I grew up in deep rural Jamaica. In my district none of the citizens owned a motor vehicle, and so we walked everywhere. At age four I walked almost a mile to basic school on dirt tracks and unpaved roads. Back then we took our own cooked lunches to school. Some students wore shoes while others just went barefoot. There was no sense of inadequacy or inferiority felt by those who were shoeless, and those who were fortunate enough to wear shoes did not feel as if they were better off. We learned and played together under the same sun, in the same schoolyard.
On the way home there was no fear of strangers, for every adult was an aunt or uncle, even if you were not really closely related. At age six I went to the elementary school, which involved a walk of two and a half miles one-way. This was not burdensome, as the church I attended shared the same compound, and I had been walking that distance even as a toddler.
Walking to school from home was an hour-long journey. School began at nine and ended at four. We had our two fifteen minutes recess breaks and a one-hour lunchtime. During the break we played ring games, jacks on the steps or atop the graves in the churchyard, and chased each other in the game called chevy chase. We were never bored, some game was always going; just singing and playing was fun. We would return to class feeling refreshed and ready to go again. The walk for me and my friends would find us counting lizards or catching them on the end of long grass stalks. We loved to climb sea grape trees and would run into the bushes to hunt for hog berries. Our childhood had few complications.
Our teachers were dignified. They spoke standard English flawlessly, since the patois had no place in school except for us on the playfield where we ran things. But even if our speech was permitted a few lapses, the written form of our English had to be textbook perfect. Composition, now termed creative writing, and letter writing were compulsory each day.
You were expected to write about personal experiences and you learnt to write friendly and business letters. Penmanship was as important as grammatically correct English. Up strokes light and down strokes thick, the cut of the ‘y’ and the foot the ‘g’ must be on the line. You could never spill the ink, which I remember was sold in a bottle marked Parker Ink. We did not use ball-point pens, you see.
No form of misconduct was tolerated. The thought of the strap and the cane kept us in line (I do not support this, but I had to live with it). Our teachers spent quality time with us, they encouraged us to read, encouraged us to speak as they did. We also had a school library, and when at last a branch library came to the village, the teachers would ask to see the books that were borrowed by each student.
It was from the branch library that I borrowed my first Nancy Drew novel, Clues in the Cobweb, which I read all night to the end. Immersed into the story I could not wait for the next Tuesday to see if there were others. The library opened on Tuesdays and Thursdays and we all thronged it on opening days. The librarian was a volunteer, Miss Constantine Blair, known simply as “Miss Cons”. When you returned the book Miss Cons would go through it page by excruciating page, making sure that you did not remove any pages, scribble, or deface it in any way.
In the lower classes you had only a reading book, your exercise books and pencils. Few of us possessed a dictionary. If you were a good reader you had to buy an additional book, which would be termed a Supplemtary Reader. The stories were about life, and they were humorous too. Who can forget Don Quixote, or the Monkey and the Alligator and the tricks of Brer Rabbit and so many others that dealt with values and attitudes. Each child would read individually instead of in a group, as this was designed to build confidence.
The students in the middle grades started using textbooks in preparation for external examinations. For English it was Nestfield English Grammar, Brighter Grammar series, and for more advanced usage Ratz Higher English. Our learning the English language was not left up to chance; grammar drills were essential. Arithmetic and Algebra were Baker and Bourne and Hall and Knight respectively. Geometry was introduced much later to the curriculum.
For Geography we used The World Geography and learned about the steppes of Russia and the Canadian prairies, trade routes of the world, rivers, mountains, valleys and plains. Then we had the West Indian Geography, which had the political and physical descriptions of every West Indian island, so we learnt about the Pitch Lake in Trinidad and the volcanic mountains of the other Caribbean Lands, the Orinoco River in Venezuela.
The World Atlas was our passport to information on the continents. At home it was pure fun to play “find the place” using the Atlas. Students in the upper classes stayed back for extra lessons, if you or your parents felt education was important.
Evening lessons saw us leaving school at six, long after the others had gone home. The group of students from my area walked together, unafraid. It would be dark before we arrived home, but our parents were not worried. Every village child was uder the care of the community, and we trusted the adults around us implicitly.
Of the group of students who were at school with me no one got pregnant while at school. Our education in such matters as sex was nil. Teachers were not armed with the information and neither were our parents, yet we did not experiment. Maybe that happened because we all felt that we belonged, were loved and were protected by all adults.
At school, singing was a critical part of our education. The Principal played the piano and taught singing. He also insisted that we learn at least ten poems for the academic year. I cannot forget poems such as If by Rudyard Kipling, Abou Ben Adem (may his tribe increase), Ode to a Skylark, Lovely Dainty Spanish Needle, Flame Heart. We have summer nor winter, neither autumn nor spring… and many more.
Memory gems were essential to instill values, and some Psalms would be thrown in for choral speaking. Devotions were compulsory and we learnt the hymns though we had no school hymnals. On Friday morning devotions were special, it was time for choruses, and we got to choose. You had to learn a Bible verse (a new one each week), and you also had to say where in the Bible it was found.
As we became teenagers our pride and joy was keeping our clothes clean. Uniform materials were made from pure cotton fabric. If we could keep our white blouses clean for four days that was the source of our pride. If we could sit on our pleats for the entire day without crushing them, that was excellent. The aim was to return home looking exactly as we did when we left. If we could make crocheted doilies, make pantry towels, sew our own uniforms, launder them, keep our shoes clean and hair neat we felt great. If we studied and achieved everyone was happy.
We made sure that we behaved ourselves and worked hard to avoid the strap. If you got corporal punishment at school for work you wouldn’t dare tell your parents, worse if it was for misconduct. The entire village was in charge of our conduct, so stepping out of line was not an option, for your parents were sure to be informed. You could not afford to embarrass your parents, and if you tripped, the punishment would be swift, sure and severe. For those of us who received corporal punishment, I can’t say that it damaged any of us. It is just that over the years I have found other ways to instill discipline. To say we were damaged emotionally I really do not think so.
We wanted to succeed; we were motivated by parents, community and by our own desire to do something constructive with our lives. We did not have many creature comforts, but the word bored was not in our repertoire. To this day I do not know what it is to be bored. These young people today have so much, yet they are always complaining of boredom.
In my opinion it is a multiplicity of issues that push people into barbaric behaviours. Personality, genes and environment make a deadly cocktail if they are all negative. It is a complex problem, with no easy answers. All I can say is if you look at a classroom where students knows the rules, where the teacher has high expectations for the students, where the students respect the rules and know the consequences if they deviate, if they know that the rules and consequences apply to everyone, that no child in the class are treated differently, where building self-worth and esteem is for all students, where everyone is commended for good work, where the student is not blamed while innocent, where all books are marked, where there is no putdown or dissing, where students are kept on task, the students will learn, and much of their motivation will come from within.
Not everyone will achieve at the same rate but everyone can feel a sense of achievement. That is how citizens in a country need to feel. How many of them feel a sense of justice today?