It's that time of year again, and the shopping plazas over the past weekend told the story. I took notice as parents with children in hand and in tow, went from shop to shop buying school supplies. For me, the scenes were instructive.
First, it demonstrates that education is still important to Jamaicans. As hard as life is for the majority of Jamaicans, I have noticed that most parents make every effort to send their children to school - even those labelled as "bad parents".
My own organisation, Hear The Children's Cry, can attest to that fact. Weeks ago, parents began asking for assistance with their children's book lists. Some of the parents who called me simply wanted help with portions of the lists, pointing out that they could find the rest of the money. That type of interest and action is not indicative of bad parents.
Our parents by and large understand how important it is for their children to have the required books for school, even when some of them, like my own mother, didn't know or understand the contents of the books. As a little girl, I was always intrigued and sometimes amused that my mother would shout, "Betty, go tek up you book," without any knowledge of what was written inside them. My mother, who was semi-literate, epitomised that status and station, as well as the aspirations of many parents in her generation - they weren't educated, but they understood the value of education and they wanted their children to have a better life than they had.
That sentiment has not changed, despite the significant shifts in the socio-economic and cultural life of the country. The parents of today still want to see their children achieve a better life than theirs, and the buoyancy of the "back to school" activities is a testament to that fact.
I'm told that one of the biggest sellers in the wholesale markets and on the streets is spray starch, and the school uniforms tell the tale. Monday morning "back to school" is a sight to behold - new shoes, perfectly starched and pleated skirts and crisp khaki uniforms adorn the educational landscape - new book bags laden with books, and children bustling and hustling to school, filled with the innate hope and optimism characteristic of childhood.
Many of the parents I have worked with, as well as my mother, would tell me constantly that they wished they had had certain educational opportunities as children. My mother was the eldest of 12 children and because of her mother's untimely death was forced to drop out of school to care for her siblings. As my mother grew older she would reflect on her childhood deficits, and though she became a self-taught adult, the opportunities she lost in primary and secondary education were difficult to recover. That is the story of many parents in Jamaica, and the baseline for parenting intervention strategies.
What Jamaican families need is an enabling environment in which their children and themselves can gain economic independence and the self-esteem and self-respect that comes with it. Employment is a key factor. Parents who are employed feel better about themselves and by extension their children. Employed parents are better able to "employ" good parenting practices. My own motto is: "Employ Parents - Empower Families".
But while the entire national focus over the next few weeks will be centred on the back-to-school environment, attention must also be placed on the thousands of young people who are not going back to school. Chief among them are those who left high school without any type of certification.
Over the last few weeks there has been a widespread hue and cry about this year's poor CSEC results, especially in English language, and clearly the situation is cause for concern.
But as poor as the CSEC results were, it is not the worst story. Even more alarming is the large number of children, perhaps as many as 20,000, who were not able to sit the CSEC exams because they did not meet the required standard. It is that cohort, by and large, which helps sustain the inter-generational cycle of poverty and dependency.
Add to those numbers the large percentage of high school and tertiary graduates who, even with certification and higher educational qualifications, are unable to find employment or opportunities, or both, for furthering their education. We live in a society in which financial institutions provide loans for virtually all the material things available - even, dispensing loans, I'm told, to cover season tickets for certain social events, but provide little or nothing for people wanting to educate themselves.
So the grim picture is that in the 50th year of our country's Independence, the status of both back-to-school and out-of-school youth continues to pose huge and growing challenges.
If we are serious, however, there are solutions that can be pursued, involving government, the private sector, non-government organisations and of course, parents. From year-round back-to-school savings plans to an expanded national evening school continuing education programme, among many other ideas, we must now put our shoulders to the wheel and get the work in education done, post-haste.