22 November 2011

Certification Mania

The afterlife, according to a US cartoonist is a vast space filled with unmatched socks.  The reference is to the classic US American experience in Laundromats.  Washing machines have a way of sucking in socks; not pairs of socks but singles. Almost every US American would have at one point in his/her life held up a single sock and wondered what happened to its twin. 

This is not the only notion of what the afterlife is made up of course.  People of different religious persuasion will have some notion of their preferred post-death nationality, for example.  I am sure they have afterlife ‘hells’ as well which make them purchase stocks and shares (in one form or another) that they could (essentially) trade for a legitimate shot at the preferred place.  I am not sure if a single-sock post-death place would be called heaven. I am not sure if it is hell either.  All I know is that if post-death can be sock-made, it could be certificate-made as well.  Unnecessary certificates. 

No, one doesn’t need a death certificate to show whoever or whatever one has to go before after making it through the difficult hour of dying (IF there is after-death, that is).  I am speaking about other pieces of paper that are given to people as proof of achievement, presence, arrival, ownership etc., the collection of which some people believe is what life is all about.

I write about certificates because Sahan Ranwala spoke about them last Sunday. Sahan is an unassuming young man whom I admire a lot for the work he does in carrying forward the tradition of exploration, preservation and enhancement of song, rhythm, step and other things Sri Lankan that his father Lionel devoted his life to.  Sahan was speaking to the parents of children who attend his class on traditional folk song, dance and theatre at the Jana Kala Kendraya, Battaramulla.  He spoke about an exam for the children and of the certificate that the Ranwala Padanama would be issuing to the children. He was cautioning parents.  He spoke. I listened.  I am translating now.

‘This is for the child. And for you.  It is a token.  The only thing I want you to remember is that it means absolutely nothing if your child doesn’t have the skills and has not learnt the lessons.’

It reminded me of an experience I had as an official in the Chess Federation of Sri Lanka.  I was in charge of organizing tournaments at one point.  The most frequently asked question was ‘are you planning to give participation certificates?’ At the time I did not know this was the norm, that these things actually mattered.  A ‘participation’ certificate says nothing about ability.  Well, apart from the ability to make it to the tournament hall for each and every round.  It got me thinking.

Imagine if a child who got his/her first ‘participation certificate’ at the age of 8 went on to play in every single chess tournament he/she was eligible to play until the age of 18.  For what?  Well, I was told, that these are useful for ‘prefectships’.  Some parents think that they will help enhance the Z-score at the A/L exam. Some probably entertain the idea that these certificates will help secure for their child a decent job.  And here I am, thinking of wheelbarrows.  A wheelbarrow full of certificates that young Jagath Balapatabendi or Samanthi Kumarage has to navigate up the steps to the entrance of an imposing building whose managers have no idea about the laws and regulations pertaining to equality of access.  A wheelbarrow, wheeled up to the reception, into an elevator and up to the 18th floor and into a room full of people waiting to be interviewed, each person with his/her own wheelbarrow. Full of certificates. 

I remember a meeting with all the players who represented Sri Lanka at the World Youth Chess Championship in Antalya, Turkey (2007).  The tournament was over. Not a single medal winner in our team. Each had, however, a participation certificate.  Important, no doubt, for it demonstrated country-representation.  I played a game of chess with this, using the notion of a participation certificate.

‘Do you love chess?’ I asked. ‘Yes!’ they all answered. 

‘It’s like this: if you love chess, give me your certificate, and if you want the certificate please understand that I will not lift one finger to help you improve your chess skills.’

Most of the kids gave me the certificates. Some did not.  Some gave and then begged me to return it.  All understandable. They were, after all, kids.  I didn’t keep any of the certificates.  The greatest chess players are remembered and revered not on account of the winners’ certificates they must have carried home.  They are remembered by the games they played.  They are pondered over by millions of players, year after year, long after they are dead and gone.  Vishvanathan Anand will not be asked by the organizer of a tournament to submit photocopies of the certificates he’s won.  He is known.  Respected.

Everyone is not an Anand, true.  On the other hand, there has to be a sense of proportion.  Certificate-fixation produces one thing, an unpardonable neglect of the need to acquire skills which certificates are only required to reflect and not replace in terms of relevancy. 

I am sure there is an afterlife that’s made of meaningless certificates. Maybe it is reserved for those who collect such things.  I hope not, though. 

[first published in the 'Daily News' a year ago under the title 'Don’t let that certificate drag you down']