By Mary McCallum
My parents are both Jamaican. One of the greatest things my parents aspired to for me was to ‘get an education’ – whilst abiding by their ideas of how an educated woman should think and behave.
The experience of growing up as a child of an immigrant, the first generation born in a new country, is unique within itself. You carry the expectations of the generation before you on your shoulders, whilst straddling cultural mores and differences on a daily basis. But I believe this circumstance has its own flavour when you are the child of a Caribbean parent.
My parents are both Jamaican. One of the greatest things my parents aspired to for me was to ‘get an education’ – whilst abiding by their ideas of how an educated woman should think and behave. And yet this was an oxymoron since part of education is owning the power of self-definition and self-expression.
When writing this, I am acutely aware of the ‘privilege’, whether perceived or real, that I have. I was able to attend school consistently in England, whilst my parents only managed part-time attendance in Jamaica as children due to poverty, illness, and ignorance. I was taught to read when I was three years old (full credit to my mother) whereas my parents’ literacy was achieved mainly by self-effort.
And now, with two degrees under my belt, I am able to run my own business with the help of a laptop and the worldwide web. Something that my mum and dad, who did various forms of manual labour during their lives, still can’t quite believe is real.
But these things came at a price.
My parents’ view of the world, what they had been taught in the Caribbean, was that education was the key to improving your life. They ingrained in me that getting that ‘piece of paper’ was the key to lifelong success. What they didn’t know, and what I realised in a rude awakening at 21, was that a ‘piece of paper’ was not enough to function well in British society as an educated person.
I felt like I had been duped. It’s like running in a race and just when you pass the finish line, and you think you’ve won, you realise that someone moved the line another 500 metres down the road, and the other runners have left you for dust. You have no energy left to run and you feel like a failure.
My parents’ view of the world, what they had been taught in the Caribbean, was that education was the key to improving your life…. What they didn’t know,… was that a ‘piece of paper’ was not enough to function well in British society as an educated person.
You mean all the hours of studying had been for nothing? No, they were not for nothing – but they were the bare bones of what I needed to succeed.
Throughout school, I always received exemplary school reports. There was only ever one criticism that I heard over and over again: “I wish she would ask more questions.” At the time, I didn’t think too much of it apart from thinking – what more do they want from me? I go to lessons on time, I do my work, I do homework, I listen, I obey instructions. My parents always told me that that’s what I needed to do.
But getting older, I realised what was missing: My Voice.
Being raised in a sheltered home and a small, ultra-strict Pentecostal church, I was encouraged into the role of the ‘good girl’. The good girl does what her parents tell her. The good girl goes to school and concentrates. The good girl gets good grades. The good girl doesn’t get involved with ‘friend and company.’ The good girl is not social. The good girl stays home. The good girl is not sexual. The good girl is quiet. The good girl only goes to church. The good girl obeys.
These messages were intended to keep me ‘safe’ but also to minimise the fears of individuals trying to survive in a new and sometimes hostile environment. But overprotection is dangerous, despite coming from the best of intentions. It impairs the one who it is meant to protect because that individual cannot function independently, despite being a full-grown adult.
I get it. My parents didn’t want me to get drawn into the wrong crowd. They didn’t want me to get pregnant underage, to become another statistic. They had the best of hopes for me. But my ‘obedience’ had stunted my personal growth.
I spent hours of time at school and university in my books, alone, making sure I got my work done. I had avoided parties and social events, thinking that they were unnecessary to my goal of getting an education. And those things were ‘worldly’ anyway – a detriment to my spiritual life. I thought that this was the best for me, but one event changed my mind completely.
Being raised in a sheltered home and a small, ultra-strict Pentecostal church, I was encouraged into the role of the ‘good girl….. But overprotection is dangerous, despite coming from the best of intentions. It impairs the one who it is meant to protect because that individual cannot function independently, despite being a full-grown adult.
In my first job after university, I was invited to an evening networking event. I walked into a room of 50 or more people and realised that everyone was talking to everyone else, totally absorbed in conversation. I was invisible. I stood there dumbfounded. I wanted to speak to someone but I had nothing to say. I didn’t know where to start. I was good at ‘church talk’ – “Praise the Lord” and “God bless you” amongst other phrases. I could talk in depth about theology and the Bible. But I had no clue about how to make general conversation at a work or social event with other adults. And even if I had something to say, would they want to listen anyway?
That’s when it struck me: my piece of paper can’t help me now. I had a qualification from one of the top universities in the UK but no social skills. I had been a good girl all my life and now I had no clue how to operate in the world at large.
I had to take a long, hard look at myself and question everything I had ever been taught.
I forced myself onto a journey of self-growth. I had to answer some really difficult questions for myself: Who do I want to be? Who is God to me? What do I believe is right or wrong? How is that different to that of my parents or community? How do I define success? What do I need to do to achieve my goals?
I forced myself into more unfamiliar social situations. I forced myself to say yes to invitations out rather than say no all the time. And even though it was difficult and I felt like a total failure at times, I slowly found my feet. I learnt who to trust and who to shy away from. I learnt how to speak up for myself and make myself heard. I learnt how to showcase my skills instead of hiding them under the guise of ‘humility’ or worrying about the ‘badmind’ of others.
In the real world, having a qualification is only half the battle. Promotions and opportunities tend to be given to those who are the friendliest, the most open to others, those who network the best… not necessarily the most qualified.
That’s when it struck me: my piece of paper can’t help me now. I had a qualification from one of the top universities in the UK but no social skills. I had been a good girl all my life and now I had no clue how to operate in the world at large
But that’s not fair! No, it’s not fair – but how things should be is worlds away from how things really are. Yes, you need to study hard. But you need to put in just as much effort into being a well-rounded individual and getting along with other people in order to be successful in the world of work, and in life.
Education isn’t just about books and a piece of paper. Education is about being able to operate in multiple social situations, about being able to use your skills wherever you go. It is about being able to relate to people from multiple walks of life and be able to think beyond the scope of your experiences and the people that you know. It is about knowing how to cling onto the good that you have been taught and release any belief that is blocking you from achieving your personal best.
Education isn’t just about books and a piece of paper. Education is about being able to operate in multiple social situations, about being able to use your skills wherever you go.
What have you been taught is your ‘role’ in your family and your community? And are these roles helping or hindering you from achieving your best? I hope that I have inspired you with my story and I look forward to hearing your stories and experiences in the comments below.
Mary McCallum is a first generation Londoner, the daughter of Jamaican parents who emigrated to England just after the Windrush era. She is passionate about breaking through societal limitations imposed upon women, whilst empowering them to achieve their personal best through education and self-esteem building. She runs a successful YouTube channel and blog, The Curly Closet, with a focus on natural hair care, lifestyle and beauty for Black women.
Her YouTube Channel: www.youtube.com/TheCurlyCloset