From British Honduras to Belize: one family’s drama – a novel written by the late Chrystel Lynwood Hyde Straughan
In October of 1962 an incident had occurred which had started my friend Lucille’s daughter, Jewel, then fourteen years old, on the road which would bring her to the capital the following year to start nursing training.
In September of 1960 she had entered Standard Six at age 12, completing her primary school education by June 1961, before her thirteenth birthday on August 14th that year, sharing the same birth date with my Victor. There being no secondary school in the district yet, she had gone back to primary school and spent another year, there being rumours that the Roman Catholics would soon be opening one, and Lucille and Abelino wanting to “keep her brain active” until then, as they put it. When the promised opening had not come off, however, she had started a third year in Standard Six, taking some extra studies with the class teacher, Mrs. Lynch, and helping with the little ones when she was occupied with her regular class.
As the school year had been changed by then to open in late August and go through to the end of June, an inspection of Anglican Primary, as it was called, had been scheduled for the first Friday in October 1962.
I should explain that being so far from the capital, and having to move staff long distances, for overnight sometimes, to conduct these inspections, the Education Department had made a decision to schedule groups of schools in the same area for one day, in the interest of saving time and money. It sometimes happened that the timetables for these visits had to be adjusted to suit the sizes of the schools and their distances from each other, as well as flexible enough to allow for contingencies such as bad weather, etc.
In the particular case of the school that Jewel attended, the visit from the Inspector was to take place at 1.00 p.m., when classes convened after the lunch hour. The school not having an auditorium, the students had to assemble in the open area in front of the building; and when the Inspector was late in arriving, they had become restless standing in the hot sun right after the mid-day meal. Some of them started to complain of the discomforts, and one particularly troublesome girl declared that this was foolishness and why did they have to put up with it? Turning to Jewel, she had asked her opinion but, operating under Lucille’s injunction not to indulge in complaining, she had replied only that she was sorry for the little ones in her care who were sweating in the heat.
While the students awaited the Inspector, the Standard Six teacher was taking care of some last minute business inside the classroom. The bigger girls, in their impatience, were moving in and out of the room while Jewel tried to keep the little ones in order outside.
Suddenly Mrs. Lynch had appeared outside, strap in hand, and accosted Jewel with the enquiry: “So, Miss Jewel, you think it is foolishness for us to have the little children standing in the sun, do you? You have a better idea, since you are such an authority on what is right and proper? Well, let me tell you something: you are not to decide how the school authorities should conduct their business and today you will learn a lesson not to interfere in grown-ups’ affairs! Hold out your hand!”
Lucille, who had given me the report on this episode, said that her first reaction to the news of what had happened had been such anger that she felt she could have killed Mrs. Lynch on the spot! “Do you know that ignorant woman had the gall to shame my child in front of the whole school assembled? And what hurt me more than anything else,” she had added, “was that the child was innocent!”
The story was that the girl who had started the complaining had lied to the teacher that Jewel had made the comment, cleverly including her sympathetic remark about the little ones as part of the statement. Lucille learnt from Jewel that she had become so frightened that she couldn’t even answer when the teacher had challenged her. Seeing the expression on the face of the girl responsible for the ugly scene had filled her with hatred momentarily; but remembering her parents’ teaching not to hate people but to think of them as sick when they harmed you, had brought to mind something that had happened to Kiah recently, who had become sick after gobbling a quart of May plums (the red juicy kind with worms sometimes) and had spent hours in the latrine right afterwards.
The threatened humiliation combined with her nervous state had made her hysterical and she could not stop herself from laughing on remembering the sight of her brother after his ordeal; and as the teacher was about to inflict the first cut she had pulled her hand away to cover her mouth in an attempt to stop the laughter. This had resulted in the teacher hitting herself on the thigh and, becoming enraged, striking out wildly, while Jewel’s laughter had bubbled up out of control and she had slipped to the ground in a heap still laughing.
Just then Miss Diego, the Principal, had appeared on the scene and, seeing Jewel’s condition, had crouched on the ground next to her and slapped her sharply on the face several times, which had had the effect of cutting short the hysteria; and she had opened her eyes and looked around in surprise to find herself on the ground. The Principal had helped her up and guided her to the office, tidying her clothes in the meantime.
Lucille, who had covered the two miles from home in record time when a student had raced to her house to alert her to what was happening to her daughter, had appeared in the doorway of the Principal’s office demanding to know what was going on. Miss Diego had related what she knew about the incident and sent for Mrs. Lynch to fill out the story.
When Lucille had heard everything, including the part played by the mischievous girl, she had admitted tearing into Mrs. Lynch. “I asked her,” she had said, “if it had not been part of her training as a teacher that she should investigate hearsay before she had presumed to take the kind of action to humiliate my child? If she did not know, from her record, that from the time Jewel started that school she had never been punished for any reason, because of her good behaviour? If she had not known her to be a model student who arrived at school on time every day, did all her school work, showed respect to her teachers and was helpful to everybody? Yet she had preferred to take the word of a troublemaker against my daughter’s?”
Mrs. Lynch had not been able to say a word, Lucille had said, while Jewel had just kept pleading with her to let them go home; so she had collected all five of the children and left the school. On the way they had met Abel coming towards them, the news having reached him way at Mile 7, an indication of how fast bad news had travelled, and they had all walked home together.
She had been so upset by what had happened that she could not stop talking about it all the time they had eaten dinner; and had stroked and hugged Jewel on and off. When they had gone to bed finally, she had not been able to fall asleep for a long time, tossing and turning while Abel rubbed her head and tried to comfort her.
That Saturday had been a gloomy one for the whole family, although they had all completed their tasks and gone to bed early; and on Sunday as they had walked to church together the state of gloom had persisted, although Abel had tried his best to lighten the mood with cheerful conversation and urging them to be good Christians in the face of adversity. What had finally broken the spell had been the words of the popular opening hymn for the service, the music of which had swelled out as soon as they had been seated.
“All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small
All things wise and wonderful
The Lord God made them all, etc. etc.”
October was Harvest month on the church calendar and although their parish was not yet having its celebration, the music had been a tune-up for the season. And who, but Mrs. Lynch, had been the accompanist at the organ?
No persons calling themselves Christian could continue to harbour ill feelings to anyone in that congregation after a start like that to the day! Certainly not Abelino Choc’s wife and children! And after the service and Mrs. Lynch had come over and hugged Jewel and apologized to her, the family mood had been changed radically.
When they had got home, Lucille had recalled the story her friend Virginia Holder had related to her, of how on one occasion she had been implicated in a “confusion” for giving her frank opinion at the invitation of a mischief-maker, in an experience similar to Jewel’s. At that time her stepmother had quoted the Spanish advice to, “oi, ver, y callar” (rough translation: hear, see and keep your mouth closed) in such situations. She had said that you could make sympathetic sounds, like “mmhn!”, or ask neutral questions like “true?”; “you’re sure?”; or “you think so?” but never anything that could be quoted. It was advice that Jewel never forgot!
After this episode Lucille had agreed with Abel’s recommendation to forget what had happened and let Jewel continue school until the Christmas break, then try Nurse Pauline’s idea of her observing her work at the clinic to see if she might like nursing, so this is what they had done.
Nurse Pauline, as mentioned before, was a very progressive type of person and, finding in Jewel a natural for the profession of nursing, being very caring, concerned, responsible, eager to learn and hard-working, had embarked on a campaign to see that such valuable potential was given the opportunity to develop.
Aware that one of the entry requirements to the Nursing School was a high school education, she had persuaded Mrs. Lynch to continue the extra classes she had been giving Jewel after school closed each evening, ending her sessions at the clinic before four o’clock so she could take advantage of this opportunity.
Jewel had blossomed under this programme, and by June 1963 had covered enough ground to satisfy Nurse Pauline that she was ready for the next step in her plan, for which she started to lay the groundwork. Firstly, she had approached Miss Millicent and enlisted her sympathy to the idea that it would be unfair to deprive a potential nursing trainee of opportunity due to lack of a formal high school education, especially when nurses were in such high demand everywhere, particularly in the outdistricts; and, having received a positive response from her, she had sounded her out on the possibility of seeking her nephew’s reaction to such an idea when he made one of his periodic visits to her.
Knowing his aunt was not the type to ask idle questions, Jerome’s response to Miss Millicent’s tentative enquiry had been to ask whether she had anyone in mind, when she had introduced the topic into conversation as they were eating supper one Saturday evening a few weeks later. Her reply that the candidate was Lucille and Abelino Choc’s daughter had been received with some amusement by Jerome, who had remembered an incident some years before when she had been nearly seven.
He had spent a short time with his aunt before leaving for the U.K. on the final part of his studies, and had been relaxing, book in hand, in a hammock on the veranda near the back entrance when, he remembered, the “child” had come and knocked quietly. Leaning over, he had told her she would need to knock harder if she wanted to be heard, but just then his aunt had appeared and told Jewel to follow her to the shed. He had intervened and asked if he could help and, accepting his offer, his aunt had asked him to deliver a dozen coconuts from the shed to the little girl.
Asking her in what she would carry the nuts when they had reached the shed, she had raised her hand holding a crocus sack; and when he had told her it would be too heavy for her to carry, she had answered that her little brother was outside the gate with a little wagon on which they would place the sack and help each other to balance the load as they pulled it home.
He had proposed removing the husks from the coconuts and lending her a metal basket on wheels to carry them home considerably lightened; but Jewel had explained that her mother needed the husks to use as fuel for baking, so it was agreed that they could be tied up in the crocus sack and carried on the small wagon they had brought with them while she pulled the wire cart with the heavier nuts.
As soon as he had removed the husk from the first coconut, Jewel had offered to take over and do the rest, but he had told her she wasn’t strong enough to do it. She had assured him that she only looked weak, but could do a lot of things, so with a faint smile he had crossed his arm and invited her to go ahead. He had watched as she had struggled to live up to her claim until, realizing she had reached her limit, he had taken over and suggested she try again when she was older and heavier!
Slightly curious about how she had turned out, besides having confidence in Nurse Pauline’s opinion, he had decided to make a case to the Chief Medical Officer to give her a try and, thus, Jewel had reported for training on September 1st, 1963, approximately two weeks after her fifteenth birthday.
Lucille told me how Abel had withdrawn enough from their savings to send Jewel properly equipped, buying her a wrist watch, raincoat with hood, rubber boots, sturdy umbrella, overnight kit and whatever they thought she would need to function efficiently in all kinds of weather. They had counselled her to be brave, to do her best and remember to put God first in her life. If she wasn’t happy and wanted to come back home at any time, the door would be wide open to receive her. They loved her and would miss her; she mustn’t forget them, and should write and let them know how she was doing.
Lucille had sent Jewel with a note asking me to please keep an eye on her, and when Jewel came to see me she looked just as I had expected from Lucille’s first description of her “treasure.” Her rich dark complexion was smooth and warm, her features a softer version of Neville Enright’s handsome face, with the heavy, black, glossy eyebrows and eyelids Lucille had described, the deep-set dark eyes, and the slight, close-mouthed smile at the corner of her lips. Her well-shaped head was framed by the low Afro I had heard about from Pauline, who had been instrumental in arranging for its cut.
When Jewel had been about ten years old there had been an infestation of lice in the lower classes at school, in which the three younger children had been “caught.” They had hair like their father, hanging straight down “like a waterfall,” according to Gertrude Atkins, about whom you will hear more later, a type that was particularly susceptible to lice. After Lucille had tried all manner of applications of herbs and remedies to rid the children of the scourge, the insects having been transferred to the other two, she had taken her scissors and cut off all their hair.
With the boys, extra short hair until they got rid of the lice had not been a problem; but with the girls, Lucille had had a headache to keep their hair neat. Her solution had been to make them wear bandeaus until the hair grew back. Jewel had suffered the most once her beautiful plaits had been cut off, as Lucille had not known how to plait corn rows and, being negroid, her hair had been puffed over her head.
Pauline said she had been unable to help poor little Safira with her straight hair, but having spent time in the United States she had seen barbers there shape and pat down African hair to make it attractive, so she had asked Lucille to allow her to deal with Jewel. She had stood next to the chair as the barber worked, supervising and instructing him what to do; and when he was finished the improvement had been so marked that she had given him a tip and praised him highly and he had later become popular when the Afro style had reached the town.
Jewel had been everything I had expected, and more. With her superiors she was respectful, willing and cooperative; with fellow-students and co-workers she was good-natured and helpful; in the wards she was hard-working, attentive and dependable; with the patients she was caring and painstaking. Nothing was too much trouble for her to attempt when it came to the smooth running of the ward, and if she promised to do something it was as good as done. Those tutoring the formal classes found her enthusiastic, industrious and eager to learn.
Both Lucille and Abelino gave each other credit for how she had turned out, but I think she reflected the best of both very talented parents.
With all her sterling qualities, she was humble and shy, and some of her contemporaries were not above taking advantage of her good nature. This was especially true of Gertrude Atkins, Nurse Pauline’s niece, whose nickname said it all. They called her “Moutamacy,” derived from “Mouth have mercy,” as she was not afraid to express her opinion on any subject, whether it be the government, the hospital administration, the doctors, the food, her superiors, the patients, her colleagues, or what-have-you.
Jewel became one of her targets, being unsophisticated, easy-going, and a favourite of her Aunt Pauline, with whom her family, especially her mother, had been in a strained relationship.Gertrude’s mother had been an apprentice seamstress with her grandmother who, before she had been pronounced ready by her, had branched out on her own and tried to lure customers away from her mentor by undercharging for her work. Besides not being up to Mrs. Atkins’ standard as regards sewing, she had become mischievous and started flirting with both her sons and creating conflict between them.
The elder, Rudolph, seemed to have won out, but before anyone knew what was happening she had become pregnant for the younger brother, Clive, who had married her and taken her to live in the capital. In reaction to the double betrayal, Rudolph had left the farm where he had been working with his father and gone to live in the United States with his uncle. One outcome to that episode had been that his uncle had paid for him to attend agricultural school; and, after graduation, they had successfully farmed a large acreage together there in the United States.
Mr. and Mrs. Atkins, who had been such loving and nurturing parents to their four children, had suddenly been left with only two, for Clive never returned to the district and Rudolph stayed in the United States.
The union of Clive and Denise Atkins had produced four children: first a girl, Louise; two boys, Herbert and Dennis; then Gertrude, the youngest; but they had had a rocky life together, Denise being an immature, party-going type, who took in sewing and spent her income on dressing up and going out dancing regularly.
Clive, coming from a more structured background, had been unable to cope with his wife’s unruly behaviour, and kept away from home, only supporting it financially and paying slight attention to the children. As soon as she was old enough, the eldest girl had become pregnant for a mechanic, who had joined the household, and with whom she had had two sons.
With the minimum of supervision, the children had all gone their own way, while Clive came home only to clean up and have his meals, insisting that Louise prepare them and clean the house or get out. He had warned his two sons that if they got any girl pregnant they could not bring them home, and would also have to leave.
Growing up in such an environment it had not been surprising that Gertrude had become a “bembe” (pugnacious and cantankerous person) in order to survive; and while Nurse Pauline had not been able to ease her home life, she had taken an interest in her niece and encouraged her to go into the nursing profession while she was living in the capital. Besides this, Gertrude was a creative and gifted seamstress like her grandmother, and took in sewing as a source of a second income.
(Chapter 24 in next Tuesday’s Amandala.)