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The glory days of 'elementary'

LANCE NEITA

Saturday, December 14, 2013    

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My recollections of my elementary school days are driven by my friends of a later generation who constantly ask the question what was an elementary school? Elementary has, of course, evolved into the primary and all-age schools, more familiar to those who inherited the changeover from the earlier classification.

The elementary school system has a glorious tradition in Jamaica, perhaps making its last bow as the foundation pillar of what I call the first Common Entrance generation in the late 1950s. Of interest, the first elementary school established in Jamaica for black children was built in 1823 at Rowe's Corner, a small district near Alligator Pond. Olive Senior's book A-Z of Jamaican Heritage places importance on this, pointing out that the school was called Somerset and was built by the Moravian Church. Three years later it was transferred to Lititz where the Lititz Basic, Primary and All-Age School now proudly stands.

The local elementary school was the central point for district and community life, along with the church. My school not only imparted education to every village child, regardless of rank or status, but was the melting pot for social dances, banquets, harvest suppers, and Saturday night film shows brought to you by projector, reel-to-reel, and a sheet screen.

As children, we were allowed to peep through the windows at the adults doing their frolicking on the dance floor in their fancy outfits and attended to by the strains of an orchestra imported from Kingston. We were always fascinated by the orchestra, a group of serious-faced elderly men in 'long tail' suits, who strummed on a bass guitar taller than the tallest of them, a drum set, and a brass section blown skywards by pot bellied trumpeters who kept a watchful eye on the curry goat counter while serenading with Danny Boy, Skokian, and the latest Louis Armstrong hits.

School days began at 9:00am, giving time for a quick cricket match or a cashew and marble game before the school bell rang. Five minutes after nine was dread time, as that's when the strap in the head teacher's hand dropped 'licks'on the backs of any errant student who failed to beat the deadline.

After that auspicious beginning, we settled down to the morning classes. The scene was bare toes gripping the cold concrete floors, the constant murmuring of readings, or show-and-tell humming around the schoolroom, all while the "little school" classes were reciting their 1-2-3s and ABCs. Further up the ladder would be the middle school reading aloud and struggling with the more complicated arithmetic or 'sums' questions and answers. As you moved from 1st, 2nd and 3rd class into 4th, 5th and 6th you were now in the big school of the 'big teacher' (the lower classes were run by 'little teachers', all women), and you were now more responsible for your own fate.

At this stage you were introduced to horizons beyond sums and ABC to the geography, history, hygiene, religion, sewing, gardening, and the art and craft lessons that the world of education offered.

It was a brave new world filled with the wonders of colour pages, fountain pens, storytelling, addition, and biology books, which were quickly removed when the teachers realised that we were more interested in the pictures of naked human bodies than the value of the lessons themselves.

School was now more wonder and amazement. But there was also that perennial strap that was coiled on the 'big teacher's' table waiting to be unsprung to deal with reported misdemeanours or failure to answer the trick questions posed during the after-lunch 'mentals'. For those sessions we had to line up and were expected to answer rapid-fire questions and woe betide those who failed.

But mental English and mental arithmetic taught how to think on your feet, how to analyse, and how to respond quickly, and therefore played an important part in the making of a student in those early days.

Looking back at the wide category of subjects and the depth of knowledge and studies taught, no wonder that a child leaving elementary school in 5th or 6th class entered secondary school (usually via Common Entrance) "brighter" at the start than the child entering at that level from private preparatory schools. That's a fact, just look at the tough Jamaica Local Examination papers of those days.

The big days for the school year were Inspection Day, Dentist Day, and Vaccination Day.

Inspection Day was when the Ministry of Education sent out their cohort of officers to put the schoolteacher and the students through the inquisition. The school had to look its best, so the children were dressed up and, furthermore, this was the day when every child had to wear shoes. The pattern was the same each year. An imposing automobile slithers stealthily through the gates and parks under a shady tree. The door opens and a burly, tall figure, resplendent in black or dark grey suit emerges. For the rest of the day the school belongs to him. He would pore over record books and take turns going around the classes to test the children's ability to answer difficult questions.

Silence reigned. The inspector wore a studied frown, the teachers trod warily around the classrooms, and there was no cricket or baseball or "chase" on that day.

But there was a smile of relief when it all ended, with the Inspector giving a passing grade and a grunt, the teachers venting a huge sigh of relief, and the visitor sliding into his seat and driving off into the sunset. Or somewhere equally warm, we thought.

Dentist Day was dreaded. Again we watched fearfully as the car drove up and the gentleman set up his contraption in a corner, a chair, a yanking tool, a basin for spitting, and a foot pedal to work his drill. No electricity, no modern drilling, and tears and howls all over the yard as the victims moan and commiserate with each other.

Vaccination Day was equally feared as when the school nurse arrived some of us took off around the school yard. This would lead to a merry chase as the teacher ordered the bigger boys to hunt down and return the quarry for the 'juck' from the needle, a huge ugly looking cylinder with a smell that lived with you for days.

Still there was a bit of heroism about the whole thing, as we wore our bandages proudly for the rest of the week like badges of honour to show that we had been through the mill.

Those were the off days, but the good days were many. Rehearsals for Children's Day at the church were first held in the school and provided many a humorous moment. To this day I can remember a future Miss Jamaica bursting into tears whenever her time came to recite a verse as we stood on the platform for the grand Sunday School presentations.

The annual Sunday School outing also laid its plans at the school where we were excited into dreaming about the trip to Dunn's River, Hope Gardens, or Jackson Bay, and one unforgettable day a trip by diesel to Port Antonio.

School concerts, plays, singing, 4-H club meetings, and visits from Miss Lou, George Headley, Eddie Burke, Noel Walters, and a host of other personalities, were highlights we looked forward to as we got away from the books. Elementary schools provided the basis for a sound mind in a sound body. And our teachers played that one to the max.

Lance Neita is a public relations and communications specialist. Address comments to lanceneita@hotmail.com

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