‘Someone I hadn’t seen in forty years recognised me the other afternoon… he had been one of my closest friends…We looked at each other with a mix of tenderness and befuddlement, moist-eyed. It was clear to both of us, after the five or ten minutes of our hasty conversation, that this chance meeting was the last time we ever were going to see each other... Life is a process of gradually coming to terms with the meaning and the very concept of never-ness… ‘Well, so—how was it, in all?’ I asked him… He understood me. ‘Life, you mean?’” It was Mikhail Iossel who wrote this in a recent heartrending article in The New Yorker; on a poignant moment when he met a former high school friend after four decades.
This story reminds of the day I met a former schoolmate in Mombasa after many years. He invited me to his “place”, which turned out to be a run-down mud-walled, grass-thatched house very far from town. It was clear that things were not working well for him. In school, he had good grades and a promising life. Maybe I shouldn’t have expected so much from education, but we were made to believe as children that good grades were the only magic wand to the life of our dreams.
The restless Mombasa wind must have whizzed outside in dangerous undertows, then suddenly suppressed—as if in orderly retreat—probably snuffed out swiftly by the trees outside us. It would have been a perfect evening, but I felt something deep, like the unbearable sadness one feels just before tears well up. Sentimental man that I am, I couldn’t rule out weeping throughout the encounter.
As a writer described such times; it is “Loss: but loss of what? Youth?” Was I mourning the end of promise? The dwindling of the days and the diminishing of all the daydreams we earlier had as children? I felt many things—I felt bad for my friend; I felt guilty about my relative ‘prosperity’ and ‘luck’; I felt bad for our generation, bad for Kenya. I cannot now remember the sound of his laughter, but it must have been bitterness disguised as mirth as I tried to cheer him; we talked wistfully about things we had hoped for as children; and how life breaks one’s heart. Had I known then, I would have quoted Sigmund Freud who famously said, “One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful”.
This is a good time to think about the place of examinations as we reflect on the usual hullaballoo after KCPE results were announced on April 15, 2021. How do examination results determine the outcome of our lives? There is no easy answer as life is complex and subject to all manner of permutations; and could turn out this or that way.
Having been a student with good grades, there are a few things I have learnt. It’s good for students to exert themselves within their ability to get good grades. I am encouraging my children to do that. However, in life, one needs more than just good grades or high IQ. To good grades or high IQ, one must add both hard and soft skills. Hard skills have been defined by career expert Tom Gerencer as the “teachable abilities or skill sets that are easily measurable…the technical abilities that fit the job”. Hard skills are like writing, editing, coding, budgeting and others.
Hard skills, good grades and high IQ can enable one to get an entry-level job in a company. However, they are not enough to ensure success. One must add soft skills, which are defined by Gerencer as “the traits that prove you’d be a great fit anywhere ... such as etiquette, communication and listening, getting along with other people”.
As a country, we need to de-emphasize the importance of examinations. That’s the whole point of the competence-based curriculum (CBC) education. We may debate whether we have the resources to implement CBC (that’s fine) but the benefits are clear. CBC emphasizes that learners have what Howard Gardner called “multiple intelligences”. One may be good in languages but may struggle with mathematics; that doesn’t make them a failure.
Kudos to all pupils who did well in the recent examinations. However, for those who didn’t do as well, there will be many other types of wins ahead. And for the rest of us, the question still is: life, how is it?