Phillip Ernest is a Canadian writer with an extraordinary personal history, as even the briefest version of his bio suggests: Born in 1970, Phillip Ernest grew up in New Liskeard, Ontario. Fleeing home at fifteen, he lived on Toronto’s skid row until he was twenty-eight. He learned Sanskrit from the book Teach Yourself Sanskrit, and later earned a BA in South Asian Studies from the University of Toronto and a PhD in Sanskrit from Cambridge University. The Vetala (LLP, 2018) is his first novel. This is Part I of a two-part interview. Part II is here.
A practical guide for new Canadians - Step Four, by Felicia Mihali
Nothing matters more than your children’s education. If you get this step right, they’ll have it made – and you won’t have to work any more.
There are a few things you need to know about bringing up children in this country.
Kids here get practically everything they want from an early age: clothes, food, toys, everything. They are convinced they deserve everything, and they long for nothing. Grown-ups do everything in their power to entertain their children and, as their jobs keep them out most of the working week, they go out of their way on the weekend to make up to their offspring for all the solitary hours they have spent watching TV and playing computer games. That’s when they buy their children yet more videogames, sweets, running shoes, gothic T-shirts, piercings, and makeup.
It’s even worse when the parents get divorced, which often happens, especially when they come from a tradition of arranged marriages. The children start commuting between mother and father, and each tries to outdo the other in proving how much they love the children and how well they can amuse them. Neither is too interested in getting the kids to devote precious time together to boring stuff like homework.
The children quickly learn how to make the best of such a situation. Knowing their parents are racked with guilt over the divorce, kids are both fearless and remorseless. They do not fear being taken to task for bad grades. They don’t even fear the dire warnings their Math and French teachers have written in their agendas. They feel perfectly entitled to act like victims and to pretend that everybody around bullies them.
For some reason, public schools endorse the policy of treating kids like victims who need only encouragement and positive feedback. They promote the child no matter how poor his grades. School Board trustees fear that negative comments or repeating a year would discourage the child and anger the parents. A girl may be a lousy learner, a trouble-maker, or a bully; messages sent to parents will report only that she is going through a difficult stage. It’s no wonder that immigrant students seem to integrate so well, for the system demands little of them. Young people here are raised to believe the Hollywood motto “be true to yourself,” whatever that might mean. You would be surprised at how well students know their rights. They have no idea about their responsibilities.
Parents tend to think that school should be an extension of their children’s amusement park existence, that education should be fun, but they also want school to provide everything that might be missing at home, such as good discipline and nurturing. When the school fails to provide these, parents rush in to see the principal to complain about incompetent teachers.
I know you came here convinced that nothing can go wrong in this country. Well, the fact is that public schools are a mess because of this policy of praising and entertaining kids. A combination of positive thinking and parental intervention has transformed the school into a place that cares more about the weak than about the strong. The focus is on looking after poor students. Teachers are trained how best to work with children with disabilities, and they are never taught how best to stimulate their best students. The class average goes down in order to make allowances for those who cannot keep up. Students are taught to be proud of whatever they have accomplished, from drawing blue horses and failing a math test to coming in last. However poor their performance, children – and the adults they turn into – learn never to expect better of themselves.
To avoid these headaches, you should therefore enrol your children in private schools as soon as you set foot in this country. Despite their reputation as being expensive, private schools in Canada are in fact semi-public, and the parental contribution is not that significant.
When parents complain that a private education is expensive, they are speaking out of their own selfish interests. They would rather spend their money on expensive cars, appliances, clothes, and holidays. As you might expect, your children’s tuition means no holidays for you until they graduate. Just keep in mind that it’s worth every penny to have your kids grow up in a competitive system. Even if they turn out to be losers, they will be beautiful losers. A good education is never a complete loss.
Private school teachers are not necessarily any more effective than those in public schools, nor is the educational program any better. The differences between the two systems lie in class management and academic strength. Private school teachers don’t have to spend half of their time trying to settle students down. Children with leaning difficulties are put into classes where they get special support from professionals, and regular class teachers are allowed to be both harsh and fair with students – and to grade them according to their own competencies rather than School Board policies. Teachers are allowed to tell parents when their child’s performance is suffering instead of lying to them about how the kid’s going through a difficult stage. When they fail, children can be expelled instead of being promoted to the next grade in the hope that they will pull their socks up next year.
Even if you are wise enough to put your kids in private school, you still need to be wary. Keep a close eye on their agenda. There may be no negative comments, but you should still ask to see their tutor and, from time to time, the principal. You pay for this service, so you have the right to enter this sanctuary, even if you feel that your clothes are ill-suited for the occasion. Do not trust the school report. Call the teachers regularly and ask if there has been any change in your child’s attitude and performance. Teachers may be annoyed by your insistence, but they will know they can’t fool around with you.
At home, don’t hesitate to be tough with your children. Tell them you expect them to do well. Tell them you expect them to be the best, even if this is a way of thinking that is highly discouraged here. Don’t be ashamed of telling them they will inherit no wealth from you, and that there’s no rich uncle with a mansion to bequeath them. Everything they will have depends on their own efforts. What they know is their only fortune. This is something they will never lose. Your children may hate you for treating them in this way, but in the long run they will be grateful to you. Money spent on their education is the best investment you can make.
Are you wondering how it will be possible to pay your child’s private school tuition fees -- about $5,000 a year – when you are still educating yourself and you have no job?
Well, if you live in a modest rental, if you have no car, if you spend the summer inside the province, if you buy your clothes at charity shops, and if you cook every meal you put on the table, money will not be a problem. With the help of loan and grant programs and the monthly family allowance, you will easily be able to afford the school fees. Don’t forget that the family allowance is for your children’s needs, not your own. Don’t emulate parents who use the family allowance to buy a new car or to eat out. The worst are those who spend this money on video-games, fast food, movies, entertainment, and expensive threads. They are beyond stupid; they are wicked.
You will have to pay for books and the school uniform, as well, which comes to at least another $1,000 dollars. However, there are second-hand deals for these items, too. To keep expenses down, you should keep a very close eye on the school website where former students post their worn items. Do not feel humiliated when you buy your children used books or sweaters. Parents feel worse about these things than their offspring, who wear out their clothing at lightning speed.
If, however, you feel your kids will be very uncomfortable wearing used clothing on the first day of school, get them just one set of new items. Then head out to the Salvation Army and buy up pants, skirts, blouses, shirts, sweaters, and shoes with the school crest. Your children will need more than just one set, and you can safely make the switch after a couple of washings, for they don’t pay attention to these things. If you have more than one child in the same school, you are blessed, for they can hand all these items down. It they complain, just tell them you have no money. How about that? Isn’t that a smart reply? In Canada parents don’t dare say such things to their children. Parents here are supposed to have money when their kids ask for anything. But I give you permission to use this magic trick with your own children and I guarantee results. Before asking you for something, they will first ask themselves what hope they have of getting it. This is especially true once you have turned them down repeatedly.
In private school, your children will naturally be in touch with kids who are much better off than they are. These are kids who live in a beautiful house, in an upscale neighbourhood, with parents who earn $200,000 or more. At recess they’ll talk about their recent trip to Disneyland and their sumptuous birthday party at the family chalet.
You cannot compete with these people. What you can do is teach your children a little trick about how to deal with them. Teach them that what makes the real difference is not the parents’ wealth but the kids’ grades. This is not true, but it can save a little time and make your kids less unhappy. Teach them to be competitive and proud of their own academic performance. A good math score is far better than a crappy holiday. With a little luck, your kids will buy this, for young people are often less materialistic than adults. Behind any young jerk there stands an adult one. There are adults who spoil their offspring by teaching them to judge people according to their own snobbish criteria.
You would be surprised about the things that help forge friendships among schoolchildren. No matter what their parents’ wealth, a child can be a genuine admirer of a smarter classmate – at least until the parents start drawing attention to this new friend’s dark skin or faded sweater. A rich kid can be very happy to share her turkey sandwich and organic orange juice with a poorer friend – not that a chicken sandwich and plain water is so terrible. Ask your daughter not to refuse when rich kids want to share their lunch with her. If she refuses, it will be because she feels humiliated for being considered poor. When she can gladly accept what her wealthier friends offer, it will be because she doesn’t care that she is not like them.
When your son is invited to a party, let him go, and don’t hesitate to invite the rich kid back to your house. Being stupid is far worse than being poor, and you’re just poor. But when the boy comes over for a meal, refrain from making traditional meals he might have to eat with his fingers. He isn’t used to lying about your wonderful customs and may simply refuse to eat. Better to go for the regular food any good Canadian puts on the table for such occasions: pizza, hot-dogs, orange juice, and doughnuts. When they’re surrounded by delivery boxes and soft-drink cans, kids feel the same anywhere, whether they’re in a big house or a modest rental apartment like yours. With goodies like these on the table, you can be sure the little community in your kitchen is the most democratic republic in the world.
Ask your kids to learn as many new things as they can and speak as many languages as they want. At home speak with them exclusively in your mother tongue. This will be your personal code, your maternal and paternal link with them. Do not believe those who sound off about letting their kids make their own choice about which language they should speak at home. A person makes a choice between A and B when an A and a B are at hand. Teach your kids your mother tongue in the best and most correct way you can. When they go back to your home country for a visit, you will be surprised that they speak the language better than many who live there, many of whom corrupt the language with slang and nasty talk show expressions.
Some people feel that if their kids no longer speak their mother tongue, this prooves they really belong here in Canada. They use their children as a means of integration. What they fail to realize is that children who do not know their parents’ mother tongue despise them for their accent. If kids do not accept what their parents have been, they will never fully accept what they become.
Do not worry that your children may be confused by so many languages. Their brains have lots of room, and they can absorb a lot more than you can imagine. And don’t use your kids to prove you are better off than you really are. They cannot do for you what you are not able to for yourself. Your mother tongue is part of what you are, and it will always be an important part of you. Your past deserves to be preserved, and your children should know about it. When they get to be ashamed of their parents, they will not be far from being ashamed of themselves.
As long as your children are in school, right up to their Ph.D., you should not allow them to work. Never send them out for the Canadian experience. They will soon have enough of it. As long as possible keep them physically rested. Over spring break and the summer holidays, stop them from working.
Waiting tables, washing dishes, and mowing lawns are regular careers as good as any others, and you should not be encouraging your children to steal other people’s jobs. This sort of work can of course provide summer jobs for rich people who will one day run for president and who need to be able to say that they sympathise with the middle-class, as they know its pains and sorrows.
The little money your children would earn at such jobs will be spent on fast food and cheap goods. Make an effort and buy them some of what they want, but not everything. Keep them home and ask them to read, to review their last year’s work, or just to rest. If their last school report was poor, pay a private tutor to work with them. This way they will start the next school year with renewed energy and will perform far better than those who have worked at exhausting menial jobs.
Strange as it might seem, their success will be related to how many hours they spend in their own field. Find out quickly what your kids are good at and encourage their hobbies. One day, they might invent the equivalent of Microsoft or Facebook. Those inventors were rich kids who did not work as waiters and dishwashers. Act as though you yourself are rich. Keep your kids home.
If you’ve done well so far, you’re now ready for Step Five.
© Felicia Mihali, 2012
Born in Romania, Felicia Mihali has lived in Montreal since 2000. After completing studies in French, Mandarin, and Dutch, she specialized in postcolonial literature at the Université de Montréal, where she has also studied art history and English literature. She has published seven novels in French with XYZ Éditeur since 2002 and recently published her first novel in English, The Darling of Kandahar (Linda Leith Publishing, 2012), which was nominated for Canada Reads 2013.