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Celestine McKay, 102, the teacher who rode her bicycle to school

BY DONNA HUSSEY-WHYTE Sunday Observer staff reporter husseyd@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, March 02, 2014    

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AT 102, Celestine McKay still continues to teach her grade two class, something she did for 40 years before retiring in 1974.

Now, she teaches an imaginary class in her own private world, within the confines of her Brown's Town, St Ann home.

"Sometimes when she gone off into her little world where you can't reach her, she will tell a boy to spell. Or you'll hear her say, 'You boy, how many halves make a whole?" McKay's grandniece Linneth Balfour told the Jamaica Observer recently.

"It's always boys, never any girls. And then you hear her say, 'Bring the slate let me look at it. You see the rubbish you have on it? Clean it off!' So she gone way, way back to when she was in the classroom," Balfour said.

McKay's continued 'teaching habit' is something that Balfour said started when the centenarian was in her late 90s.

Born in Richmond, St Mary, on February 2, 1912, McKay, who was born Packer, is the last of 11 children for her parents and the only one alive today.

She attended Highgate Elementary and then the Shortwood Teachers' College where she became a trained grade two teacher.

Although she did not have any biological children, McKay raised two of her grandnieces, Balfour being one of them. McKay took on the responsibility of caring for her four-year-old grandniece after her nephew - Balfour's father - passed away. The second child she raised was her niece's daughter.

McKay, also called 'Aunt C', taught for a while in Golden Grove, St Thomas, where she met and married police detective Noel Eric McKay. He died in 1959 and she never remarried.

Because of her husband's occupation and his frequent transfers, McKay moved to Addington, Hanover, where she continued her teaching.

Soon, her husband was transferred to Brown's Town. Here she taught at Lower Buxton before moving on to Brown's Town Primary and stayed there until she retired at the age of 62.

Balfour readily recalls one thing that stood out about the centenarian.

"She loved to beat," she said laughing. "We have persons, especially one young man who comes to work with us. He is a painter, and he will tell you 'Boy, Ms Mac let mi know how to read you know, because she used to drop some lick!' and there is another person who is a retired education officer whom she had standing in a corner of the classroom until she learned to write the figure 8. And up to now the lady cannot write the figure 8; she writes two 0s and joins them together," Balfour said with a smile.

"But if you went into her grade two class and leave, you have to be able to read. Nobody left her classroom and couldn't read," Balfour said. "They had to read. Because she was cross and she loved to beat."

In fact, the centenarian's grandniece feels that her grandaunt would not survive in a classroom today, based on the indiscipline of children and the fact that teachers inflict corporal punishment.

"When she taught at Lower Buxton she lived in a district called Orange Hill about five miles away and she used to ride a bicycle to school," Balfour said. "And she would ride the bicycle to school every day and ride back home - rain or shine. The boys used to love that because they would say, 'Teacher, lend mi you bicycle.' Sometimes when she ready for it, it gone!" chuckled Balfour.

Today, though unable to see due to blindness caused by glaucoma, McKay, who has Alzheimer's disease, still moves around with help or sometimes even by herself. She is able to move to the bathroom and dining table on her own and back to her bedroom. She is still able to feed herself, though not with a spoon.

"Her fingers are arthritic so she can't grip the spoon, but she will hold her cup," Balfour explained.

McKay's caregiver Shelly-Ann 'Debbie' Simpson further explained that the centenarian can feed herself with a cup of tea, a cup of soup or a cup of porridge.

"Once you put it in the cup she can hold it and feed herself," Simpson said. "She will feed herself a slice of bread, a ripe banana and so on."

Simpson said that McKay loves fried foods - dumplings, ripe plantain, salt fish, etc.

She also loves salt mackerel, anything curried and also ice cream, cube ice and will sometimes ask for a little wine.

"When she asks for it we give her but we don't give her a lot," Balfour said with a smile. "We just give her a little and put ice in it to dilute it. Usually after she have that she just go and sleep," Simpson said.

McKay's love for food seems endless, as the Sunday Observer was told that she also enjoys stewed pork, potato salad and one of her favourite dishes -- yellow yam and cheese pie made by Balfour, who does catering professionally.

And with the exception of blindness and memory loss, McKay has been given a clean bill of health by her doctor.

"Oh boy, when the doctor comes to see her, the doctor laugh at me and say, 'She better than you'. Her blood pressure is normal, her sugar is normal. And she doesn't take a lot of medication," Balfour boasted. "She takes a low-dose aspirin and one Aleve for the day, and that's her medication 'cause she don't need more than that. And I get the doctor to come in and see her on a regular basis to monitor her."

Simpson, who has been McKay's caregiver for 10 years, said that when the centenarian is up and about, she talks about life and things from her past. She said that McKay loves to pray and is always praying for people.

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