Mista School: A Kaleidoscope Of My Jamaican Childhood

“Marguerite, of course got an  A, with eight out of ten  and surprisingly, Gloria Hylton got an A with seven and one half out of ten.” Those were the oft-spoken words of  Mrs. Amy Logan Thomas, Geography and sometimes French teacher. I was always half-a-step behind Marguerite Stedman the half-white Headmistress’ daughter.  On rare occasions, I was able to measure up by getting the same grade as Marguerite. Mrs. Thomas had it perfectly choreographed.

Mrs. Thomas was a freckle-faced, pale-skinned  woman who considered herself so close to white that it made no difference. To convince those who may have harbored some doubt as to her true progeny, she liberally powdered her florid face and freckled arms with the pinkest Ponds Face Powder she could acquire. Her hair was permanently died black, even when the roots were obviously grey. The result was a gradation in color, from white at the scalp, through red, to dirty brown to jet black.  Unwittingly, Mrs. Thomas exposed her dyed tresses to her students, because she permanently wore her hair in a crown or catta. We had a running argument as to whether or not she had to use a false pre-formed catta and then roll her hair around it. Even the boys got caught up in this ‘mystery’ and made every excuse to take their books to her to have her writing deciphered, so they could stand slightly behind her and ‘examine’ her hair while gesticulating to the rest of the class.  Muffled snickers accompanied their gestures, much to the annoyance of Mrs. Amy Logan Thomas as he wished to be called and the “Mitty” that we called her to her back.

Miss Cowper, our new French teacher was the antithesis of Mitty. The sister of the Headmaster’s wife, Miss Cowper,  petite and pleasant, bounced into class each morning with a chirpy, ”Bonjour mes eleves, assayer vous.” (Good Morning students. Be seated), to which we chirpily replied in unison, ‘‘Bonjour Mademoiselle Cowper.”   Her classes were interactive and she reveled in giving us French sayings which, if incorrectly translated, resulted in great humor at the expense of the hapless student who had erred. To this day, one stands out in my memory. The verbs for to be (etre) and follow (suivre) are identical for the first person singular of the present tense . je suis can therefore be either I am, or I follow, depending on context.

Miss Cowper’s little ditty was illustrated with a small child walking behind a donkey and it went thus:

Si je suis, que je suis,  (If I am what  I am)

Je ne suis pas, que je suis. (I am not what I follow)

Mais, si je ne suis pas, que je suis, (But if I am not what I am)

Alors, je suis, que je suis. (Then I am what I follow)

So many of us confessed to being donkeys that day.

And  there was Miss Swaby, Art Teacher, a tall white Jamaican who seemed to be in a perpetual state of angst. From 3rd. form, Miss Swaby’s class comprised the ‘rejects,’ after  Mrs. Sleggs’ selection for her Latin class.  Most of Miss Swany’s students  did not like art, could not do art, so they spent their time tormenting her, by deliberately ‘letting’ the board from the easel ‘accidentally’ slip  to the floor like a thunderclap, at which Miss Swaby dramatically held her head and delivered a sharp rebuke. Another form of torture was ‘accidentally’ spilling the paint, on their uniforms and on fellow students.  Miss Swaby, who was no spring chicken acquired a car – a spanking new Morris Minor – creating much excitement and tall tales about her questionable driving ability. As the story was told; one day, she accosted a gentleman on his way to market, riding his donkey with his produce packed in  two hampers and instructed him to walk and not ride the donkey because the weight of the load and his body were far too heavy for the frail creature.. As the story was circulated the details became progressively more bizarre, to the point where Miss Swaby removed the hampers, placed them in her car and drove behind the man and his donkey to the Mandeville market.

Jack Mandora mi nuh choose none

(I am not to be blamed for the veracity or otherwise of this story)

Manchester  School had a history of racial discrimination against its black students.  A possible explanation is rooted in the history of the parish.  Because of its elevation and consequent cool climate, Manchester was favored by colonials.  The parish was formed in 1814, from the amalgamation of parts of the parishes of St. Elizabeth, Clarendon and Vere.  It was named for the Duke of Manchester, then Governor of Jamaica and the capital for his son Mandeville. An examination of the names of many of the towns and communities in the parish bear testimony to its ‘links’ to the mother country –,  Balaclava, Battersea, Bethabra, Bethany, Caledonia, Canterbury, Devon,  Kendal,  Knockpatrick,  Pratville, Waltham, Williamsfield and  Windsor, to name a few.

Parishes are the main  units of the local government structure, created in 1655, following the British invasion and the routing of the Spanish.  Counties – Cornwall, Middlesex and Surrey – were established in 1758 to facilitate the holding of courts along the lines of the British county system. Today, they have no significance.

At an altitude of 628(m) or 2,061  ft., Mandeville, the only parish capital not on the sea coast,  enjoys continuous cool weather year round. I can recall  early morning fog  between November and January, when a cardigan was ‘de rigueur’  during school hour, with woolen or knitted scarves, or ‘stoles; – as they were then called – at night.  The twin parks, clock tower, Anglican church, library and courthouse in the center of the town were reminiscent of an English village. Indeed, Mandeville was once described as the most English town in Jamaica.

Manchester Secondary School, as it was called in my time, was located beside the Anglican Church  and opened its doors in 1855. My Aunts Joyce and Sadie (Ven), whose registered  name is the Welsh Llewella, attended the school.  When I started there in 1954, the school had just removed to its present location, accessible from Perth and Wesley Roads.  I did my entry test and  was placed in second form. My form mistress was Mrs. Grant, a sweet woman who in retrospect was perfectly suited to making  new students feel at home. At that time the bauxite and alumina industry was in its infancy. Three North American companies – Alcan, Kaiser and Reynolds – began operations  in 1952 and the first alumina processing plant was built at Kirkvine Works in Williamsfield, six miles from Mandeville.  The parish   enjoyed a significant economic stimulus and with it came an influx of expatriates from the USA and Canada. .

I remember seeing all these white children with their ‘funny’ accents ‘invading’ the school. The locals could not understand them and they could not understand us. However, with the population of whites greatly increased, the negative attitudes of some of the ‘colonials’  – teachers, students and the newly-resident expatriates  – to the black children escalated, giving even more impetus to the feelings of alienation and animus some of us  had already been experiencing.   It is noteworthy that Mrs. Grant treated all the children in her class identically. No preferential treatment was given. I was to learn later that she was married to an Englishman.

I ‘met’ Lanoe Conacher in second form. She approached me and promised me a steady supply  of chocolates if I allowed her to copy my homework.   That was before the fourth form days of  Mrs. Amy Logan Thomas, Marguerite Steadman and my consistent placement as an ‘also ran.’  After my initial amazement, my innate pride rose in anger. I declined her offer, maintained a good average and came first each term.  My grandmother  was proud of me. My mother’s congratulations were muted. She said that she expected no less.  That was to be the pattern of my mother’s response to my academic and other achievements throughout my school and working life. She was no doubt schooled in the ‘belief’ that too much praise will make one conceited and arrogant.

I spent one term in third form, where you started foreign languages, I opted for Latin and French and was ‘skipped’ to fourth form. My grandmother was again pleased.  At the end of the term, I was placed sixth. My mother was decidedly not pleased. The fact that I had had to compete against my peers who had the advantage of two terms in 3rd. form and one in fourth ahead of me did not seem to have mattered to her.  My grandmother was still pleased and proud.

I was an arts student. Clear and simple. Math, chemistry and physics were not my forte. When my math grades were not up to the standard expected of   Reggie’s daughter, he suddenly became the yardstick against which I was measured. “Yu couldn’t be Reggie pickney and caan do  arithmetic good.”  I was made to feel greatly wanting – at home and at school. But, contrary to what they were hoping to achieve, I  developed a perverse pleasure that I was not like my father, ‘did not take after him.’ This was particularly so for my math, chemistry and physics teachers, the headmaster Mr. John C. Sleggs and Mr. Lampart, who had a thick Scottish accent. If you could not master their subjects you were largely ignored.  Both men dressed as full-fledged colonials in  the tropics  –  short khaki pants and matching shirt, highly polished brown shoes with matching knee-high socks. Only two items were missing  –   the bowler hat and the fly swatter.  Clearly they had come to one of ‘Rule Britannia’s’ colonial outposts to ‘educate’ the natives.

So troubling was the racism problem that the Ministry of Education conducted an inquiry into the issue.  White children played lawn tennis, did ballet with Madame Soohih who came down from Kingston weekly, took part in school plays. Black children played cricket, softball and netball,  joined the Scouts or Girl Guides Associations and took part in track and field. I played netball and was quite a runner. My specialty was the 220 yards, now the 200 metres. I was the junior sports champion one year and even represented the school at the Western Championships in Montego Bay. We were not allowed to have school chants for sports activities. We were instructed that all we could say was ‘Come on Mr. School!’ Really? It was never followed. After the inquiry the behavior of some teachers improved somewhat.

In Fourth form, I had a life-changing experience, although at the time I did not recognize it for what it was. Miss Clarke, an Englishwoman came to teach English Literature and English Language to the senior school. She became friendly with  Mr. Montague, a black biology teacher. She made English literature exciting. I reveled in the breadth of Shakespeare and  the controversy surrounding  him and Christopher  Marlowe ; the Romantic Lake poets like  Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley;   the melancholy of  Thomas Grey’s Elegy In a Country Churchyard;  the breadth of Tennyson with the staccato, militaristic style of  his  Charge of the Light Brigade, on the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War (1853-1856), counterpoised with his soft, romantic ballad of The Lady of Shalott;  the fluid prose of  Dickens; the  science fiction of Herbert George  Wells.

I came to appreciate  the  beauty of  language. She stretched us and I enjoyed being stretched. Those days we did not have the luxury of  Guidance Counsellors. One day in fifth form, Miss Clarke drew me aside and asked me if I had considered my future career. I told her no. She suggested I seriously consider journalism, as my writing skills were quite good.   I was not even sure what journalism entailed. I did not give her suggestion much thought. My focus then was on passing the  Senior Cambridge Examination in November.  In fact I had always thought of being a Dispenser or Druggist. ‘Pharmacist’ was not in the lingua franca of my day, and Druggist was not a pejorative word then. I was fascinated by the way the Dispenser or Druggist knew exactly which powder or liquid to mix, shake vigorously, pour in a brown bottle, label and pass over the counter  to the patient.

In those days, subjects were classified into groups – essentially science, arts and history.   English language was compulsory. If you failed it you failed the entire examination.  Moreover you had to pass at least one subject in each group. While I was comfortable with the arts , the science group was still a challenge.  Examination papers were divided into two sections, with the shorter section two being the more difficult.  Messrs. Sleggs and Lampart gave me strict instructions to concentrate on section one only for their subjects, chemistry and math. “Do not even turn over the page out of curiosity and waste your time when you could be concentrating on page one.” they warned me.  I obeyed.     Despite this, I was still in such a state of angst, that  at the insistence of Mrs. Sleggs, my French and Latin teacher, I was sent to the doctor followed by home for a week to rest, with strict instructions to do absolutely no school work.  My mother’s reassurance that I would just be a number on the examination scripts helped to allay my fears. My examination results were good. I got distinctions in English Literature and English Language, Miss Clarke’s subjects, as well as in French; credits in Latin, Geography and Religious Knowledge. But math and chemistry  were  my proudest achievements. I passed  them!

You would have observed from my list of subjects that the only ‘soft’ one was Religious Education which was compulsory, not for the Cambridge examinations, but for the school.  You would also have observed that there was no West Indian Literature. That is because none was taught.  In a colonial society, only the subjects deemed necessary by  the colonizers were taught. The brainwashing was not particularly subtle. The message was patently clear. You have no history,  no culture, no traditions. You have only what we have taught you, because we have civilized you. Africa was mentioned in geography only, to the extent that you should know its location on the world map, and  the slave trade, from the perspective of the brave explorers like, Raleigh, Drake, Hawkins and of course, Penn and Venables who had captured Jamaica from the Spanish.  So we knew about the River Thames, coal in Newcastle,  Stratford-upon-Avon, about wandering lonely as a cloud among a field of daffodils waving in the dappled sunlight.

Oh how I would have loved to have been exposed to the poetry of Claude McKay’s The Spanish Needle:

Lovely dainty Spanish Needle

With your yellow flower and white,

Dew bedecked and softly sleeping,

Will you think of me tonight?….

Lovely, dainty Spanish Needle,

Source to me of sweet delight,

In your far-off sunny southland

Do you dream of me tonight?

Claude McKay (1889-1948),born in James Hill, Clarendon, migrated to the USA  in 1912. He  became one of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance, an African-American intellectual  and  cultural revival centered around Harlem in New York City from the  1920s to the mid-1930s It was the period of  the Great Migration of blacks  from the south to the north, in search of a  better, more equitable way of life, Some settled in Harlem, resulting in an exciting potpourri of the greatest minds and talents of the day. The Pulitzer Prize-Winning author,  Isabel Wilkerson in her 2010  book, The Warmth Of Other Suns, chronicles the decades-long migration, from 1915 to 1970.

Context is everything. At the very  least, we would have been better able to relate to what McKay was writing about, thereby further facilitating  our understanding of the fundamentals of, poetry – imagery, symbolism, sound, rhythm, meter and figurative language.

Controversy surrounds another poem penned by this outstanding Jamaican. His poem  If We Mist Die was written in reaction to the 1919 race riots in the USA. It was allegedly plagiarized by then Prime Minister of England, Winston Churchill, to entreat the USA to join with Britain in defeating Germany in the Second World War (1939-1945)

If we must die, let it not be like Hogs,

Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,

While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,

Making their mark at our accursed lot.

When a  seemingly ‘local’ subject was taught, as in the case of history, it was from the British perspective. I took history to fifth form, but for some immature and trite reason dropped it. Dropping a subject takes place when the student has more than the maximum of eight subjects allowed. I dropped history because Mr. Herbert Neita, prefaced every history class with: “When sugar was King.”  From sheer boredom, I was disruptive. After admonishing me, he warned the class to ignore me and pay attention to what he was saying because; despite her disruptive behaviour: “Gloria Hylton somehow manages to get good marks.”  Mr. Neita had another proclivity. He lectured in motion and in his wandering and meandering he would absentmindedly use one of our rulers to scratch his back, or a pencil  to clear his nostrils which seemed to have been permanently clogged. Hindsight suggests that he must have had a sinus problem. However, it got to a point that whenever it was Mr. Neita’s class, we all hid our rulers and our pencils.   Mr. Neita did not demur when I dropped his subject. I suspect he was as fed up with my disruptive behaviour  as I was with his boring classes. The  shortcomings in my colonial education in giving me a sense of pride in my identity as a black person, with a proud history of overcoming overwhelming odds and becoming,  did not rear its ugly head until I went to University and had to read for the compulsory university course entitled  History of the Caribbean. Not only did I ace the subject which I discovered I loved, I even copped the Faculty Prize!

One of my greatest regrets is that I did not get involved  in extra curricular activities like Brownies and Girl Guides, which would have taught me vital social and leadership skills. My mother was insistent that I should come home immediately after school and I was loth to either ask her permission, or defy her instructions. Another constraining factor was my illegitimacy, which took on major proportions, when I came to realize that the mothers and fathers of my friends  lived together. At the end of each term we were required to address the envelope in which your report would be mailed. I became extremely self conscious, convinced that everyone in the class could see what I had written and I was the only one whose mother’s surname was different from mine.

I have come to realize that, despite its obvious shortcomings, colonial education did give me a solid foundation that has served me well. To this day, my school motto,  Sic Luceat Lux, Let Your Light Shine, continues to be a powerful motivator whenever I am faced with life’s challenges. So…

‘Come On Mr. School’

Sic Luceat Lux.

About the author

Gloria Royale-Davis