Feature Address given at the Basseterre High School Speech Day and Prize Giving Ceremony 2004
Today is a day of reflection, a day of reflection on what we have accomplished, a day on which we ponder how we can build on our accomplishments as we face the future with confidence. Today, we celebrate the achievements of our students who have successfully completed another academic year, in the hope of equipping themselves with the knowledge and skills to deal with the challenges of the future.
To most of us growing up, school was an institution that forced us to accept several rituals. We got up early in the morning, went to classes, took some notes, did homework, prepared for tests and exams, and then moved up to another class as we grew older. Although on the surface, this is what it seems like to go to school, I challenge you, the students, to look at school not as an obligation, but as an opportunity to help develop your potentials to the best of your abilities, no matter what they may be, so that you would develop into a compassionate, competent and above all confident person later on in life.
For me, my view of life has changed over the years, and continues to evolve as I put my past into perspective as I try to understand where I am going. It is a perspective that is refreshing and empowering at best, and helps me to understand what my role is in today’s world. It is a view that does not place the responsibility of growing and developing squarely on the shoulders of one individual, but shares this responsibility with the family, the school, the churches, our communities and above all, all of humanity. What do I mean? Let me explain!!!
The event which has transformed my view of life was the recognition that when we are born, we all are born ignorant. We come into the world not having the “know it all” as it pertains to understanding ourselves, our relationships with others, or our relationship with the physical world around us. The facts about our world and the values and morals we come to accept are programmed into us by what we see, hear, do and feel, and as we grow older, the repertoire of our knowledge and skills increases. Since we all are born ignorant, it is the responsibility of our parents, our teachers, our leaders to build on their own accomplishments as they shape our minds and hearts to face life’s challenges. It is the success of the institutions of the family, the schools, the church and our community that would determine whether we as individuals are successful in actualizing our potentials.
I was blessed in that growing up, I had very supportive parents who made my education the number one priority in my life. They made sure that I got what they did not have, as both of my parents were not able to finish their high school training because of financial reasons. I did not understand the importance of my education at home until I left and continued my education abroad. For me, although I excelled in my classes, for my parents’ sake, most of my education was guided from pressures without, rather than from a genuine understanding within of doing the best I can do with what I had on my journey to actualizing my potential.
Of course, I grew up in the church which laid the foundation of caring for others, and this is the main reason why I model my life around the works and teachings of Christ. I also had excellent teachers who in their own way, of caring for us, of total devotion to their calling, of a purpose that transcends place and time, have touched me and inspired me in unimaginable ways. I remember, going to school, I am not sure if it was in fifth form or sixth form, learning geometry and doing the exercises. I told the teacher I was not sure why I was learning all of this, as I did not see how this knowledge could be applied later on in my life. He told me something that had a profound influence on me, which opened a new way of thinking for me, of which I would like to share with you. He told me that the homework and the exercises we do today may not have any direct application later in my life, but what I must take away are the skills in solving problems, of thinking critically about the basics or fundamentals of the problem and above all, of having an open mind. This was because no matter what career we chose later on in life, be it a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer or what ever we chose, we can always fall back on those basic skills to help us solve problems when they do arise. Even today in my practice as a doctor, I still use his advice on how to approach problems, be it with respect to the patient’s complaint, making a diagnosis or finding a solution to help that patient live a healthy life as long as possible. Not becoming overwhelmed by the content of the courses, but becoming inspired to develop the skills of solving problems and thinking critically, this was one of the most profound insights that my education at the Basseterre Senior High School had taught me, and this is what I hope to pass on to you.
So if we are all born ignorant and don’t know any better, and the institutions shape our minds and souls, it is incumbent on these institutions to play their role so that they can be positive influences in this regard. So I implore you, parents, to take more of an interest in the education of your children, to make sacrifices for their sake, to reward them when they achieve and to help them when they fall short. I praise and encourage the teachers to continue their time honored role of planting seeds of knowledge and skills in the students, so as to allow them to bloom in their later years. I want to give back to you the teachers a perspective that has guided me as I took on the role of a teacher during my medical training and now welcome as a consultant physician.
I view my role, when it comes to passing on knowledge, and I encourage every teacher to view theirs, plainly and simply, as that of a catalyst. A catalyst is a substance that speeds up a reaction without itself becoming consumed by it. If you view your role as catalysts, your goal in life should be to become better and better catalysts, as you structure your teaching methods to motivate and encourage the flow of information from the different subject areas through the textbooks to the minds of your students.
As you can tell, my education at the Basseterre High School has equipped me very well for life’s challenges, and I have to thank my teachers, for without them I would not be here today. We have an excellent education system second to none in the entire world, and this is something I will continue to boast about wherever I go. My education here was more than adequate as I was able to excel after leaving high school, during my undergraduate years at Dalhousie University, and also to excel during my medical training at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. Even when I rotated for six months of my training at University of Toronto, I had nothing to fear as a good grounding in the basics of learning in general and of medical knowledge and skills in particular allowed me to minimize my anxiety and fear and allowed me to concentrate on actualizing my potential as I continued to grow and develop. So, students, have no fear, for if you take your education seriously, you will do well anywhere in the world. I am living proof of that, as is so many others past and present who have gone on to higher heights here and abroad.
Although I have created a picture of an academic upbringing that appears to be perfect, there were many trying times and uncertainties along the way. I am sure that even as students you will encounter difficult times, like failing an exam, peer pressure that distracts you from work, and even parents or teachers “who do not seem to understand.” For me, at certain times, I was discouraged and even became depressed. For example, some students may become jealous when you excel, and make comments that may scar you deeply. I was once told by another student that although “I had book sense, I did not have any common sense.” Also, having completed my undergraduate pre-med training and graduating top of my class at Dalhousie University, my application to do my medical training at Dalhousie University was rejected. I later discovered that this was because I did not have other extra-curricular activities. I eventually accepted the State Scholarship and commenced my medical training in Jamaica.
Although my failure of acceptance at Dalhousie has been a sore point for me and a disappointment for my dad, it was a blessing in disguise. If it was not for my training in Jamaica, and a close friendship with a Canadian classmate, I may not have had the opportunity to physically meet my wife. Also, since my wife was doing her studies at University of Toronto, this gave me the opportunity to assess for myself what I was missing by not being trained in a Canadian medical school. I applied for and was able to do six months of my training at University of Toronto, and what I discovered was a source of pride and reassurance of the strengths of my country and the region as a whole. Although Canada had access to the latest technology which we did not have in Jamaica or even in St. Kitts, my medical education was well grounded, and I was able to depend less and less on technology, and depend more and more on interacting with patients as I endeavored to solve their medical problems. In other words, my training in Jamaica, taught me to do more with less, to accept resource constraints, as I care for those around me.
How do we face the future with confidence despite the uncertainties that exist? First and foremost, as mentioned earlier, we must equip ourselves with the knowledge and the skills required to solve problems, but I put it to you that this is not enough. As we confront these issues, we have to realize that the responsibility cannot rest with one person, and that we must work together as members of a team. For us to be an efficient catalyst for change or an agent of stability in our community, we most work in harmony with each other. This can only happen if we are able to communicate effectively with one another. This would allow all concerned to come onboard guided by a shared vision.
For example, in the practice of medicine, a multi-disciplinary team approach involving doctors, nurses, dieticians, social workers, podiatrists and pharmacists, working together as an efficient unit, to make sure that the right information gets to the right patient at the right time, is vital for producing positive patient outcomes. If we are going to face the future with confidence despite the uncertainties that may abound, we must be able to build up good relationships with our colleagues. Maybe we should spend more time in our schools, developing courses that focus on building communication skills to improve human relationships.
Let me at this point be open and share with you why I believe that ignorance lies at the heart of the problems in our society, and why each of us should strive above all else not to be ignorant. I have been struggling most of my life to understand why there continues to be suffering in this world, despite major advances in the sciences and medicine and its application to the betterment of human society, and despite the continued growth and positive influences of the church. In my continuing search for the answer, I am drawn over and over again to the conclusion that ignorance is the source of much of this suffering. Ignorance simply put is taken to mean “lack of knowledge in a person capable of knowing.” We can extend this definition from the individual, to the community, and finally to the human race. For example, when we say an individual is ignorant about a given problem, we mean that that person does not have the required knowledge and skills to find a solution to that problem. Also, when we say a community is ignorant about a given problem, we mean that its members do not have the knowledge base or the expertise or know how to access the right resources to allow them to solve that problem. And finally when we as a human race are ignorant about solving social problems, preventing natural disasters or curing diseases, then we realize that a lot more time and energy is needed in research to tackle these issues. This perspective has been my saving grace, because as soon as I have accepted the fact that we all come into this world ignorant, and are thus vulnerable to hurting ourselves and others, the path of hope becomes crystal clear. I realized that as we mature and learn from our mistakes and from those before us, from our teachers who likewise learnt from their teachers, we as a human race, have a mechanism in place that virtually guarantees that as time passes we will become better and better at living in harmony with each other.
Therefore, students, your ultimate goal in life is not to be ignorant, but to equip yourselves with the required knowledge and skills as you journey through life. As you formally, by your education or informally, by your interactions with your parents and churches and leaders in your community, accomplish this, and build on each accomplishment, you face a future that is bright, and you can be confident that each of you will be playing your part in creating, as your Creator had envisioned, a Heaven here on Earth. I implore you to build on your accomplishment and be confident as you face the future.
I thank you.