Michael Nattoo – Staff Reporter
When Shian Graham nestled herself at the back in the sea of graduates at Cambridge High School’s recent graduation on July 5, 2017, tears flowed freely down her cheeks. Perhaps she was crying because just last October, she was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia, and was given a 50/50 chance to live.
Or perhaps it was because at just 16 years old, she lost all her hair during chemotherapy, suffered, but managed to beat the cancer, returning to her beloved school as their Deputy Head Girl and Top Student, and on graduation, as their co-Valedictorian. The truth? Young Graham was crying because despite her accolades and extenuating circumstances, she was denied the privilege of partaking in her graduation ceremony because she opted to wear braids – an option she considered unavoidable due to her condition, but one her graduation coordinators were not willing to overlook.
Graham, who was originally a student of Edwin Allen High, was transferred to Cambridge High School in January of 2015, and expressed to this reporter that she was “very excited” at the prospect of being a member of the school, and “appreciated it so much.” And, although the youngster eventually cemented herself as one of the school’s top academic performers, she initially struggled to find her footing after starting the institution in Grade 9. After comfortably settling in, however, the co-valedictorian-to-be had taken CXC Mathematics in Grade 10, earning herself a Grade 2 in that sitting.
“Shian is brilliant,” Sophia Black-Hines, Shian’s mother, said when she sat down for an interview with the Western Mirror. “She would always spend time going through her school work, and would always help her little sister at nights, so much so that her sister ended up making the Principal’s Honour Roll at her school,” Black-Hines added of the now distraught teenager, who feels like she has been robbed of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. “Honestly,” Shian’s mother further added, “for most of the things I’ve learnt, Shian was the one who taught me – that’s how good she is.” Mrs. Black-Hines did not spare her emotions, alleging that the actions taken by the teacher on Shian, who was an exemplary student, seemed to have been maliciously fueled. “How else can I look at this? It was just one day, and because of her circumstances, Shian had to get her hair done that way. Why would they simply deny her like that?” The disgruntled Black-Hines asked, before the interjection of Christopher Hines, Shian’s (step)father.
After being away from his daughter, and not getting the chance to physically be there with her as she battled through chemotherapy, Hines was scheduled for his vacation leave in April, and was anxious to come home to see her. However, Shian stopped him. “Daddy, please don’t take your vacation leave yet. If you take it now, you won’t be able to come to my graduation in July,” Hines recalls of that tough conversation he had with his daughter. And while it was difficult for him to stay away for that long, Hines honoured his daughter’s wishes, and decided to wait until her graduation to take his leave. As it turns out, however, Hines’ trip appears to have been in vain, as Shian, though given her certificate after the ceremony, did not get to walk across that stage for all who came to support her, especially her father.
“I begged him to make that sacrifice, but all he got in return for his sacrifice was embarrassment and disappointment,” the now 17-year-old related, who celebrated her birthday last month. Similar sentiments are expressed by a number of Shian’s family members, who were obviously angered by what they believed to be insensitivity and a lack of proper judgment on the part of the teacher who stopped her.
In a voice note to the teacher, one of Shian’s aunts, a social worker in the USA, had this to say: “What was your real purpose of not allowing Shian to participate? Imagine, Shian has gone through so much for the past couple of months, yet you stopped her from enjoying this one day? Well, let me tell you something – I am going to take this to the Ministry of Education because what you did to that young lady was very wrong.” The voice note went on to criticize the actions of the teacher as discriminatory, and described the result as coming from an education system that lacks reasonable flexibility.
In light of those allegations, the Western Mirror contacted the Cambridge High School, and spoke to its Principal, Mavis Hamilton.
Ms. Hamilton confirmed that such events did unfold on the day in question, July 5, and that the actions taken by the graduation coordinator were in no way personally motivated, but came from a place of fairness to all students, and in respect of the school’s explicitly stated rules. “Graham reached the graduation ceremony late, and under those circumstances, we could have enforced the rules and require that she not be admitted to the ceremony, but we didn’t.” She further explained that with Graham being the school’s standard bearer, it would have sent a dangerous message to girls at the ceremony who were previously reprimanded and had their extensions removed, if Graham was allowed in the ceremony as she was.
When asked if Graham’s specific circumstances – particularly the fact that she had lost all her hair during chemotherapy – were factored into the decisions taken against her, Hamilton revealed that Graham did not seek to get permission for her extensions, and that her hair had sufficiently grown back following the months after chemotherapy. “The hair she had was more than satisfactory,” Hamilton said, “and had she asked permission to wear braids, perhaps we would have been better able to address this issue with as little conflict as possible.”
Principal Hamilton further added that the parents of Graham did not see themselves in the wrong, and did not express any respect for the rules the institution had set, concluding that she will always stand up for what is right, despite intimidation, not what the majority will vote for.
Shian Graham’s family is intent on getting the matter investigated, and have threatened legal action, should justice elude them.