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Home Features From British Honduras to Belize: one family’s drama

From British Honduras to Belize: one family’s drama

a novel written by the late Chrystel Lynwood Hyde Straughan

Chapter 2 – Earl Braddick’s defiance

When Teacher Bertram no longer had to support his first wife, the surplus from household expenses of his new family was invested in land, which was comparatively cheap and plentiful at the time; and on this land he had had free rein to experiment with rice and other crops.  It was then that his knowledge and experience in farming came to the fore; and he went about his avocation with such confidence and authority, not to mention success, that most of the townspeople‘s admiration for him increased even more.  I am sorry to say, however, that there were many who looked on with envy at his progress and, from among these, fresh rumours about him had surfaced to the effect that he was a “farm boy” in his home country, a description intended to belittle his status.

Because our economy in British Honduras, such as it was at that time, centred on forestry and logging, farming was only pursued by a small part of the population and mostly at a subsistence level.  Agriculture only emerged slowly as a serious occupation, after having been discouraged for over a century by the conditions under which our forefathers occupied the territory, and a farming tradition did not exist here.  Also, a kind of snobbery passed down from the logging elite could be detected in the attitude of those in the industry at even the lowest levels.  There was condescension, therefore, in the use of the term “farm boy.”

In time, however, Teacher Bertram changed that attitude radically with his accomplishments in farm production, mainly with rice, beans and corn, three of the staples in the local diet.  Along with two ‘nother-country men, Harold and Beresford Atkins, who came here from Jamaica some years after his arrival, they began to produce the staples, plus other items like plantains and vegetables, in respectable quantities, which had aroused the interest of others, and farming in the area took some steps forward.

Nurse Pauline, a major character in this story and the daughter of Harold Atkins, often observed how our people were “follow-foot” in cases of successful undertakings. “If you make bread for sale and you make a little progress, everybody will start to make bread for sale, too!  They too ‘run-gains!’ They will never try something new!”

The use of that word, derived from the idea of running against someone in a race and crowding him from moving forward, explains the attitude of those afraid to venture but willing to benefit from the example of success.  When she says this, I tell her about being too hard on people.  After all, if you are living from hand to mouth, as they say, you don’t have the resources to conduct tests and experiments, I argue.  We discussed this with her because she is what Mama calls a “go-getter,”’ who is always urging people to take action, and she, being fair-minded and generous, conceded that I had a valid point.

But, to get back to the subject, with increased means resulting from his farm profits Teacher Bertram purchased a few acres just outside the town limits and started the construction of a home.  The townspeople, used to expecting the extraordinary from that gentleman, had not been disappointed; and they watched with awe and/or envy as the building slowly took shape.  It had two stories, the first floor being two feet off the ground with verandas in front and one side at the lower level.  Siding was not horizontal but vertical, and not overlapping but square-edged.  Each length of siding was a foot wide, covered by three-inch wide strips where they abutted.  The verandas were eight feet wide, and the flooring inside and out ten inches wide.  All the outside walls were finished with a wood sealer, the window sills, doorways and trimming painted white, as also were the windows, blinds and doors.  The veranda flooring was painted what the manufacturer called “battleship grey,” maintained throughout the years by the same colour and brand.  All in all, the whole exterior of the building was different from anything with which the inhabitants of the town were familiar.

The interior walls were originally painted a dull, reportedly mosquito-repellent yellow, I was told.  The rooms were all very spacious.  The front door opened into a hall, at the mid-point of which was a staircase leading to the upstairs, consisting mostly of bedrooms and baths.  A door off the hall to the right led to a large parlour separated by a wall up to the ceiling from the dining-room next door and, to the left, was the study-cum-library.  It was said that when the house was first built the grounds did not match its grandeur, being bare except for a few tall coconut trees; but when I first saw the property many years later, this had changed: a beautiful but informal tropical garden having been installed by then which had made the structure truly impressive.  By this time, however, the outside walls had been allowed to weather to an ashy grey which had detracted somewhat from its appearance.

Matron said that the living and dining-room furniture was in what is called “figured” mahogany and built by the well-known poet and patriot, James Sullivan Martinez; and that many of the furnishings and equipment for the rest of house had been purchased by mail order from the United Kingdom and selected by one person alone, her father, and that no one else had had any say – not even the lady of the house.  Whatever her father did or said, was accepted unconditionally by her mother, and never was there a dissenting opinion about anything her father decided coming from her.  “And this,” she asserted, “was why I was forced to rebel!   People criticized me for being too presumptuous, but I felt that nobody should be allowed to have his way about everything!  What about the rest of us?”

She admitted to Mama that life in that house became so oppressive that when she reached her teens she found herself searching for ways to frustrate and annoy her father for no particular reason, even when the result was punishment, mostly for herself, Millicent being always respectful and cooperative.  “She and I did most of the housework, under my mother’s supervision, and when we interacted with the other children at school we would hear stories about their lives and could not help but realize how different and terrible ours was in comparison,” she said. “On the other hand, our fellow students believed that life for us was a bed of roses, living in that large and spacious house with the teacher who knew all the answers, having our own bedrooms, and never being punished by the assistant teacher.  They never had the chance to find out otherwise, since our association ended at the school gate and no one was ever invited to our home.”

Sometimes when Matron and Mama were conversing I would make sure that I found some activity nearby so I could hear about her experiences.  My mother would chase me away to do some chore, but Matron would indulge me if she was in a good mood.

I remember the story about a young teacher-trainee of her father’s, named Earl Braddick, particularly because he became somewhat of a hero later in life in connection with an incident involving one of his sons.

She related how her father had the practice of giving tests on Fridays: maybe ten Arithmetic sums or ten English Language questions.  He would correct the papers when the students were at recess and on their return to the classroom would announce the names of those who had more than five wrong answers and line them up for lashing, one cut for each wrong answer.

The school’s “prize boy,” this Earl Braddick, had spent two years in Standard Six and was receiving extra classes from Mr. Bertram.  He was the eldest in his family and attended school only two days per week on Thursdays and Fridays.  On the other days he worked in Mr. Allen’s grocery shop as helper and was called his “pend-upon” by his employer, as he could always depend upon him to help in solving any problems which arose.  He was a kind-hearted, good-natured fellow who would sometimes be assigned duties to help in the teaching of the lower standards.

In those days there was no formal teacher-training programme in the districts, and it seems that Mr. Bertram was preparing young Braddick for some kind of scholarship test case.  Being a very sympathetic person who was often distressed by the lashings he saw taking place, Braddick had shaken his head when they began one Friday and was overheard by Teacher Bertram murmuring: “This is not necessary.”  Challenged by the teacher, Earl had expressed the opinion that he didn’t think that lashing helped anybody to learn, at which Mr. Bertram had declared: “Well, this is my method and since you dare to voice disagreement, you will have to face the consequences.  Drop your pants!”  This was the dreaded order given to male students daring to flout the teacher’s authority.

Young boys of that class in those days wore no underpants, so this meant the baring of buttocks after shedding the trousers, while two classmates stepped forward to hold the victim’s hands still after the unfortunate fellow was stretched over a desk.  The sash cord-wielding teacher then positioned himself to apply the strokes most effectively.  Besides being physically painful and humiliating for the subject, it served to discourage similar insubordination from the rest of the class witnessing this show.

On this occasion, however, Mr. Earl Braddick decided that at fifteen he was too old for that kind of treatment, and calmly took off his shirt, shrugged off the two boys coming forward to hold him down and, walking over to the blackboard, lifted his hands and hooked them over the top.  Speaking to Matron’s father over his shoulder, he had said:  “Anytime you are ready, Sir.”

The class only heard the sound of the sash cord strokes as they landed on his back:  ten of them.  Everybody looked down or away while the lashing went on, refusing to be witnesses to his humiliation.  They only raised their eyes and followed his movements as he put on his shirt, walked to his seat, took two textbooks from his bag and walked back to Matron’s father, handed the books to him and said quietly: “Thank you, Teacher Bertram, for the teaching you gave me so far, but I can’t learn anything more from somebody like you.”  Walking back to his desk he had picked up his bag, slung it over his shoulder, and left the classroom for the last time.

“Our eyes followed him in open and daring admiration as he walked off the grounds and closed the gate behind him carefully,” Matron had said.

“There was no more lashing for that day, and, after sending those lined up to their seats and going over the questions with the class, correcting any mistakes, my father had led us in the closing prayer, picked up his briefcase, and walked out the room.  He stood outside waiting for Millicent and me, while the monitors put away the classroom equipment, locked up the cupboards, closed the classroom and took the keys to him.”

“That act of bravery and defiance inspired such admiration and hope in me that there was a definite bounce in my walk as Millicent and I followed my father home that evening,” Matron had said, and told Mama that after witnessing that incident a reckless craving for revenge had taken possession of her; and all during the following week she found herself dreaming up scenes that would antagonize, challenge or annoy her father.  She figured that she was probably overdue for punishment from him anyway, so it was exciting to think of deliberately provoking it; and when nothing happened by the next Friday she decided to take the fight to him.

When that day’s test was handed out, comprised of, for her, ten easy Arithmetic problems, she had pulled her exercise book to her and in her best penmanship deliberately wrote out the first, skipped two lines, then wrote the answer as “10” without showing any working.  This was followed by the second problem, with the same procedure, the answer shown this time as “9,” and so on, right through to the end.  She had then closed the exercise book to indicate she had completed the assignment, and raised her hand to show that her work was ready for collection.

With a surprised expression that she had finished so soon her father had walked over to her desk with a questioning look.  Receiving only a blank stare in reply, he had taken the book, returned to his table, placed it there and seated himself.  After a while, folding his arms and glancing around casually, his eyes had fallen on her again and she had worn the same expression as before.

Eventually the whole class had finished, the students had filed past the teacher’s table leaving their books and gone out to recess.  On return to the classroom, however, they had been greeted with a new system of correcting the work.  Teacher Bertram selected students who had given correct answers to each of the problems and called them to show on the blackboard how they had arrived at those answers.  Naturally Octavia had not had a turn at the board.  Thus her father maintained the upper hand while, at the same time, raising doubts as to his daughter’s ability in the minds of her classmates since she had not been called to the board even once.  It had not ended there.  He had kept her in suspense for several days as to when and how severe the punishment would be!

When punishment did come, it was radically different from anything that was expected.  She would be demoted to a lower class for one term until her work improved, he said, and, if her work did not improve, she would remain there for the whole year!  This meant that she would be only one class above her sister while being two years her senior!!

When she had related that story to my mother, Matron’s comment had been that for the first time in her life her father had given a punishment that did not involve bodily hurt. “If only this method had been adopted long ago life could have been so different!” she had said.  And Earl Braddick had made his point after all, that lashing did not help anybody to learn!

(Chapter 3 in next Friday’s issue.)

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