Little school days, but big learning


Monday, August 21, 2017

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I am grateful to those readers of my columns who have said they enjoy the occasional nostalgic stories. One person actually described me as prehistoric, perhaps he meant hysteric. Another asked me to describe Marcus Garvey's features from personal recollection.

I got my own back when two of my school friends came to visit me at my office. “Wheel them in,” I told the receptionist, loud enough for them to hear.

Old age is gently referred to as senior years, and when my time comes I intend to enjoy it. In the meantime, I gladly claim space at the golden age counter in the bank. It's fun watching my contemporaries when the teller gives attention to a young person in the line. We frown, clear our throats, and react indignantly to this invasion of our area. Not to speak of the returning residents from England who use this infraction as another 'what's wrong with Jamaica'. “It would never happen back home,” they say as they peer fiercely over their eyeglasses and mutter at each other. We say, “Cho, man!” They say, “Humbug!”

Bank veterans tell me that Monday morning is the worst time to visit the bank. That's the time when people who did weekend business come in with their returns concealed in innocent-looking shopping bags. When they park at the counter, turn out the contents, and slip out of their shoes, you have had it. Prepare for the long wait for your number to be called, or move out of the senior line and become a regular citizen.

While waiting in the bank the other day I saw a gentleman with an old-time school slate. I didn't get a chance to ask what he was doing with it, but of course my mind ran back to the early days in school when we used slates at a tender age for learning to write. The slate was a thin piece of hard surface material about the size of an iPod.

Your teacher gave you a slate on your first day in school. A slate pencil was used to write your ABC, and a little pencil was attached by a string to the wooden frame. Teacher taught us how to erase our first strokes of genius with a piece of damp cloth, an action which I suppose is the origin of the phrase “to wipe the slate clean”.

The other educational tool for A and B class was the abacus — a number of strings set in a frame with colourful beads attached that you could move about with your fingers. It looked like a nice toy, and it took some time for me to find out it was supposed to be used for a thing called counting. As you may imagine, the other children left me behind while I tried to figure it out. Alas, I was never strong on mathematics — or “sums” as we called it in those days.

I enjoyed my abacus days in A and B class, however. But all good things come to an end, and before you knew it you were sent up to first class, or “book”class. I put up a strong resistance, but they took away my slate and abacus and I was moved forcibly into the world of books. We started reading stories about 'Mr Joe', 'Mother Hen', and 'Willie, the pig'. We were transported into the world of Aesop's fables and Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes picture books. We were also reading Bible stories as we prepared for Sunday school examinations and Sunday school plays.

By the time we got to second class we had already met Uncle Newton and was reading the Eddie Burke book series. We were now proud 'bookmen'—short pants, barefoot, and all. Adults never asked you what class you were in, they asked, “What book yuh in?” One little boy in A class answered the question, “Mi nuh inna book, Sah, me inna slate.”

They were really beginning to pour it on in third class because by this time you were expected to know your ABCs back to front, and your (times) tables up to 12 times 12. For a long time I bucked at my seven times until I got into the swing of things when every Jamaican child adopts a chorus line to the sums (remember that word) times tables, with the penultimate line “7 elevens a 77, an' seven twelves 87” (or 84, these things still take a little time).

Come fourth, fifth and sixth classes you had left your female teachers behind and you were now in senior school run by the head teacher himself, 'Big Teacher'. The female teachers were all known as 'Little Teacher', except for a particular 'baaaad' teacher who we called “Mother Wasp”, for obvious reasons.

Big Teacher now took us into the world of heady subjects such as geography, history, biology, and science. He sometimes strayed into astronomy, music, algebra; taking us into the brave new worlds that elementary schools offered to students of those days as they prepared you for the finals of the Jamaica Local Examination.

School was indeed a world by itself. Outside of the classroom there was always a little playing field to be discovered. Junior schoolchildren had to give way to the bigger ones when they came out for recess to claim the cricket pitch, or the baseball (handball) dirt court for the girls.

But if you were not selected on the cricket team for those “pick side 'gainst you” matches at my school you could play 'cashew and taw', 'police and tief', 'chase', or 'cowboy and Indians'. Cashew and taw was a marbles game peculiar only to those areas of Jamaica with cashew trees. We had cashews in abundance and the game was played with a dozen cashew seeds thrown into a ring, and a marble expertly flicked from your finger to remove the seeds from the ring one by one, in some spectacular cases two or even three at one time. The boy who took out the most seeds not only won but also kept the loot, piled into his pants pocket and stored until the roast took place. We roasted the victor's spoils after school by loading it unto an old grater, placing it on an open fire, and turning the seeds until they were parched and ready for a winner's consumption.

In the meantime, the girls played a hand baseball game which the boys sometimes interrupted and made an asses of themselves. The girls also played jacks and ring games while the boys ran madly up and down chasing each other in cowboy/Indian style learnt from the Saturday night western films shown at the school on Saturday evenings.

The fallen branch of a wild cherry tree was our Wells Fargo stagecoach and it was anything but easy to get it pass the Indians who were waiting in ambush under the logwood tree that shaded the outdoor school toilets.

It wasn't all playtime. Elementary school life in those days involved total respect for teachers and, in particular, the head teacher who never spared the rod nor spoilt the child. The leather strap was used liberally to beat, chastise, and to hasten knowledge into our tough “cocoa heads”. You learnt punctuality at an early age as Big Teacher was wont to stand at the gate at nine o'clock and drop two licks of the leather on any back arriving minutes after nine. The strap was also used in a vigorous and workmanlike manner during the dreaded arithmetic and mental English time, usually for a 10-minute period after lunch when the sixth class students lined up, answered questions fired in staccato style, with the licks quickly administered if anyone failed to answer correctly.

When I entered secondary school, by the scholarship and free place route, students with the elementary (now primary) background were on the average at the top of the stream and ahead of the average prep school entrant. Education was more rounded at the primary level as we did a wider range of subjects, as described above, read more frequently, and had been exposed to music, classical singing ( No place like home, Flow gently Sweet Afton, etc), gardening, sewing, art and craft on Friday mornings, and school gardening and sewing on Wednesday afternoons. The 4-H Club, the JAS meetings, the Savings Union, the Jamaica Welfare, village plays and concerts, and Sunday school, were an indelible part of school life.

Over the last two weeks I attended the education grantceremonies of both Alpart and Noranda. You could not help but come away impressed with the quality, the high achievement, the good manners, and the discipline displayed by the hundreds of award-winning primary school students about to enter the secondary stream. The secondary and tertiary levels will always need the broad shoulders of and solid foundation provided at the early childhood and primary education levels.

Lance Neita is a public and community relations consultant. Send comments to the Observer or

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