West Indian Educational Trauma

 [Content Warning: abuse, violence]In primary and secondary schools in the Caribbean, students are often subjected to vast amounts of psychological and physical abuse. Yet, if you say this and look back on your education with less than adulation, you are chastised. It's as if you broke some unspoken code, to sweep the abuse under the rug and as is the typical course in our society, protect the abusers from criticism and ultimately, accountability.I've written in the past about how violent disciplinary methods disproportionately target blacker students from poor backgrounds. And I've written about how physical violence disproportionately targets male students in our schools. I've also taken the time to identify the definitions of both psychological and emotional abuse in previous posts. If you need a refresher, please take one before you continue reading.

Children in primary schools are there with their first priority being to learn. Other priorities may include schools being the one place students can secure a full meal for the day. Additionally, teachers are supposed to provide a temporary replacement for care and love students should be receiving from their parents while the parents are away working.

One of our earliest lessons in school is unfortunately, trauma bonding with the abusive people who are supposed to care for us. In this post, I'll mostly be writing about my own experiences regarding what I've witnessed in St. Lucian schools, but I can guarantee you that every other person schooled in this country that I've spoken to shares these experiences. While many of them have so thoroughly trauma bonded to their abusers that they look back on those violent times of their lives fondly, many of them have stepped out of the cycle of abuse and realized that their experiences reflected inappropriate behavior on the part of the adults who were supposed to care for them.

The thing about "abuse" is that it will justify itself continuously to prove that it exists. The teachers that inflicted sadistic violence upon school children -- specifically targeting those living in poverty in many cases -- often justified their behavior by saying that they would only beat for a "good reason". The catch here is that the abuser sets the goal posts, and moves them continuously based on their behavior. Every reason for brutal lashings with belts, thick sticks or branches suddenly becomes a "good reason". Children may know right from wrong but the power dynamic enables them incapable of responding to abuse with anything but deference. The impact of this in the long term has been clear in our culture today...Because people deny abuse within the school system, that doesn't mean that abuse hasn't happened. People will be shocked if you tell them that people controlling your literal bodily functions is abuse -- but it is. It is the same type of abuse common in prisons and concentration camps. Trauma bonding involves the very act of minimizing what has happened to you. You don't have to believe it for it to be an incontrovertible fact. The deluge of flat earth truthers doesn't mean that the Earth has suddenly stopped being round.

Acquiescing  to abusive power structures then becomes a measure of your worth in society. You are "good" if you obey nonsensical rules and you are "bad" if you are curious. You are "bad" if you question what you're told. This is another harmful lesson that's engrained early within our abusive school system.

Media, teachers and legislators collude to ensure we have a society that is continually abusive to children. Newspapers will publish blurbs about faulty studies with poor methodologies to claim that "beating is good" despite the fact that decades of real research has definitively determined for actual decades that the effects of beating children are deleterious in the long term. There are more effective disciplinary methods that do not involve the use of physical or emotional violence.

People who rally behind abuse within our school system supportively are then shocked to hear that students undergo abuses within the home. When our society has legalized abuse on such a wide-reaching scale, it should not then be surprising that the Caribbean has high rates of incest, sexual assault and/or murder. Violence begets violence and when the earliest lessons you learn are that violence is a way to accomplish your goals and "get people to behave", that sets the framework for your behavior in the future.The very abusers who see themselves as staunch disciplinarians will in many instances, have children arrested for drug crimes and they exhibit other anti-social behaviors. The abusers who see themselves as "good" for all of society miss the very fact that you cannot enjoy brutalizing small children without being a sadist. Justify it all you want, the abuse children face in school is nothing more than normalized sadism.

Throughout primary school, I remember many instances of sticks as thick as my forearm being broken on the backs of young black boys. I remember withholding your tears being seen as a sign of "manliness" -- one of the first instances of toxic patriarchal masculinity being forced on actual children. I remember teachers picking on students (like me) whose parents did not want them to be violently brutalized with weapons during the school day. Those of us whose parents did not endorse abuse were derided by the teachers entrusted to care for us. Obviously, we were spoiled if we did not receive violent beatings from strangers daily. That was really and truly the environment that I grew up in!In Secondary School, the abuse takes a different turn for girls and boys in some cases. At St. Mary's College, young boys are indoctrinated into a strict social hierarchy to "teach them how to be men" with the main focus of teaching them how to 1. avoid being gay and 2. endure abuse without complaint, even "laughing at it". (BTW, laughing at your abuse? Still doesn't mean it didn't happen. Still didn't mean that it wasn't abuse.) I cannot yet figure out a reason why anyone, especially a small teenager needs to "be a man" or do anything other than their homework and wholesome extra-curricular activities.

At St. Joseph's Convent, girls are subjected more often to psychological abuse than physical abuse. Of course, this is all good preparation to being a submissive wife to your violent future husband. The rest of the secondary schools in St. Lucia are co-ed -- and I can't speak confidently on the types of abuse that go on there but I can be reasonably assured there is a mix of emotional and physical violence.Abuse is how we learn our status in society and it is how we learn our worth. If that is the method of delivering the lesson, what is the  lesson that students in our society learn?

YOU ARE WORTHLESS.

That's it. That's the impact of all this schooling. You learn that you are worthless. When boys cannot cry, they learn that their emotions are worthless. When gay boys become the poster child for the "most horrendous thing any man could be", they learn the lesson that they are worthless. When "suspected lesbians" are gossiped about by their teachers, they learn the lesson that they are worthless. When children face daily insinuations that posture and skirt length indicate how "slutty" they are, they learn the lesson that they are worthless.

When disabled (ADHD, depression, fibromyalgia etc.) students are verbally abused for their "laziness", they learn that they are worthless. When dissent is criminalized, you learn that your feelings are not just worthless, but markers of inherent evil.I don't want to change anything today with this post. I just want you to open your eyes to your own experience. I want you to think back to instances in your childhood that you thought were unfair.

Consider the idea that you were right. Consider the idea that your moral compass was well-developed without physical brutality and that the unfair behavior of your teacher really was unfair. Reflect on those memories and reflect on whether or not violence was necessary. If you believe violence was/is necessary, I now want you to consider why. If you believe in Christian messages (for example) or if you hold any other belief that PEACE is what should be exalted above all things, why do you believe that violence is necessary?In the school system, the answer to that question is never "yes". If we want to raise a future generation without violence, we'll need to put an end to teaching them that violence is acceptable.

Why "Stop The Violence" Campaigns Are Ineffective

Today, I want to write about something that has been bothering me for a long time. Once in a while there will be a period of seemingly nonstop violence in St. Lucia, as I’m sure is the case in other Caribbean countries. For example, during last year's Christmas season and early January, I could hear multiple gunshots from downtown Castries almost daily. Nearly every day in the news I read about some murder or group of murders that had occurred in the north of the island. Many of these murders happened disturbingly close to my home.

In the wake of such violence, it's common for the ministers and other government officials to release statements calling for an end to violence. From as early as I can remember, I recall hearing minister, teachers, and other officials calling for violence to come to an end. However, violence still continues today in St. Lucia. All of these calls for prayers and short-term solutions failed to stop the gun and gang violence in St. Lucia.

Why is that? Well, the first thing we need to realize here is that short-term solutions for violence are never going to work simply because they are short-term. In order to have an effective campaign to stop violence, we need to think in the long-term— something that many in charge seem to be incapable of doing.

Perhaps it is time for us to start looking outside of bureaucracy to stop the violence in our communities. But again, this presents a unique set of challenges for most citizens. We fear violence. Nobody wants to be killed by a stray bullet or to become involved in some criminal activity that they previously weren't involved in. However, for us to stop violence, will need to go into the belly of the beast and see what is really going on. (This mostly applies to middle-class and wealthier St. Lucians who have the privilege of not existing in communities with heavy amounts of violence.)

We also need to conceive of a long-term plan for St. Lucian society, one that eliminates violence as a whole. We cannot eliminate gun violence or gang violence uniquely. This is like suggesting that we should just remove a piece of a cancerous tumor instead of the entire thing. It simply doesn't make sense.

Violence and abuse are actually seen as fundamental to most people’s upbringing in the Caribbean. Violence starts from the time we are children and many St. Lucians actually use biblical justification to prove that violence is necessary for raising a child. (Side note: This biblical justification ignores the multitude of passages where Jesus calls for kindness and love.)

The lessons we learn as children carry on into adulthood. When we learned that violence and abuse were fundamental to our existence, we learned to use violence and abuse to solve all of our problems. Violence became easy to us because that was what we learned as children.

This is not saying let all children run amok. (Yes, I do have to clarify this.) Actually, many psychologists have developed ways to raise children that instill discipline without resorting to abuse or violence. This is not new--this research has been around for more than 30 years. Still, we rely on abuse and violence to build the foundation of our nation's psyche. This is one of the biggest issues at the root of gang violence and gun violence in St. Lucia. We see violence and abuse as normal and refuse to do anything to fight against it until it becomes unacceptable to us.

One of the issues with building the foundation of our society on violence and abuse is that we learn a very black-and-white way of viewing the world. Since our childhood experiences inform our experiences in adulthood, we grow up seeing problem-solving in a way that valorizes punitive methods. We think that punishment is the only way to accomplish our goals to the point where we are blind to alternative solutions and will fight to the death for the belief that punishment is the only way to get anything done. However, violence begets more violence and this ends up being a very ineffective way of viewing our society's current issues, especially with gang violence and gun violence.

Once you add in social factors on top of this foundation of violence, we begin to see that we're in quite a predicament as Caribbean people. The prime minister of St. Lucia recently claimed that poverty and violence are unrelated. I find that this claim has little substance in a country where the majority of people exist in poverty — and have little access to education, health care and social services that send the societal message that their lives have significance. Additionally, multiple studies have linked poverty and crime across the globe. These studies should not be interpreted in a manner that allows for discriminatory practices against the poor. Again, we need to think non-punitively and use this information to weave a stronger social fabric. Poverty does beget violence. Desperation does beget violence. And ultimately, a society that is based on violently of bringing children begets more violence in adulthood.

The campaigns do nothing to address these underlying issues and in fact, acknowledging the truth of these issues is almost taboo. From as early as I can remember campaigns to stop violence in St. Lucia have done nothing in the long-term. They pay lip service to the public and weakly satiate our desire for our government to take action on our behalf.

Government officials and those in charge of leading the country completely ignore the root cause of violence in our communities and they aren't interested in seeking out alternative solutions to ending violence in St. Lucia (or throughout the Caribbean, as I’m sure this is a regional problem). This would mean doing critical analysis of our society and educating themselves about the vast array of research that currently exists regarding community violence. And again, these officials would then have to acknowledge that violence in childhood is correlated to violence in adulthood. This is clearly something they are unwilling to do as bills to ban something as simple and ubiquitous as corporal punishment in schools have not yet been passed.

Additionally, prayer is not a valid solution to ending violence in our communities. This is another way that government officials quickly placate the public. Calling for prayer taps into our religious population’s sensitivity towards their beliefs. Using St. Lucians’ religious beliefs is a very easy way to manipulate them— something missionaries have been doing in our country for years.

While I do believe that there is something to be said for the power of prayer for some, prayer doesn't stop people from being abusive, it doesn't stop people from experiencing poverty, and it also doesn't stop violence in our region. Living in San Souci, I hear prayers on a loud speaker every day of the week for hours at a time. Sometimes within the very same evening, I will hear gunshots in Conway which have never once ceased due to the fervent prayers that I hear in the background as I work. And trust me, they’re praying loudly enough.

To stop violence in the Caribbean we need to do something radically different. Repeating the same things that have never worked is a hallmark of foolishness and shines a light on the lack of caring on the part of people who are in charge of governing our country. Community violence should be approached not just with short-term solutions but with effective long-term solutions.

The answers lie in a nonviolent approach and approaching community violence from a place that is largely non-punitive. Having recently read “Non-Violent Communication” by Marshall Rosenberg, I believe that there are multiple solutions to end community violence just within the pages of his book. This proves to us that others have found solutions to community violence. Somewhere out there out the answers we seek are waiting to be found. All we need is a group of government officials as well as a group of citizens who are willing to search and find these answers.

Until then, I suspect I will be sitting at my desk listening to gunshots in the city below for a very long time.