Politics is a beastly business. It’s very hard for most politicians to speak the truth and speak it ever, cost it what it will. Memory gems from primary school mean absolutely nothing to politicians, especially when national elections are around the corner. They don’t dare risk telling the truth and offending potential voters.
Deacon Thwaites, minister of education, is no exception. He’s bowed to public pressure and apologised for his vivid leggo-beast remark, made recently, to much applause, at the annual conference of the Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA). In an age of political correctness, it’s not politic to call things by their right name. These days, ‘labelling’ children is very, very bad, especially if they actually fit the profile.
Here are the minister’s exact words: “And, also, the second thing we have to do, members of the JTA – Ministry of Education takes on the challenge with you – it is time that your association, now gone past the the [sic] crucible of wage negotiations, join with us and whoever else in saying not angrily, but resolutely, to the society, ‘Look here! Manage your own children! Do not send leggo beasts to our school and expect us to make the difference’!”
Last Tuesday, Thwaites was adamant that there was “no need for leggo beast apology”. But the very next day, he changed his mind. This is how he put it in a statement issued by the ministry: “On reflection and having listened to all the comments, I would like, even at this late stage, to withdraw my use of the term ‘leggo beast’ to describe uncontrollable children spoken at last week’s JTA Conference.”
One of the influential comments came in a press release from Senator Johnson-Smith, opposition spokesperson on education and youth: “Parents who have troubled children need help, and the minister of education must recognise the role of the school system, his ministry and himself as key tools in the resocialisation of troubled children. Classifying children as ‘leggo beasts’ has no place in the conversation about the challenges facing the system and its solutions. This disrespectful and divisive epitaph must be withdrawn.”
Senator Johnson-Smith meant ‘epithet’, not ‘epitaph’. The leggo beasts are very much alive. That’s a relatively minor error. It’s the “parents who have troubled children” statement that is troubling. Leggo beasts are not born; they are made. Often by parental neglect! So parents don’t just happen to “have” troubled children. They are responsible. True, some of them don’t know how to parent and need help. But where can they get it?
Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Holness, went even further, describing the leggo-beast remark as “reprehensible, disgraceful, unlawful and ignorant!” The “unlawful” charge seems to be based on the dishonest conclusion that Thwaites was telling parents not to send bad-behaving children to school. This is leggo-beast politics at its worst: wildly trying to score political points at the expense of the truth.
The minister of education was actually appealing to parents to give their children home training so that they could perform well in school. Thwaites said, “Manage your own children.” That’s a preventative measure to stop them from turning into leggo beasts. Schools can’t be expected to make up for what parents fail to do at home.
SAME OLD SANKEY
In his contradictory apology, Thwaites declares that, “Despite the difficulties, teachers must not label students.” But he, himself, does use the label ‘uncontrollable children’. The issue isn’t the label. It’s the language of the label. It’s ‘leggo beast’ that’s the real problem. So we’re back in the familiar territory of English versus Jamaican. The same old Sankey!
I would bet my last devalued dollar that if the minister had originally said “uncontrollable children”, rather than “leggo beasts”, even the Opposition would have joined the teachers in applauding his appeal. But he made the mistake of using a well-known Jamaican label that describes antisocial behaviour quite precisely.
The Dictionary of Jamaican English notes that ‘lego’ comes from ‘let-go’. The first meaning given is ‘Let-go, loose, disorderly, out of control’. Then it cites the phrase ‘lego-beast’. This is defined as ‘an animal or person without an owner or protector, that runs wild; anyone of loose morals’. Incidentally, this useful dictionary, published locally by the University of the West Indies Press, is on the e-Learning Jamaica Educational Materials platform and can be accessed for free by all secondary schools.
The first definition of ‘leggo beast’ accurately conveys Thwaites’ concern about the protective role of parents in preparing their children for school. But, he caved in: “The serious issue facing the society of weak parenting and inadequate community support to socialise so ma[n]y schoolchildren is likely to be overlooked by controversy over the appropriations [sic] of a phrase I used.”
I think Thwaites meant ‘appropriateness’, not ‘appropriations’. But as with ‘epitaph’ and ‘epithet’, this is a relatively minor matter. The bigger concern is truth versus controversy. The truth is, ‘leggo beast’ is a perfectly good translation of ‘uncontrollable children’.
Instead of avoiding controversy, Ronnie Thwaites should have courageously taken the opportunity to reflect on the function of our local language in public conversations about the educational system; and its use in schools! He knows the power of the language. Perhaps, the leggo beasts would be tamed by seeing themselves in the dictionary and knowing that their home language is on the curriculum.