3, consistent, motivated, hard-working. Thus, at the young age of 18 when one is about to leave high-school (and no one else knows what to do with their life) it is a great feeling to know that your life is mapped out because you are a ‘top achiever’, a high school ‘success’, a fine product of the education system…bwaap bwaap bwaaap. If only I knew back then… if only I knew.

I lived in a bubble, utopia, an ideal world – a world of my own, a world that the education and reward system had helped me fabricate inside my mind. I was getting awards every term, getting book prizes at the end of the year, even made it into the national news paper after my Matric results (its Swaziland so I think everybody makes it into the paper at least once in their life…truth be told). But this constant flush of success, awards, recognition and achievement had led me to think that I was king of the world, that I could do no wrong, that I had it all figured out and that my path was set – but in all honesty it was very very far from this.

What this ‘excellent’ childhood did set me up for was a fantastic reality check. 

The move to varsity was not the most amazing transition I have ever experienced. I went from getting 89% for End of Year Matric mathematics to getting 64% for test 1 MAM1000 – a first year mathematics course at UCT. And I mean this was probably the second time in my life that I received such a ‘low’ mark for a mathematics test – the inner me was like “64% for maths dude???” Up until this point I thought I lived and breathed mathematics, I thought I owned mathematics, I thought numbers and logic were my slaves but sadly that really wasn’t the case. Worse than actually getting that low mark, was that feeling of ‘failure’ that feeling of ‘shame’, of ‘disappointment’ that is what hurt the most. That feeling of ‘I’m not good enough’, I am ‘not smart enough’ and worst of all that feeling of wondering what people thought of me and what they saw me as. See… up until this point I had based my self-worth on what other people think of me. And I mean after being recognized in front of the whole school on frequent occasions its hard to value yourself without involving the value that others place on you. But this taught me that it is of utmost importance that the value you place on yourself must come from within- Lesson 1.

Now this was a sad moment in my life – but what did I do afterwards? I did what any self-respecting first year varsity student would have done. I drank it off on a Friday night on Long street and convinced myself that “I’d do better in the next test” 😀 – haha but that didn’t work either because as much as the next test result might have been slightly better. The problem was that my aim was to beat everyone else in the class and not just to beat myself. But when they post up the class list with test results and you see that people are getting 100% and even 120% (imagine…) and there you stuck sitting on a smooth 69% position 300 out of 700 – then you realise that this struggle cannot be won, this struggle cannot be won if you are basing your success on how other people did. Because you are not on the same level, you do not have the same background, you do not have the same path and you do now have the same goals. Thus from my constant failure to beat other people academically here at UCT, I realised that I had to have my own struggle, my own set of internal standards, rules and ambitions that were not solely based on the external world. The high school days of competing with my smart classmates were over, as it was now time for me to compete against myself. Yes it is perfectly acceptable to use guidelines from others with regards to where you can be and what you can achieve – because its absolutely true that competition breeds progress – but that’s where it must end. Because you must realise that at the end of the day you have your own race that needs to be run. From this I had my second lesson. Lesson 2 – Develop your own Jihad.

“I don’t know”, “how do I do this”, “what happens next”, “is this correct”, “why is this like this?” The questions that I have been asking over and over again during my past 4 months at work. Working both during my short vacation stints at different companies(Kalahari and Yola) and now at my first full time job at BSG in Cape Town, had lead me to ask so many damn questions!!!. In the beginning of my professional career I swear that every second sentence that left my mouth was appended with a large hanging question mark. Even to this day I am still asking questions. But I was never like this, and honestly it is still a bit difficult for me.

See being the ‘smart one’ , ‘the chosen one’, the ‘messiah’, the ‘alpha and omega’- haha ok that’s pushing it (I wasn’t even thaaat smart really 😛 ) but yes, being ‘that kid’ meant that I had to know it all. It meant that people were always asking me questions and that meant that I always had to have answers. It was a hard job but it was a great feeling because again there’s a feeling of that sense of value derived from others. But you see, asking questions for me meant ignorance, it meant darkness it meant I was weak. Because I had this belief that I had to know it all, there was so much pressure for me to know it all but in the real world as I have so harshly learned (over and over again) you do not and will not know it all at any point in time, it is just not practical it is just not possible. Thus you must ask questions, because ignorance is the basis of greatness, nothing is the foundation of all things, questions are the keys to understanding,  wisdom and knowledge. So Lesson 3 would be the fact that I don’t know it all – and its completely ok to seek help and guidance, in fact it is highly encouraged to ask questions. Light exists on the basis that there is darkness to begin with.

Tied in strongly with #Lesson 3 is almighty Lesson 4 – It’s ok to make mistakes. For as long as I can remember I have been greatly afraid to make mistakes, to take risks to delve into the unknown. And I’m not sure if its because I am mathematically/scientifically inclined or if its just because I am just too damn scared and risk-adverse. But growing up I had always  thrived for certainty, and the ridiculous stuff I was learning at school gave me that certainty. We were given problems that had model solutions. We were given equations and all the damn parts of the equation and our task was to simply calculate the answer. And that was supposed to be challenge?? really guys…really 😐 Is this supposed to develop top students in our schools?

I (speaking strictly for myself) was brought up in an academic system that had a large-ass safety net, that had a solution to every single problem, where for every test we were given, the teacher had a model solution in her first draw designed to perfection. And this is a problem, because I was not taught to think out the box, I was not encouraged to think differently, I was not forced to break the barriers of what makes sense and what is acceptable. I was taught to please, I was taught to follow orders, I was taught to submit to a higher mortal power. I mean in primary school we are given Religious Education, we are even given an outline of how we are supposed to think about the world – does that even make sense? ( Yes teaching it is one thing but enforcing it is the issue i am trying to tackle here…) A child straight from the womb, from the void, a fresh expression of the Tao, is told how to view the world and his/her origins, so that he knows what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’, what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. “Because we older humans that have been in the system for so long know much more than you and can tell you a thing or two about ‘truth'”..hmm really :|. Yes we need to help our kids establish themselves in the world but we need to let them think, we need to let them create, we need to let them live, explore, try fail and fuck up, we should encourage our children to fuck up every single day. Because that is were growth comes from. I look at my younger brother ( Isaac ) and I admire his creativity, his brilliance, his bravery, his unique thought processes. He draws, plays guitar, jams the piano, makes movies, designs buildings and countless more things and there is no right and wrong, he isn’t simply doing what he has been taught to do, he’s expressing himself and making countless mistakes along the way, but that is the true key to growth.Knowing that it is ok to make mistakes….

Finally one of the biggest illusions of all is the fact that the education system is always preparing us for what is coming next, we go to pre-school to prepare for primary school, we go to primary school to prepare for high school we go to high school to prepare for college, we go to college in order to prepare ourselves to be in the big bad world, and then bam reality hits at the tender age of about 22/23 and by then we should be ready 😐 But then the cycle starts all over again, and you realize that we live a life constantly preparing for some fantastic future event. So that by the time we are 65 we have retired and amassed all the wealth that we need and can finally enjoy life – buuut then you contract some disease and that’s it 😐 so in essence we prepare ourselves to die, not to live. (adapted from Alan Watts – Playing the game of life).

Thus  Lesson 5 ladies and gentlemen – There are no certainties in life, there is no amount of preparation that can get you ready to live in this three dimensional reality. We do not know what tomorrow holds, so instead of constantly preparing for it and bracing ourselves for its impending yet asymptotic arrival, we should grab that bull by the horns and live it right now, we need to create our life, we need to live our life and unbind ourselves from the strong grasp of society, the invisible chains of suppression and control. Life cannot be learned in a book, taught in a class, written in a test, and no one and nothing can fully prepare you for your destiny.

Ben is a UCT graduate, currently working at BSG in Cape Town. You can read this and more of other Ben’s articles here.

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