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The story of how Delney Swavin who moved from a Grade 5 into a distinction after being called a “dunce”
By Svetlana Marshall
Labelled a dunce for almost half his life, Delney Antonio Swavin proved many wrong in March, 2021 when he graduated from the University of Guyana with a Distinction in Mathematics. For him it was important to change the narrative by confronting his greatest fear – Math – a subject he had failed at the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) Examination.
But his journey of becoming a Senior Assistant Master at the North Ruimveldt Multilateral Secondary School with a Bachelor’s in Secondary Education (Mathematics) was no walk in the park but rather one filled with many pitfalls.
In an interview with Village Voice Newspaper at his Mon Repos home, the 33-year-old husband, father, teacher, and a staunch Seventh Day Adventist opened up about his life, and the difficulties he endured as a child.
For the first five years of his life, Swavin lived with his mother and four younger siblings in Kwakwani – a mining and logging community on the Berbice River in the Upper Demerara-Berbice District (Region 10). During those first five years, he was a neatly dressed, well behaved child, admired by many including his teachers at the Kwakwani Nursery School. “I was among the smartest in the class,” Swavin said while recalling how teachers would praise him for his extremely neat handwriting.
NEGLECTED AT SIX
But everything changed when his mother and four younger siblings migrated leaving him behind with relatives at the tender age of six. “Unfortunately, due to some circumstances in the home my mother was living in, she had to leave and I couldn’t leave with her, I had to remain. I was left behind with her sister, then another sibling; I moved from foster home to foster home,” Swavin recalled.
The experience, he said, was traumatic, and undoubtedly, it took a toll on his education. Many days, he left home for school but was a no show, and whenever he found his way into the classroom, he had no interest in what was being taught, in particular Math.
“I wanted to drop out of school; I had developed a distaste for school,” he told this newspaper.
His reason? Neglect. “I felt neglected. I felt alone. My mother never used to call; I never heard from her, I never heard from my younger siblings, and I mean to top it all off, I never knew my father, I never met my father but I was comfortable with my mother because she was all I knew. But when she left, it was as if she took a part of me,” Swavin said.
When he entered Grade Six at the Kwakwani Primary School, Swavin knew all too well that he was bound to fail the Secondary Schools Entrance Examination (SSEE), commonly called Common Entrance at the time. “The thing is, I struggled a lot in primary school. I had developed a fear for Mathematics, and I wasn’t focused,” he said.
So much so, that after writing ‘Common Entrance,’ he never bothered to pick up his exam results.
“I never went for my results. Never! I told my foster parents that the teachers at the school weren’t finding it but it wasn’t that they weren’t finding it, I just refused to go for it because I know it would have been atrocious and I took that weakness with me over to secondary school.”
Fail or pass, all of the children were assigned to the Kwakwani Secondary School at the time. However, Swavin went from being a star performer in nursery school to an underperformer in secondary school to the extent that he no longer could have recognised or spell his name. The teachers, upon realising that he was extremely weak, placed him in the Grade Seven (Form One) Remedial Class.
“I could not read and I couldn’t write. I didn’t know how to read and I was in Grade Seven. Worse of it all, I couldn’t write my name,” he recalled.
It was while being in remedial class at the Kwakwani Secondary School that his mother returned to Guyana, and Swavin was reunited with his family once again but he could not escape the fact that he was weak academically.
With the help of his mother and teachers, Swavin, while in remedial class learnt to read and write the basic, and at the End of Year Examination, he passed with 53.2 percent. “I got 3rd with that percentage and I was so excited because it was the first time I passed anything,” he said.
Just then, his life would make another drastic turn. His mother got accepted to the Cyril Potter College of Education (CPCE) in Linden, and they had little choice but to relocate to Linden.
A trainee teacher at the Mackenzie High School, Swavin’s mother thought it best to have her son attend the very school but he would only spend approximately three weeks there.
“Mackenzie High School was moving at a rate and a half, and as I said, I just transitioned from a remedial class not a normal class, so when I got into Mackenzie High, the first day, first class, I realised that I wasn’t going to make it there because the work was coming at an extremely fast rate; I couldn’t understand many of the concepts,” he explained.
Swavin was in Grade Eight (Form Two) at the time, and within three weeks, his mother had to make another difficult decision to transfer him to Mackenzie Primary School – a Primary Top – in Linden. Swavin said he turned up at the primary top in his Mackenzie High School uniform, and for the children there, it meant two things, either he was expelled for “bad behaviour” or he was a “total dunce.”
“I went home and I cried because I couldn’t understand why my mother would embarrass me like that,” he said explaining that while he had no issue attending the school, he could not understand at the time why his mother could not have afforded new uniforms for him.
Nonetheless, he found comfort in the school as the pace of teaching was such that he gradually understood the concepts.
A FAILING GRADE
The primary top later transitioned to the Linden Foundation Secondary School, but just as he was improving academically, Swavin’s mother completed CPCE, and they were made to move back to Kwakwani. At the time, he was in Fourth Form.
“So just when I was getting settled I had to move back to Kwakwani, all of us, all five siblings, and so when I moved to Kwakwani, she came as a trained teacher and I started Form 5, CSEC class at the Kwakwani Secondary School.”
Though he had showed signs of improvement, Swavin said he knew all too well that he wasn’t ready for the CSEC Examinations. He wrote five subjects, and while he passed Integrated Science, Agriculture Science and Social Studies, he failed Mathematics and English A, receiving Grade 5 in both subjects. Swavin explained that his fear for Mathematics, and the manner in which it was taught, had caused him to skip school many days. He feared the subject so much so, that he fainted in the exam room.
Throughout his life, Swavin said he was labelled a “dunce,” “an underperformer” and with a Grade 5 in Math and English at CSEC, he had concluded that he was not academically inclined.
“I was segregated because of my poor performance in school. Because of my consistent under performance, I was known as the dunce. I was treated differently, children often laughed at me and sometimes when I would ask for help, assistance with SBAs, they would say no. I was always the outcast, and so I thought why not try something else,” Swavin said.
Swavin after completing secondary school in 2005, traveled abroad in search of work. He would later travel to St Maarten in January, 2007, where he lived and worked for a year in the Construction Industry. But having lived from pay cheque to pay cheque, he returned to Guyana in February, 2008, and opted to return to school at the age of 20. He attended a private secondary school in Kwakwani where his mother was the Headmistress.
A FRESH START
“It was an embarrassing situation because I was 20-years-old at the time…I was the grandfather [of the school] but I took the pride out of my eyes,” Swavin said.
His mother at the time taught Mathematics and English A at the CSEC Level and Swavin capitalized on that.
“I never saw Math so simple, she did that for me, she made it look so simple, of course I was still struggling but the good thing is I was practicing. I practiced a lot, so if she gave us 10 homework questions, I would go and do 50,” he said.
Constantly doubling up on his school work, Swavin was determined to pass both English and Math. After a year of sleepless nights, the results were out in 2009, and his mother had called to give him the good news.
“She told me I got a Grade 3. That was the happiest day of my life, the Grade 3 might feel like failure for some students today but for me, that was a distinction. I got Grade 3 for both of the subjects,” he said, noting that he ran out of the house praising God because his hard work had finally paid off.
THE JOURNEY OF BECOMING A TEACHER
For his 21st birthday, his mother gave him a gift – it was a single sheet of paper rolled together with a red ribbon.
“I opened it, my gift for my 21st birthday was an application form for CPCE; that was my gift from my mother,” he recalled.
Swavin promised her he would apply only if he was given the opportunity to major in Mathematics, and though he was skeptical due to the fact he had a Grade 3, he applied nonetheless. To major in Mathematic, he needed either a Grade One or Grade Two in the subject, but by the Grace of God, as he puts it, he was accepted.
“I wanted to be a Math Teacher, I wanted to teach people like me, slow learners,” he said as he reflected on the day he justified his application before the Head of the Department at CPCE in 2009. It was important for him to overcome his fear of Math.
“I took my worse fear and made it into my strength; my greatest weakness, and turned it into my strength…Many nights when my colleagues were sleeping I was up studying; did I fail, at times I did but I never gave up. I passed all my major exams and graduated with a credit from CPCE in 2012,” he shared.
Swavin was then assigned to the Kwakwani Secondary School in 2012 where he taught for two years.
“I became a teacher, I was a weak child, who was in remedial class, and became a teacher, and guess where was the first place I taught, Kwakwani Secondary, the school where I experienced the most embarrassing moments,” he said.
Two years after he was transferred to the North Ruimveldt Multilateral Secondary School, where he has been teaching for the past seven years. But for him, it was not okay to just be a trained teacher and so he applied to the University of Guyana in 2017 to read for his Bachelor in Education (Secondary) majoring in Mathematics.
“When I entered University I took the pains of my pass, and transformed it into something good,” he said. After three years of hard work and self-determination, Swavin completed his programme in 2020 with distinction, paving way for his Graduation 2021, which had been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
On his graduation day in March, he shared three primary messages with the world on his Facebook page: “Failed does not mean failure; every setback has a comeback; and careful how you treat and categorize underperformers.”
A living testimony, Sir Swavin wants children around the world, and more so Guyana, to know that giving up is never an option.
“Don’t give up, don’t do that, you never know what will happen but you have to have a vision of what you want in life and do not allow any one or any grade to stop you from getting there. But you have to be willing to work hard, someone who has a high education background may not have to work as hard as you, so you have to be willing to work hard and determine, and you have to be consistent,” he advised.
Sir Swavin also had words of advice for his fellow teachers.
“Let us not judge children by how they are performing now, some children learn at a later stage. Some children are late bloomers, some children are affected psychologically, they are affected at home, and a lot of times when they come to the classroom they bring those issues, so if you are a teacher you have to be conscious of all of those things,” he said.
A man on a mission, Swavin has applied for a government scholarship to study Post Graduate Diploma in Secondary Mathematics at the University of the West Indies (UWI.)