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Growing Into Excellence

By Merle Collins

There is never a time or place when excellence is irrelevant

When we talk of the pursuit of excellence, we are usually thinking of work within corporations. Or of education, of focused study for essays and examinations. But some notion of excellence exists for all. If you are able to give undivided attention to an art – or a science – for which you have a passion, then you have time to study your field, investigate and craft your own ideas, apprentice yourself to the ideas of others, or deliberately break free to choose the path along which you want to develop. This, to my mind, is the pursuit of excellence through a deliberate process of education, study and research into your area of interest. Because of circumstances, however, some have to accept the jobs that are on offer, and not the ones they dream about.

I fell into teaching by default, and later into writing, perhaps because it was written. The pen wrote urgently, particularly in stressful times, and I followed its lead. I came to realise that it was also important to read and learn from the work of others. In the 1970s, when I taught English in the Caribbean (Grenada and St Lucia), I thought a major part of my job was to help students translate from their own proud language traditions into the Standard English needed for international communication. I thought it was important to realise the importance of both languages, to understand context, culture, the preciousness of what was Caribbean, and the importance of English for international communication.

At that time, just back from university in Jamaica, I was myself developing an appreciation of Caribbean culture. I believed strongly that the local was as important as the international. Working with school theatre groups helped me convey the importance of local language and culture even as I established the importance of the rules of English grammar. Perhaps a sense of duality is important to many cultures, but I am fascinated by its importance in the Caribbean context. I believe that I was particularly conscious, then, that basic knowledge of and pride in oneself, in history, and in culture, was important to the pursuit of a universal quality called “excellence”, both for me and my students.

Excellence can be pursued in whatever career one follows. And if the realisation comes that interest is lacking and there is no motivation to be the best one can be, then one should plan one’s exit, and use the time of waiting to learn as much as possible from the situation one is forced to remain in while waiting. In my estimation, this means pursuing excellence even while waiting. The problem with deliberately turning one’s back on excellence, even in a job one dislikes, is that it hurts not only the employer, but the unhappy employee as well. It works against the personal growth which should be part of the human condition.

As a Caribbean writer, I am concerned with the Caribbean lands that continue to shape me. I am constantly asking myself whether it is possible to live outside the region and call oneself a Caribbean writer. I think it is. It has to be. I find that I neither become, nor want to become, something called “foreign”, although there is much to learn from foreign influences. The Caribbean people I meet and interact with in London, Washington, New York and Toronto also remain concerned with home. Ananse and Tigre travel, change and return. As Caribbean people, we do not have to fear the foreign because we are very much a “people who came”, and who are constantly being shaped by migration and return. It may well be that there is no one in the islands without a relative living abroad somewhere. My search for myself as a writer remains a search for myself as a Caribbean writer, wherever in the world I may be writing from. The more I learn about the Caribbean, the more I learn about myself and about the world of which we are a part. There is always much to learn.

I know of a family (one of many) which lost almost everything they owned when Hurricane Ivan struck Grenada. With the help of relatives and friends, and knowing that another hurricane season would soon be upon them, they opted for haste instead of excellent, dependable workmanship in rebuilding their house. They didn’t think they had much choice. Later, Hurricane Emily moved in and lifted this new little house and crushed it again. The family was almost in despair. But it is that “almost” which points to the determination at the heart of any pursuit of excellence. They knew they had to find a way to move on, in a manner more sensible than before. A visiting team built for them what they considered a very temporary dwelling. And they set about finding out who to contact and how to quickly do the paperwork needed to build a structure that could withstand a powerful hurricane. Of course, there are no guarantees, but the family now knew from experience about the importance of planning. The next time, they should be better prepared to withstand the storm.

While there is a level at which excellence also involves a commitment to community, each individual, knowing self better than anyone else, has to work toward achievement of her/his notion of excellence. I think of how I use the time presently at my disposal. What are the things I do that could well be omitted from my agenda? How can I reorient things to pursue excellence in the areas I really want to work at? These are questions important to one’s development. Life is about learning, evolving into the best that we can be. It is, in fact, about the pursuit of excellence.

Merle Collins is the leading Grenadian writer of her generation, author of the novel Angel and several collections of poems. She currently teaches at the University of Maryland in the United States, and is an energetic activist for Caribbean literature.

The first Anthony N. Sabga Caribbean Awards for Excellence, each valued at around US$80,000, will be presented in October.

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