My family didn’t raise me to think or behave like a slave, but the ultimate reality was that we were all colonial “British subjects” in this territory, and most of us were not white. The fact of being non-white, or to be brutal, black, added a complication to the “subjects” mix, I guess, but I was still a child innocent to sociology and politics, more than sixty years ago, when I had an experience which, in retrospect, may have been a precursor of things to come.
I would have been maybe 8 or 9 years old and in Standard II or Standard III at Holy Redeemer Boys School (HRBS) on North Front Street. On beginning school at age 5, I had been a kind of sensation because the HRBS curriculum was very much reading-biased, as opposed to being technical, scientific, or vocational, and letters and reading were where my strengths lay. So they “skipped” me a couple times, early and quickly.
I really didn’t think of myself as different from the other students, because I went home across the Swing Bridge every weekday afternoon to normal Southside, middle class life. HRBS was a public school. The children of rich and white folk went to somewhere we at HRBS called “convent” – St. Catherine’s Elementary. And the “convent” boys were supposed to be the smartest of the smart.
Anyway, one day in class I’m sitting on a bench with a desk in front of me, two students to a bench and desk, in the extreme right row to the front of the class. The teacher was running a drill where she asked students to read something out loud, whereupon she would announce the grade she was giving. I wonder now, looking back, if she was a substitute teacher. I have no idea.
I became bored and said to the child sitting next to me, one Roy Campbell, that the HRBS principal, Sister Mary Xavier back then, had told me that if I saw anything in the class going incorrectly or inappropriately, to inform her. This was an a—hole comment, but it’s just between me and my benchmate, you understand. I must have been trying to impress him. The thing is, there is supposed to be loyalty between and among classmates, even more benchmates, but my benchmate, a tall, slim red-skinned child, immediately saw opportunity. I give him credit for that.
Staring at me, he said, “A gwine go tell teacher.”
Fear rose in me. “No du dat, main,” I pleaded.
He delivered an ultimatum: “A wan du it if yu no du mi homework.”
Trapped, I did his homework. He then went straight to the teacher and told her what I had told him.
A confident teacher would have surely laughed it off. But, this teacher must have been insecure. As I mentioned previously, I now wonder, looking back, if she was a substitute or something. She called me up in front of the class, and slapped me in front of my classmates. After that, she sent for the principal, Sister Xavier.
Soon, Sister Xavier came downstairs to the class, which was on the ground floor. I was still standing there in front, totally humiliated. Sister Xavier then asked me if she had told me any such thing as I had been reported to have told my benchmate. I, needless to say, replied in the negative. And that was basically the end of that.
I did not say anything to my parents when I went home. We had our schoolchildren’s code: “Tell tale tit, yu tongue shall split, and all di puppy dogs will have a little bit.” My benchmate had violated that code, cold, but perhaps he saw me as a stranger because of the aforementioned skipping of classes which had occurred in my case.
Belize is so small, you know, a close relative of that teacher became one of my best friends when I was a grown man and running the UBAD streets. He’s dead now (as I’m sure is she), and never knew this story.
About 6 or 7 years after this incident, a couple things happened while I was in high school at St. John’s College (SJC) which were perhaps also precursors of all the controversies which would begin surrounding me as a young man.
The trauma of being betrayed as a child by a classmate left an indelible scar on my psyche. I will say this, that Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo became one of my all-time favorite novels/movies. I’m sure my treacherous classmate, who soon disappeared from my life, saw it only as a joke. It may be that I simply ran into an exception to the rule of classmate loyalty, in which case we can call what happened to me, bad luck.
Those of you who know me, you may see me behave in a certain way and draw conclusions, but you don’t know my whole life story. All of us have different experiences. You may have been fortunate not to have suffered any such experiences in your innocent years. At the same time, some of us learn lessons earlier than others do. Most parents try to protect their children from certain experiences until we think they are old enough, hopefully, to handle those experiences.
We are seeing these days, whether we like it or not, that Belize has been producing child soldiers, just like in parts of Africa – children who kill in order to survive. There must have been experiences in these child murderers’ lives which made them into what they are, experiences far worse than the betrayal I have written about in this column today.
If you wonder why I waited six decades to tell you this story, I would say that experiences like these probably and properly should be the material of fiction. Through fiction, there are lessons you can teach without revealing identities and rupturing relationships. A creative writing career in little Belize was denied to me, so now I’m telling you a story I never would have wanted to tell in a column.
In closing, I want you to know that I can’t recall ever being so casually and cruelly betrayed again. But remember, you know, I would have become more careful. I would have learned a lesson. So then, if I don’t grin at every joke you tell me, be mindful of this: I’ve seen people grin who were bringing pain into my life. Do you get the sense?