The return of the learner ships, and the silence of the marooned
At the bottom of the world‚ on a beautiful island‚ there lives a nation of people‚ and‚ once a year‚ this nation indulges in a most peculiar ritual.
At the height of summer‚ word goes out that every six and seven-year-old must leave their home and report to the harbour where a vast armada of ships lies at anchor. A million little children walk up thousands of gangplanks‚ some eagerly‚ many in tears‚ and their parents wave them goodbye.
It is the belief of the people of the island that‚ in order to prepare for adulthood‚ all children must spend 12 years aboard these ships. It is debatable whether this odyssey teaches the children anything beyond a rudimentary grasp of sailing‚ but so far the adults haven't settled on a better strategy‚ so ships it is.
The departure of the little children‚ however‚ is not the climax of the ritual. That honour is reserved for the returning 18-year-olds‚ who have gone around the local archipelago 12 times and now have a solid knowledge of knot-tying and deck-swabbing.
And so it is that‚ early in the new year‚ the adults line the cliffs and crowd the beaches‚ waiting to catch a glimpse of the returning armada. Scribes jostle for position‚ eager to be the first to talk to the brightest and keenest of the 18-year-olds‚ and politicians wearily brush the food from their shirtfronts ahead of the necessary photographs.
A great cheer echoes across the island as the first ships slide into view beyond the distant headland. Soon there are dozens‚ then hundreds‚ then a thousand. The adults weep and applaud‚ and the minister of education announces that even more children than last year have learned how to tie knots and swab decks.
But then the ships stop coming.
For someone new to the ritual‚ it would be a confusing moment‚ turning quickly to alarm. A million children left 12 years ago‚ but just more than half have returned. Where are the others? Why is everyone cheering and waving? Why are the scribes starting to describe this as some sort of triumph rather than a nightmarish catastrophe? Why do the headlines read "75% pass" instead of "Half a million children lost at sea"?
But the islanders continue to cheer‚ some even convincing themselves that the minister’s figure of 75% has some basis in reality rather than being the product of political arithmetic where one plus one must always add up to another five years in power.
The ritual is soothing to the people of the island. It allows them to believe that they have taken a step forward‚ and that their children will have better lives than they did. It erases from their minds‚ for a moment‚ the recent discovery that 79% of their 10-year-olds can’t read‚ and frees them from joining unpleasant dots. Which is why few of them wonder how it is that their island can celebrate a 75% pass rate when 79% of its children can’t read.
But as long as they cheer the returning ships‚ determined to ignore the devastation that happens beyond those headlands‚ they will remain a small nation: illiterate‚ irrelevant‚ and lost.