Laura lives at the boatyard with her parents. She is 12 years old, a serious girl belied by a typically lilting Trinidadian accent. To our ears, the Trinidadian accent sounds like Welsh Caribbean. Still, every time we come back to the boatyard, Laura is busy doing extra lessons for school. Homework club. Preparation for 11+ exams. Saturday school.
‘If I don’t get 95%, then I won’t be admitted into one of the good schools,’ she says when we see her. She is about to sit the equivalent of the 11+ exams in Trinidad. She has a list of schools she wants to go to which she rattles out like crashing waves. 97% for St. Joseph, 95% for Bishop.. the list goes on. These are the admission requirements for Trinidad’s few grammar schools. Laura’s list is precise and extensive. She tells us that some schools will add points to your application but only if your religion matches the school’s. Other schools like it if your interests match theirs, like music and particular sports.
Laura is intent on doing well. ‘Otherwise I have to go to the local secondary school down the road if I don’t pass my exams,’ she explains patiently to us.
‘What’s wrong with your local school?’ we ask her.
She shrugs. Purses her lips. ‘There are bad kids there.’
It turns out that Trinidad is like a lot of other places. A few good grammar schools with intense competition to get into them. If you get into one of these schools then your future is assured. If you don’t get in and have to go to a local secondary school, well good luck to you.
‘What kind of student are you?’ I ask her one afternoon in the boatyard’s play area. A huge mango tree bends its branches over our heads. Small, unripe mangoes hang together in bunches like oversized grapes.
‘I’m not good enough,’ she says sadly.
The girls shake their heads in sympathy. ‘But you’re always studying,’ Lulu maintains.
Laura nods morosely. ‘I know.’
We invite her for a movie night on Quest. We still have a large collection of unwatched movies from Jason in Barbados. We plan it for the end of the week on Friday and the rest of the week passes. On Friday, I see Laura’s dad. He works as an engineer on the tug boats that shuttle between Trini’s many gas platforms. A big, burly American, he soon tears up when we begin to talk about Laura and her school.
‘I just want her to be happy. It’s just so competitive here to get into these good schools. None of the others are worth getting into.’
I squint my eyes, trying to find a solution. ‘What about private schools? I’ve seen the international school by the shopping mall for example.’
He laughs and it sounds like a dog’s bark. ‘Yeah. The problem is that these schools are filled with spoiled brats. They’re followed around by their bodyguards and allowed to do whatever they want to.’
I scratch my head. Not such a problem where we live in Wales. Not too many children in Aberystwyth need bodyguard protection. And here we are in Trinidad. Our kids are a similar age to Laura and yet we’re removed from this situation. Like we’re looking at it through some sort of port hole. Our kids can go home. They can still do well in their lives without attending the country’s top schools. I watched Laura’s Dad’s face crumple painfully. It’s clear he wants her to stay a kid. Kids should enjoy themselves. They should enjoy living. But here, pressure starts at an early age.
‘I think,’ I say slowly, ‘if they’re happy, the rest should follow.’ I wince when I say it. He leans over though and our arms brush together.
Later, when Laura arrives, she tells us about soca. She tells us about Trinidad carnival and about the song that had won this year.
‘Hello Folklore Riddim,’ Jack says knowledgeably, having been to this year’s carnival himself. No. Laura shakes her head, her curly hair shaking like a cloud. Vigorous debate begins on Quest about the song which had actually won. Jack starts dancing and the girls start laughing. Laura’s smile gets wider and wider. I close my eyes and will for the hands of time to stop. Just for a second.