Dead student graduates


Dead student graduates

Merl Grove High brings closure to bitter 35-year saga over abandoned school-leaving ceremony

Executive editor — special assignment

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

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Merl Grove High School last Saturday staged a historic graduation ceremony, hoping to bring closure to 35 years of anger and bitterness among students whose school life ended abruptly, after their graduation ceremonies were abandoned in 1983 and 1984.

Twenty-eight former Merl Grove students, now grown women and physically a far cry from the teenage misses of three decades ago, marched up to receive their school-leaving certificates, as family members and friends cheered lustily.

The graduation ceremony brought to a climax a week of activities of Homecoming Reunion 2018 and Founders' Week marking the 94th anniversary of the founding of Merl Grove by Nathaniel Speid and his daughter Miriam Speid. The school is owned by the Associated Gospel Assemblies.

“The decision to stage this ceremony was a unanimous decision of all the members of the board of the Associated Gospel Assemblies present, to provide redress for what happened in the past,” Merl Grove Principal Dr Marjorie Fullerton told the Jamaica Observer before the start of the event.

But Fullerton's brief statement masked the quiet but stiff opposition among some in the school and church community who did not believe in the cause that supporters contended would help to heal the over-three-decade-old wound that alienated scores of embittered students from the school.

Outstanding past student, Ambassador Aloun N'dombet Assamba, who gave the vote of thanks, said Fullerton could not say it but she knew that the principal had experienced serious obstacles on the way to the graduation ceremony. She thanked the school's management and board members led by Chairman Anthony White who backed the principal and handed out certificates at the ceremony.

Detractors hold that the incident took place many years ago and the women should have been able to get over it and move on. That appeared to have been easier said than done and on the night the shrieks of delight said it all.

It would not be women if there were no tears at such an emotional moment, but on an otherwise sombre Saturday evening the tears were mostly of joy, tinged with the sounds of unmistakeable celebration that filled Karram-Speid Auditorium on Constant Spring Road, St Andrew.

There were stories within the main graduation story in a script that could not have been made up. Back in 1983, amidst feverish plans for the annual graduation ceremony, a fund-raising barbecue was held at the school. A few Merl Grove girls were caught in compromising positions with some boys from other schools.

The Merl Grove management, then under the leadership of Enid Kerr and Barbara Martin, supported by the board, opted for the harshest punishment they could find: cancel the graduation of 1983 and 1984. No school-leaving certificates were presented.

That decision would unleash 35 years of pain, bitterness and alienation among the majority of the estimated 200 girls who believed the good should not have had to suffer for the bad.

The sentiment was supported by a now-retired member of the 1983 teaching staff who attended Saturday evening's function.

“Many of us thought the punishment was too draconian. Did we protest enough? No,” she said, asking for anonymity.

It was a moving moment when one of the former students, Cerene Betancourt, graduated posthumously, having died on January 24, 2011, aged 45. Two of her daughters — Katana Phillips, 29, and Kazumi Perkins, 20 — and two grandchildren, Kymarley Carr, 3, and one-month-old Kazemiro Bhalai were onstage to receive her certificate.

Perkins said she was 14 years old when her mother died. “Attending the graduation is a joyful event for us because I know that my mother would have wanted to participate and would have wanted her children to celebrate her success,” she told the Observer.

Betancourt's cousin, Vivienne Betancourt-Powell, upon learning that the special graduation ceremony would be part of activities of Homecoming 2018, wrote, on behalf of the deceased past student, to chief organiser Andrea McDonald-Black, president of the Northeast American Chapter (NEAC) of the Merl Grove High School Past Students' Association.

An administrative assistant at Glen Christian's Carimed, Betancourt-Powell, who herself graduated Merl Grove in 1987, is related to Cerene Betancourt on both her mother's and father's sides as the child of one of two brothers who married two sisters.

McDonald-Black of the NEAC graduated in 1971 but first heard the story of 1983 from a member of her executive, Arlene Muirhead, the valedictorian at Saturday evening's all-white affair. She unhesitatingly agreed that the graduation, though belated, was the right thing to do and both worked tirelessly towards it.

The group of graduates included Norma Lattibeaudiere-Dixon, who was in the class of 1975 but dropped out because of pregnancy after one term in fifth form. She had served as prefect and outstanding athlete before her pregnancy. Lattibeaudiere-Dixon could not hold back the tears as she was also honoured for outstanding contribution to the school as a past student.

Mississippi-based Yvonne McDonald recounted that her mother Odelyn Binns was even more affected than her when the 1983 ceremony was cancelled. “I was the first of her children to attend high school and she was really looking forward to the graduation ceremony.”

Both Florida-based Binns and McDonald's daughter, Trecia-Ann Williams, a nurse who also attended Merl Grove, were present at the special ceremony.

A moment of silence led by 1983 student Georgia Kallawan-Miller was observed for past students “who have passed on and would have wanted to be here today”. On behalf of the Canadian chapter of the Past Students Association, founder Claudette Cameron, a key personality behind the event, heartily congratulated the graduates and those who worked to make the ceremony a reality.

In her valedictory speech, Muirhead described the graduation ceremony as “a peace offering” from the board and the principal of Merl Grove”.

“Let us now put this unfortunate and painful chapter to rest and come together to keep the legacy of Merl Grove going,” she said to prolonged applause.

Master of ceremonies Tony Patel of Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation fame, recalled his time at Merl Grove High before the school became an all-girls institution. Guest speaker Damion Crawford was well received for his speech on who is the independent Jamaican.

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