Confessions of a High School Teacher

This essay is dedicated to a group of very special students of mine.

12/28/2020

A few days ago, I received this email from someone who is now a retired CPA living in New York and who had been my student in the high school, where I taught many, many (nearly 50) years ago. I had been in the fortunate position of having been the English and Literature teacher of a group of students for five years ( from forms 1 to 5) and I got to know them like I do my own hand.

The email with a link to an article, reads, “We can all can relate to this article. To all the book worms (we did not use any other euphemism) it  remains glowing tribute  to all who were in her class together.”
My first week in high school I learnt three words – portrait , tresses and cascade.  We had to write a self portrait.  The other words were from either Kuntie or Mantra  in their essay..  She wrote – “Her tresses cascade like a waterfall.”

I knew then I was way behind everyone and I had a lot of catching up. So I secretly started to read mostly romantic (girly) novels that were readily available. That was the beginning of my education. But most importantly, I am more grateful to Miss than I can say without a shadow of doubt. All us are forever indebted to her.
To Miss – “Thank you !”

They all left my supervision after they had written the GCEs and graduated from high school. They fondly refer to me as “Miss” after nearly fifty years. A few of them are grandparents now and my hair is silver. We write or call each other often. One of them lives close by and provides me with fresh vegetables, and comforting conversations and dinner at her home.

To understand this relationship that has lasted 50 or more years, I must tell you about them. They all came from a farming background. The high school served a catchment area of about 20 miles being equidistant between the two extremities. Most of them living more than three miles in distance came by bus, or rode bicycles to school. Those who lived within a three mile area walked to school.

Their parents were, in the main, rice farmers or owned market gardens. Some were children of cane cutters in the sugar estate. Mostly they were poor people who were happy to see their children in high school. They understood the importance of an education because they had none themselves and manual labour was their lot.
They were all just out of primary school, frightened and big-eyed with anticipation when I met them in my class on that first day. After all, it was their first day in high school. I was scheduled to teach them Literature and English. English was not their first language. Creole was.

The small details of those first years in the classrooms are now lost in the byways of my memory. But many things stand out.

Lesson # 1: Any good teacher must have eyes in the back of her head.

Things must be written on the black board with white chalk. Fifty years ago, there were no copying machines, no materials to help in lesson prep. No duplicating machines. The school budget did not run to such luxuries as text books for teachers or for students. Computers and laptops were still tip-toeing in the dim future waiting for a younger generation. Everything had to be written on the board.

My back is turned to the class as I write. This is time for Dixie to let loose among the girls his match box motor he had made the night before. Or for Carlton to dig a hole in the wall separating two classrooms to spy on the girls on the next form room and then wonder aloud afterward why “coolie” girls sit so badly in class.

This is also prime time to haul out the rice and curry they brought for lunch and begin to eat with the food bowl under the desk or hidden behind a book. I can hear someone saying, “Gimme a mouthful nah.” Lunch break is two long hours away. As I am done writing and turn around to them, they are all seated looking at me innocently.

A. reads a Mills &Boon novels in class hidden behind her textbook. Let me tell you now, her English is flawless. She and Camilla were desk mates and Camilla it was who brought to class the Mills and Boon novels. The surreptitious reading she did also resulted in her A grade in English at the GCEs.

Lesson #2: In assigning work, never ask a stupid question like, “Should we or shouldn’t we?” when you already know the answer.
“Shouldn’t we!” A loud chorus.

Lesson # 3: Planning an important lesson for any Friday afternoon is a lost cause.
These lines from a song bring to mind what it was like.

“When you look back and forgetfully wonder
What you were like in your work and your play.”


“O the great days in the distance, enchanted,
Days of fresh air in the wind and the sun
.”

Do not imagine that much work is done on any Friday afternoon. You are lucky if you can get the homework assignment written in time before the class erupts out on the corridor.

“Ow Miss, 5A playing 5B this afternoon.”
A cricket game has been arranged. Not to be missed. First to last ball.
The teams are ready. The coin has been tossed, and the captain of the fielding team positions his men. The umpire, Dojoy, is in his position behind the stumps. The bowler is polishing the ball on his school pants waiting for the umpire’s nod. The rest of the school, teaching staff included, is lined up on the corridor ready to cheer their favorite players. The sun is hot but who cares. It’s the highlight of the week.

On rainy Friday afternoons, I might relent and read them stories. Total silence is testimony to the awakening of imaginations. This was their TV, their video, their streaming. This story time. I hoped it might awaken in them a love for the printed page.

Their lives were bare of the activities children in developed countries take for granted. Many of them had never ventured outside of the village. Never gone to Georgetown. TVs were unheard of and libraries were things that were out of reach. Any “school outing” was an occasion to be intensely anticipated.

A trip to the Abary beach. Patsy still recalls that day. We all (about 30 of them and I) joined the bus and it took us to my parents’ place at Novar. We picked fruits, drank water, and walked the mile and a half to the beach. Oh, how they frolicked and played in the sea and ran around. We ate our picnic lunch and played games. They got wet. No one cared. We joined the bus and I took them back safely home, tired and smelly but happy.

Only now, can I look back in wonder and confront the fears of what could have happened. I was the only teacher with them.
What if….?
How might I have explained to the parents……?

Lesson # 4: It doesn’t all happen in the classroom.
Complementing their education.

Personal hygiene, sex education, personal decorum and social etiquette were parts of the unwritten curriculum. Let me tell you, parents in those villages trust teachers to do what is best for their children. They literally put their children into the hands of the teachers.

“Ow Teacher A….., awee trust you. You will do the right thing for them.” There is utter trust in the presence of those teachers in the lives of their children. The teacher’s word is equivalent to gospel. They hand their children over to the school and the final product is welcomed.

I realized that here was a situation in which the girls, just entering puberty knew nothing about the challenges of puberty and the changes taking place in their bodies. Their mothers were too modest to open such revealing conversations with them. Events revealed the necessity of helping them.

It all began when B. came to me and said, “Miss, can I talk to you?” Fear and trust and a bit of uncertainty co- mingled in her eyes. So I took her out in the corridor and she confided that certain changes were happening to her body and she didn’t know why. I understood right away what was happening. I asked the Headmaster to allow me the use of the toilet in his office. I explained to B. what it all meant and what she needed to do. A simple demonstration helped.

At home, I thought about it and formed the idea of teaching these young girls what needed to be taught. It had to be done outside of the normal class time. I broached the idea to the Headmaster and was given full support.
The following day, I asked the girls to remain after class. I told them that I wanted to teach them certain things that might help them. We formed a Girls’ Club and we met once a week after class for an hour. Of course, the boys hung around on the corridor wanting to know why they were excluded.

The topics we covered…

Menstruation ( what, why, when and how)
Personal hygiene
Sex education and boys
Speaking courteously
Welcoming guests in your home
Setting a table for dinner
Serving tea to friends
Dressing for the occasion
Showing appreciation for kindnesses
The use of proper language in and out of the home and classroom
Writing “Thank you” notes
Making introductions
Table manners

They came to my house and learned how to bake cookies and a simple cake, a trifle.
They had to take turns to demonstrate these things in the club meetings.
Role Play
“Today K will welcome her parents’ guests.”

Next week S will serve tea and carry on the conversation.
M. Will set a dinner table. (Props came from my home.)

A. will begin a topic of conversation.
L. will introduce her friend to her parents
At the end of every session, there was time for Q and A.
Many of the things I have forgotten, they still remember.
The trust that was built up between us allowed them to ask me questions they would never dare to ask anyone else.

“Miss, how do you know when you have found the right person for your husband?”
“Miss, what do you say to a boy you like when you are alone with him?”
“Miss, is it OK to say ‘I love you’ first?”
“Miss, how do you know when you getting a baby?”

Me: Huh?….. Well….

I had signed up for it, so honesty was the best policy.

Lesson # 5: Be fully prepared for the unexpected when reading Shakespeare and Keats

(or any other of the set texts).

Keats’ “ODE TO AUTUMN” is read and re read and discussed at length. It was one of the set poems on the GCE syllabus and it demands an intimate knowledge of reaping wheat.
How to explain……

mellow fruitfulness
winnowing wind
furrow
thatch eaves
drowsed with the fumes of poppies
granary floor
whilst thy hook spares the next swath

How the metre and rhyme scheme enhance the effect of the whole poem.

Well, it must be done starting from what they know – related to reaping rice with which they were all fully acquainted. It worked.
Tap out the stressed words. Why are certain words stressed?
Don’t even think of attempting an explanation of “iambic pentameter”.
How to get through an appreciation of the personification of AUTUMN?
We must have done it because Kunti went to the UK a few years ago and made a pilgrimage to the very place where John Keats walked and envisioned writing his lovely poem. She told me about in email a few months ago.

Reading Macbeth
Question to predict what happens next: How might Birnam Wood move to Dunsinane town?
Answer: Miss, Burnham was living then?

Moral: Never ask an open question like this again.
It reveals that the set scene had not been read before they came to class.

Assignment
Commit to memory Macbeth’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech.
You will say it before you enter class.
They worked out a simple strategy. Write it in your hand and hold it behind your back for the next one to see and read.

Lesson #6: The dubious virtue of closing your eyes to certain goings on.
How NOT to prepare for the GCEs

S and N live across the street from each other. During the English lesson, N. falls asleep in class. I look at S. She has a sly smile on her cheeky face.
“What’s wrong with her?”
“ Well, Miss! She and me been competing to see who will stay up latest to study. We know who go to bed first cause the lights get turn off. So I left my light on and went to bed. She think I still studyin’ and she stay up.”

On the day prior to the fateful day of the first GCE session, the boys arrange the auditorium in neat rows of desks and benches. Each desk has an identifying number that belongs to a student. A simple task. A teacher is supervising . Sam is seen surreptitiously writing stuff on the blackboard.
“Sam what are you writing?
“Oh nothing Miss.”
The next day I find out to my embarrassment only after the invigilator asks to have the board cleaned. He had written all the theorems as a crutch to help the weak Math students.

Teachers are more stressed out than are their students. I’m walking up and down the corridor peering into the room to see what’s going on. I see the chief invigilator looking through the window. I see D. just about to turn back the hands of the invigilator’s clock placed on the table close to where he is sitting. A frown from me stops him in time. In any case as he informed me later, they were almost all done.

Glimpses of a time past.
Then it may be there will often come o’er you
Glimpses of notes like the catch of a song.
Visions of boyhood will float them before you
Echoes of dreamland will bear them along.

Those years stand out very clearly in my mind fifty years on.
If by any chance, I return to them in my mind, I can still see the purity, the innocence of those youthful faces.

I might see a vision of three little scamps jauntily riding one bicycle – one on the carrier seat, one pedaling and the other on the handle bar calling out to everyone they passed – Carlton, Kamal and Pretty. I can see Bal sitting quietly during lunch break with a Louis L’Amour novel his brown eyes glinting at me.

Bharto, the Deputy Principal, is shouting from one end of the corridor, “”Anirudh, wha you doing in the corridor? Get back to your classroom.” Anirudh is parading the corridor to check on the girls. His special one is now his wife.

Teaching them was not only a case of paragraph and essay writing, or the use of clauses and phrases. Neither was it only the way to use proper punctuation, parallelism, pronouns and antecedents, analyzing a poem, or reading Shakespeare.
It went far beyond all of this. School, along with the classroom, was the meeting place of friends, social interaction, fun times, youthful gaiety, a safe space where childhood blossomed and morphed into young adulthood.

Circling the Wagon forty and fifty years on.

Loved the ally with the heart of a brother.
Hated the foe with a playing at hate.”
Forty years on growing older and older…
”.

These photographs show reunions ten years apart. There is a feeling of joy and satisfaction in seeing how these young imps of fifty years ago have turned out as grown men and women. They virtually circle the wagons around each other. They call and write and give each other moral support. No one is left by themselves to face problems.
They are successful entrepreneurs, professionals, parents and grand parents, holding their own and contributing in meaningful ways to the new culture in which the diaspora has thrust them. I feel very humbled and a sense of pride that in some small way, I helped to shape the lives of a few human beings.