Rolling back the years with Mohanlani Chatterdeo

Mohanlani Chatterdeo as the top performer

– Guyana’s first CSEC regional top performer

IT was back in 1998, just about 20 years ago, when one student from Guyana managed to push past all other candidates from the Caribbean to earn the title of Most Outstanding Overall Performer.

That feat was touted as the watershed event that set the pace for Guyana’s continued domination to date; this was the magnitude of the performance of one promising Queen’s College (QC) student, Mohanlani Chatterdeo.

“I can recall that it was in the middle of January 1998,” Chatterdeo reflected as though it was only last year.

She further recalled: “We were in South Ruimveldt in our temporary location for classes, while the edifice at Camp Street was being rebuilt following the disastrous fire the previous year.”

She vividly remembers the acting Principal, Mrs Wendell Roberts, telling her that her performance at the CSEC examinations had been adjudged by the CXC the most outstanding in the Region.

“She handed me my copy of the letter of notification and I read it in disbelief,” Mohanlani recounted and shared that while she was elated, she was immersed in a huge wave of vindication.

Months before, in September 1997, young Mohanlani had been awarded the Office of the Prime Minister’s Award as the top national performer at CSEC, but her award was met with much controversy over the criteria used to ascertain this. But with the CXC naming her their top performer, it was revealed that the same criteria had been employed by both CXC and Guyana’s education ministry. This was her vindication.

According to Mohanlani, the victory was not hers alone; that rather it was something that the entire school needed.

Over the years, QC has been accepted as the Region’s top secondary institution for garnering excellent matriculation rates, consistently topping the country and the Caribbean.

But in 1997, disaster struck when the school was set ablaze and hundreds of students were forced to relocate. Morale was at an all-time low.

“Given that we were physically displaced at the time, the news was a welcome boost to our low morale,” Mohanlani posited. She also contended that this news was just what the QC students needed, to restore school spirit which had been burnt low, literally and figuratively.

And more than boosting the school spirit, the award was added to the foyer of the school’s auditorium, which had only been decorated with giant boards bearing the names of scholars of the A-Level examinations.

“Winning the coveted award in 1997 signalled the beginning of a new era for our students, and gave them new wings on which to soar,” Mohanlani said.

“Given the numerous students who have since emulated that feat, in retrospect, I think that watershed moment inspired future generations to rise from the ashes like the mighty Phoenix,” she said, adding:

“It was a rebirth of the new Queen’s College to welcome the new millennium.”

Don’t be mistaken though, Guyanese students had been among the Caribbean’s ‘Crème de la Crème’ during the prior years, but the country could not quite clinch the CXC’s ‘Most Outstanding Overall Performance’ at the CSEC examinations.

It began with Chatterdeo’s 10 subjects in 1998, and continued, albeit intermittently, with QC boy Michael Bhopaul’s 25 subjects in 2017.

Just as she has been able to recall what it felt like being a top performer, Mohanlani also distinctly remembers what preparation for these examinations felt like.

Her journey at Queen’s College, beginning from Form One (Grade Seven), started off with her copping seventh position in her class to first place in Form Three.

For the CSEC examinations, Mohanlani said, “I knew that I was prepared to put forth my best effort in each exam; I knew I would have done well amongst my peers at Queen’s and possibly across the country, but I had never given any thought to beyond these shores.”

During her examination period, Mohanlani said that she was a nervous wreck. She was in the science stream and chose to write 10 subjects, a feat unheard of at the time.

This necessitated extra lessons from as early as 06:00hrs and again late in the evening at about 19:00hrs.

And these lessons were taken in addition to the supplementary classes that were held to facilitate science students who wanted to sit both French and Spanish when the timetable for those subjects had been geared towards students in the Arts Stream. She recalled graciously that these were only made possible through supportive teachers who went above and beyond the call of duty.

“We started with French and Spanish oral examinations in April, and I breezed through those, so I was heading into the main examinations on a high note,” Mohanlani recalled. But she also shared that she slept an average of three to four hours each night during the entire examination period.

“By the end of the exams, I had no fingernail on my right index finger, as at that time, I had been addicted to nail biting!” she joked.

But as the days drew closer to the release of the results, her older brother, himself a QC alumnus, would tease her whenever the phone rang, saying that it was the Chronicle calling! He was always convinced that she was a top performer.

Subsequent to the results and finding out that she had indeed topped, Mohanlani went on to sit ‘A’ Levels at Queen’s College, while also doing private group studies with friends and simultaneously preparing to write the Standard Aptitude Tests (SATs) in December 1998.

“In January 1999, mere months before A-Level examinations, I was pulled aside by my Biology teacher and warned that I was displaying warning signs of burnout,” Mohanlani said, adding:

“She advised that I take some time off to let my brain recuperate, but in youthful naivety, I shrugged off her concerns.”

Months later when the results were released, she had managed only three ‘Cs’ and a ‘D’, and that was a severe wake-up call, since she had been hoping to pursue the Doctor of Dental Surgery programme at UWI, St. Augustine in Trinidad.

At this juncture, she instead commenced the Bachelor of Science programme in Biology at the University of Guyana, where she earned straight ‘As’ and a 4.0 GPA in the first year, which allowed her to transfer to the Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery programme (MBBS) at the University of Guyana.

Upon completing the first year of the MBBS earning 5As, 3Bs and a C, she witnessed the miscarriage of a baby in her family which caused her to rethink her career choice.

Mohanlani shared: “I watched as baby’s dad, a doctor himself, was helpless to save his own kin and knew I could not tread that path.”

She later read for the LLB at the University of Guyana, graduating with Credit and thereafter graduating on the Principal’s Honour Roll at the Hugh Wooding Law School.

“I can vividly recall wanting to complete the Bachelor of Science in Biology and Chemistry, then pursue a Masters Degree and possibly PhD but 20 years ago, there was tremendous pressure from family to either become a doctor or a lawyer,” she noted. She went on to become President of the Law Society at UG in her final year.

Presently, Mohanlani is a trained lawyer, and October 2018 will mark 10 years since she was called to the Bar.

She shared: “My first five years were spent as a Legal Officer/Corporate Secretary with State entities, and subsequent to that, I lectured Commercial Law and Law for Bankers part-time at the University of Guyana for two years before taking time off to address certain health issues.

Last year, after years of medical issues, a high-risk pregnancy and prolonged bed rest, Mohanlani became a first-time mother at 36 years of age, and has remained at home to date.

“I would like to someday further my studies by pursuing my LLM, but for now my attention is on raising my son and expanding my family, if God so permits,” she said, adding:
“I am one of those persons who would keep studying until old age, finances permitting.”

“My stellar performance reinforced in me that hard work, dedication and prayers can move mountains,” the top performer noted, adding: “I am proud to boast that Guyana has now won the coveted award more times than any other country!”

Looking back, she also believes that all of the effort she put into it was worth it and she would do it all over again in a heartbeat!

“If I could do anything differently, I wouldn’t have stressed myself out so much over the small things. I cried many nights because I was a perfectionist; I probably wouldn’t have cried over that Grade 2 I got in Biology!” the young mother noted.

But with this in mind, she shared that her advice to youths hoping to follow in her footsteps would be to just put your best effort forth!

She stressed: “Each examination we take is just a stepping stone to something greater in life. In the real world, there isn’t a standard matrix for success; success is something that is specific to every human being. We cannot judge ourselves and our success by someone else’s yardstick.”