School Daze: Confusion Inherent in Finding Identity through the Colonial Education System

Patrick Chamoiseau, in his detailed narrative School Days, uses playful and colorful language to delineate the emotional struggles of a young schoolboy in colonized Martinique. Chamoiseau’s creative and careful choice of words opens his reader’s eyes to the internal struggle of the anonymous protagonist, who continually seeks to come to terms with his conflicting Creole and French identities. The different teachers under whom “little boy” studies physically represent the opposing personas he feels compelled to embody. By using these teachers as vehicles for the colliding cultural expectations impressed upon “little boy”, Chamoiseau successfully portrays the rampant, clashing feelings “little boy” experiences as he confusedly attempts to understand his roots and his place within his two distinctive worlds. Chamoiseau clearly implies his young character’s initial optimism at the prospect of starting school, a mentality the author renders naïve later in the narrative. Chamoiseau’s depiction of the enthusiasm with which “little boy” imagines his pending academic life, and the almost animalistic way in which he constantly demands approval of his mother, intensify the extreme emotional connection he has to the notion of becoming a part of a bigger, more sophisticated picture. The relationship that “little boy” forms with his first teacher fuels his happiness and comfort in the school setting. “Little boy” thrives on the maternal mannerisms of Mme Salinière, which signifies the solace he finds in his familial Creole roots: “School was fun. (‘Little boy’) was always in a hurry to get there. Mam Salinière made everything entertaining. She was another sort of Mam Ninotte, equally kind and generous with her affection. Her strictness was not threatening but briskly protective” (Chamoiseau, 28.) The positive associations “little boy” has with school are short lived, however: when his siblings reveal that the school he had been attending does not qualify as real school, but rather as just an immature nursery school, the center of “little boy”’s world falls to pieces. The full faith “little boy” put in school as his gateway to maturation and importance makes this news entirely devastating. The fact that “little boy” now feels compelled to doubt his relationship with Mam Salinière, representative of a mother figure, suggests that he cannot possibly have trust in an educational life intimately linked to his Creole foundations. The fear and uncertainty with which “little boy” approaches his new school contrasts with the carefree, positive attitude he had entering his previous school setting. This profound change in mentality is clearly manifested in the titles of the separate sections of the narrative: while “little boy”’s first school experience occurs under the title of “Longing”, “little boy”’s entrance into real school is characterized as “Survival.” Here, “little boy” must struggle to stay afloat in a barrage of confusing cultural contradictions and new paradigms. He loses every aspect of the comfort he once felt in Madame Salinière’s class as he must meet expectations he finds difficult to understand. Even the spoken language with which “little boy” grew changes sharply and unnaturally: “…Now, with the Teacher, speaking traveled far and wide along a single road. And this French road became strangely foreign. The articulation changed. The rhythm changed. The intonation changed. Words that were more or less familiar began to sound different. They seemed to come from a distant horizon and no longer had any affinity with Creole” (Chamoiseau, 47.) “Little boy” ‘s lack of preparation for both the actual learning of this new language and the criticism he faces when attempting to learn cause him to question his academic identity. He finds himself forced to assume a foreign, yet correct, persona that counters every familiar aspect of his traditional one. Moreover, the fact that “little boy” ‘s new educator is simply and ambiguously referred to as “Teacher” implies the young character’s alienation from his educator, a figure instrumental to his academic- and thus personal- progress. His disconnect from his new scholastic environment, as engendered by “Teacher”, prohibits him from comprehending how to incorporate his familiar Creole culture into a society that demands of him strictly French ways of acting and thinking. “Little boy”, amid this strong Frenchification, receives a reminder of the implications of living a life replete with Creole influences and thus begins to realize the deception inherent in his pure French instruction. A substitute, taking the place of Teacher, imparts to the class the value of being Creole by downplaying, and at times countering, the supreme importance of becoming French in every way: “He taught us for a little over a week, and what he taught us shook our world…He had read a poet named Cesaire, whom he quoted constantly, and he talked about something called Negritude…He claimed that our ancestors weren’t Gauls but people from Africa. He contradicted the Teacher with vigor, persistence, and a fierce joy. But he never tackled the Universe or its world order. We never understood what it is he wanted of us” (Chamoiseau, 129.) Here, the objectivity with which “little boy” had been taught to view the significance and seriousness of French teachings and embodying the perfectly French persona is completely contradicted. Not only does he discover that the historical information he had been taught as pure fact is arguable and even deniable, but also that the French ways of behaving and thinking are not necessarily singularly acceptable or ever superior. While “little boy” had been exposed to both French and Creole cultures in different settings, his young age kept him from questioning either as better, or more moral, or more correct without the clout of his instructors. In this substitute teacher, “little boy” comes to understand the concept of having pride in one’s roots, whatever they may be, and expressing this through rejecting ideas that contradict these roots. “Little boy” ‘s confusion surrounding his identity, as incarnated in his experiences with teachers who embody the competing factions of his cultural composition, is one commonly, even famously shared among Caribbean peoples under colonial control. This struggle, culminating in triumph for some and distress for others, is demonstrated in some of the literary and artistic works produced during this time. As author Gregson Davis frames in his autobiography of famed Martiniquan activist Aimé Césaire, Césaire had a strong affinity with his black Creole roots which he expressed through the négritude movement: “With regard to (Césaire)’s contributions to shaping a postcolonial ideology, his name is indelibly associated with the seminal concept of ‘negritude’- a word that he is reputed to have coined, and which was to become a rallying- point for several generations of black francophone youth both in Africa and in the Caribbean in their struggle to construct a positive racial identity” (Davis, 2.) Finding such esteem and honor in a cultural identity rendered wrong, even barbaric, by the dominant society did not come as easily to some, especially since the one- dimensional approach the colonial powers took to teaching suppressed all references to their native histories. As Afro- Trinidadian historian C. L. R. James wrote in the preface to his autobiography Beyond a Boundary , “The autobiographical framework shows the ideas more or less in the sequence that they developed in relation to the events, the facts and the personalities which prompted them. If the ideas originated in the West Indies it was only in England and in English life and history that I was able to track them down and test them. To establish his own identity, Caliban, after three centuries, must pioneer into regions Caesar never knew” (Makris, 1.) “Little boy” ‘s confliction as a Creole- born, French student is common and understandable, but Chamoiseau’s portrayal of the true power of this crisis on a child so young and naïve accents the truly corrosive nature of an education system that does not tolerate personal expression. “Little boy” ‘s attitude toward school, and later his perception of his place in society, change completely under the instruction of his different teachers. The familiarity of his Creole upbringing, as represented by his mother and then his first, “unofficial” teacher, collapses under the stress and confusion that the alien, menacing “Teacher” brings. “Little boy” ‘s struggle to come to terms with these opposing cultures, and how he should attempt to either blend or choose between them, is both fueled by these teachers, who hold different notions as to how he should continue and carry his education into adulthood. His exposure to a teacher prideful of the cultural and historical past he shares with “little boy” opens the student’s eyes to a mentality so rejected by his previous teachings that he did not know it existed. Still, this alien concept, when juxtaposed with the exclusive nature of “Teacher”’s teachings, makes the young protagonist question whether this esteem is possible or even real. Chamoiseau, by providing no clear identity path for his young protagonist, successfully demonstrates the paralyzing confusion of the colonial education system on its youngest subjects.