School Days!

The cool, fresh and invigorating air of autumn has arrived and with it, another exciting school year abound with hopeful anticipation and great sighs of relief from worn out and cash-strapped parents. The familiar bright colored uniforms crisp and stiff with pleats that stood up as if saluting, shiny new and polished shoes, book bags (knapsacks) packed with new books, sharpened pencils, erasers, rulers and other tools of the trade were neatly packed away inside.

Children with wide-eyed expectations, fear and white knuckled little hands clutching at the hands of parents and guardians in desperation, eyes glassy with tears as they navigate their way through the noisy throng… awww yes, memories, school days are coming back to me in high-definition in live and living color. With the fresh new start to the school year come vivid memories of my days at Watsonton Primary school in Lionel Town, Clarendon. My sister, cousins and I all attended school there during the early seventies.

The school was located on the outskirts of the community and shared land space with the Methodist Church. Both school and church were fenced in on the same property with the burial ground behind the church. The tombs were of local people who were buried a long time ago. We as children used to play on those tombs too, without fear, which just goes to show the dead has no power, or God help us if they did. On entering Lionel Town our school and church were the first buildings to be seen after passing the long green stalks of sugarcane swaying in the wind. The school had students from our own community, Alley, Hayes, Salt River, Portland Cottage, Rocky and I believe Mitchell Town also. Our Principal was Mrs. Walker and vice principal, Mrs. Maxwell. They were powerful intellectual women and glamorous too, in their own right.

Most of the other principals in the surrounding schools were men I believe. My first grade teacher was Ms. Bernadette Ramsay and she was an amazing teacher, very warm and friendly. Her mom taught at the school also.

I have never forgotten her, while most of the other teachers were strict and did their best to scare you straight, she was a beautiful ray of sunshine, warm and welcoming.We had six grades in our school like all other primary schools and some very dedicated teachers who made sure we learned our lessons well (with the aid of rulers in the palm of our hands, leather belt for our behinds and with unspoken consent of our parents and guardians if needs be). When Inspector was coming around to see what was going on in the schools, the belt was hidden away in the “press” (cupboard) and our exercise book in which we wrote in our very best penmanship “Environmental Science” was taken out to be displayed.

It was a different time period, one in which we actually went to school when we were supposed to, whether we wanted to or not was irrelevant. We took pride in our work and the way we were dressed. We obeyed and was respectful to our teachers and by extension our parents, elders and authority figures. Teachers, nurses and the police were held in high esteem then. That has changed and sadly for worse.

We had morning devotions, lined up in our small courtyard we sang joyfully on top of our voices, “When mothers of Salem their children brought to Jesus…” among other hymns. We read or recited a Psalm and prayers were said before we were dispersed to our classes. When the bell rang for lunch we said grace (prayers) too, even though most of us didn’t eat at school. This in retrospect was kind of strange; you’d think only the children eating at school should’ve said grace. “For health and strength (and dollars and cents) and daily food, we praise thy name oh Lord amen” (ten cents!) The words in parenthesis were substituted by us very bad children. Other than the usual reading, writing and arithmetic we had to study and recite Bible verses too, and we had to say it with “expression” and had to enunciate.

Ms. Morgan our fifth grade teacher was the resident expert in that field. We learned poetry and recited them loudly and clearly. Fridays were dressed-down day, no uniforms, and regular clothes to school that day. That was a thrill. On Fridays we also had ‘mental ability’ which is known as a pop-quiz today. We were asked math, social studies, and grammar or science questions on the fly and were expected to answer when called upon. Usually if your hand was raised indicating that you knew the answer, you were ignored in favor of someone whose hand weren’t raised. That was fun on Fridays. We had spelling and dictation. Of course I always aced those.

Math was a problem, still a problem and will always be a problem for me. I’ve learned to live with it. I learned in my twenties that I was dyslexic where numbers were concerned, meaning, I see them clearly but for whatever reason there is, my brain interprets it another way and I’m totally unaware of same until someone points it out. For example, I’m told to write the digits 1135… I hear it, I know how to write it, I will repeat it and STILL end up writing 1335…I don’t think teachers recognized that I had that problem and I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a name for it then as research was non-existent in that area. I went to evening lessons while I was in primary school and still I struggled in math.

Children like me who had learning problems were labeled, called derogatory names and made to feel like less than even though we excelled in other subjects…sad. Thank God for researchers. I had one particular teacher whom I’ll call “Mrs. Diablo” she was a beater! I was really terrified to be in her class because she had a very special love relationship with the belt and her ruler. If she asked a math question and God forbid you didn’t know the answer, you know she was coming around your desk, you were going to end up crying and embarrassed because the other children would be laughing at you. To this day, I have no love for that woman. She probably was a very intelligent and knowledgeable teacher but she had no business teaching children who were trying their best but was too terrified of her to do well. Simply put, in her class, we were not allowed to make mistakes or you would pay for it.

I was so scared of her that when she asked questions and I didn’t know the answer, I would deliberately drop my pencil under the desk and lower my head to pick it up, trying to hide, so she wouldn’t call on me and I wouldn’t suffer any embarrassment for that moment. Can’t say I was fond of her. Recess was a thrill! We each got fifteen or twenty cents and there were vendors who came to the school selling coconut drops, gizzada, wet and dry asham, tamarind balls, busta, donkey-corn (hard squared biscuit), paradise plum candy among other goodies. After purchasing our snacks, we would race down to “bog bottom” that was the official grassy playing ground located at the back of the church premises where we had races, skipping, baseball, dandy-shandy and whatever else we played at the time.

There were huge trees there with spreading branches for shades and spreading roots on the ground under which we sat or stood in our small cliques. When the bell rang we would race back up to the school grounds. We usually went home for lunch from Mondays to Thursdays. On Fridays we get lunch money, all of twenty to twenty-five cents! We had choices of beef patties, bun and cheese, sweet biscuits and cheese, among other delicious goodies. We also had our choice of sodas, box juices and cherry malt, chocolate and regular milk in small cartons from “Cremo” milk dairies. My favourite was cherry malt and beef patty, yum yummy!

After every holiday from school and I mean every holiday, the first thing we had to write was a composition on “How I spent my Easter, summer or Christmas Holidays.” This happened in every grade that we entered. You know we made up exciting stories with our very active imaginations. I also recalled that we would get powdered milk (we called it milk powder) in clear plastic bags to take home. It was some sort of help from the government I think to aid us in our nutrition. It was sweet and sticky!

We would pour some in the palm of our hand (hand miggle 🙂 and licked it and boy it was so good. Later we found out it made us very, very, I mean very, flatulent, but that didn’t stop us from eating it. By the time we got home with the bag a considerable amount would be gone and we had the white telltale signs of the powdered milk on our mouths and sometimes on our blue tunic. My days at Watsonton primary held precious memories for me. I enjoyed my time there even though, like every other experience it wasn’t all fun and games all the time but I had wonderful learning experiences there and made many friends. We had really dedicated and loyal teachers, parents and guardians who knew what it took for us to learn and made sure we did our homework.

The parents and guardians during those times worked alongside the teachers and supported them, unlike today’s generation where some children are abusing and assaulting teachers and some parents are actually accused of doing the same. Totally incomprehensible! Today’s technology has allowed me to find friends or see acquaintances on the social networking site Face Book! Very excited to see past class and school mates now as adults living their lives and doing their thing… quite exciting! Brought back many memories.

About the author

Carmen Lawrence