My mother was a teacher so you can say that I started to attend school very early in life. She taught at the primary level and taught the very first grade. These were the kids just starting off although a few may have attended basic school. Her classroom was a gallery of pictures reflecting the letters of the alphabet. Her penmanship was superb and she was quite the artist and this was reflected all over her classroom. Needless to say, I started my formal education at age three. She kept the exercise books showing the childish attempts at writing. I have to take her word that she taught me to read at that age also.
But this is not just about my mother the teacher and me. It is about the days I enjoyed attending school in Jamaica. As I read the stories about that life as evidenced today, in 2005, I want to remind many of what they experienced and how wonderful it was then.
Attending primary school in rural Jamaica was a wonderful time. It is not an attempt to wax nostalgia or trivialize poverty, when I say that we did not realize we were supposed to be poor or sadly disadvantaged. I say that because of what we had available in terms of learning tools and how much we achieved.
I think back to the huge yard we had at Primary School. My school had a profusion of Lignum Vitae trees and I think now of the beauty of the blossoming flowers; the muted beauty of that lilac blossom, magnified in quantity of trees and profusion of flowering. I learned that it was our National Flower but this was just another fact to be memorized. That was then. Now, when I visit the school and see that most of the trees have been cut down, I lament their loss to the present generation. Those trees were also one of my classrooms. On hot summer days, we would gather under the outstretched branches to conduct our reading classes. Yes, teachers once had classes where they taught you to read and where they did work on your pronunciation, enunciation. You were taught to read with punctuation. The rules come to mind that you were to “‘drop your voice at a full-stop” (period for today’s students) “and pause at a comma.. “..We would have our spelling classes in the cool shade of these trees, where the teacher would have each student spell words, sound out the letters phonetically and breaking down ‘big’ words into syllables to effect correct spelling. Many a poor reader and speller had these defects corrected in the heat of day under these trees aided by the heat of the every present strap.” A lick u mek u feel it mek u know mi mean it” was the chant of one of my favourite teachers as she liberally applied ‘Docta’ to an unruly student.
Who remembers the school kitchen and the buxom local woman, renowned for her cooking, who prepared the meals? It would seem that the USA provided a lot of rice, flour, cornmeal and powder milk for the food programme. Back then bulgur oats was a staple and not the expensive fare it is today. Have you seen the price of bulgur oats in this country? My favourite meal was rice and peas with the dumplings. My least was the cornmeal porridge. My mother always insisted that I eat the same fare as all even though I was ‘teacher’s pickney’. Those who grew up in the country will know of the trials and tribulations afforded a teacher’s child. I can remember the last days before school was adjourned for the periodic holidays. The storeroom would be emptied and the extra supplies given to the children to take home. Somehow the milk powder never made it pass the faces of many. Of course, the real desire of all was to be able to buy your lunch at the local Chinese shop. Those loaves of hot bread, freshly baked, sliced down the middle and slathered in fresh New Zealand butter were the things of dreams. If a patty could be added to this, along with a cola champagne soda, then culinary paradise was achieved. Of course you had the usual array of treats, sold at the ‘school gate’ by men and women alike. You also had the admonition of your parents to stay away from some, as their hygiene was in question. But looking back, it seems as if the greasier the fritters, the better it tasted. Snow cones, cane, home made sweets, many whose name I cannot recall but can still see them in their tempting allure, forbidden as they were.
Of course you did not have to buy your treats. The land surrounding the school afforded you many a juicy morsel. As long as stones were at hand, a mango was only a stone throw away. Blackie, half-a-nose, numba eleven, hairy, common mango, alllllll were there for the taking as were hog plums, guinneps, jimbilin, stinking toe, rose apple, apples, oh the list was long.
There were always banana plants, sugar cane and joy of joy, guava trees. I shudder now when I am forced to buy a guava at US $3.99 per pound. And this was just the fun part of eating.
Playing on the school’s ground was something else.
(stay tuned for the games played when kids made their own fun and used their environ to entertain themselves)