Bill Cosby, the American entertainer, once famously quipped, “I started out as a child!”
To paraphrase, and on a more serious plane, I was forced to start out as a teacher. My high school principal denied my request for a recommendation, required for employment with the government; because, he said, I didn’t qualify for work in what was then (1957) the colonial civil service. So, no politics there. I took his suggestion and got a teaching job! (Occasionally I remember to thank him, posthumously.)
In 1960 I was one of 2 teachers at a primary school in Mullins River. Enrollment 52. The roads were mere footpaths, and I saw paraffin street lamps for the first time. No paraffin, of course. Getting to the village was by coastal lighter service, and it was on those 6-hour (if the wind was good) voyages that I learned about a seaman’s life and language. The Education Department on one occasion notified us of a visit set for 7:00 p.m. on a Saturday night. We advised them that it would be too late, as folks retired early. They stuck to their schedule, as did the villagers!
The following year, I was back in Belize City, ahead of Hurricane Hattie, which razed Mullins River and devastated the villages of Hopkins and Sittee River. Silkgrass village was carved out of a savannah to house the newly homeless refugees from Hopkins and Sittee River. Our school management tapped me to go to Silkgrass as the lone teacher, but the school building wasn’t ready, so I taught for a while in the Dangriga branch.
I visited Silkgrass to check on the progress of the building, get a feel for what the village was like, and be shown my residence. The streets, streetlights and a water system were a huge step up from the Mullins River jaunt. Silkgrass, from which the village gets its name, is a tall plume grass which ripples with the merest wind, like a wave rushing shoreward.
My residence was a small sand-blasted, one-bedroom wooden structure.
The folks from Hopkins were resolute Catholics, while those from Sittee River were devout Methodists. Neither wanted an ecumenical schoolhouse (which had to double as chapel on Sundays), so the government, sensible to religious sentiment, erected an “L”-shaped building: Catholics at the top, Methodists at the bottom. A solid ceiling-high partition separated the two sections and the verandah. My school started with 27 pupils, Std.1 through Std. 6!
This narrative is from a time long gone. Times have changed since then: teachers are now unionized, carry government I.D.’s and earn points for C.E.D. I often wonder whether I would do it again. Maybe not, but I would encourage others who aspire to a lifelong career in teaching to try out a village school in the process.
In the years I taught primary school, the teacher and his community were close. I got the opportunity to live in their world—not just be a name on a report card. Knowing people, their livelihoods, their relationships, and the values they cherished was priceless.
At the classroom level I learned:
• Even in small classes there is always the average child—in skills, intelligence, behavior, perspective, perception and numbers.
• From those classrooms I learned to look out for that center lode and made it my pupil-rating plumb bob. It helped me to be more empathetic, less impatient and less partial.
No pupil ever admitted to being dull, stupid, or lazy—not in city schools, nor in their village counterparts. Those administrative labels smother a healthy teacher/pupil accord.
• As with teachers everywhere, a bond developed between me and my pupils. The quality of that relationship depended on which side of the plum bob they belonged: to the right (above average) —tenuous; to the left (below average) —strong;
• Teachers as a consequence, do miss their children if separated from them for long periods. On this World Teachers’ Day, then, I commiserate with those who can now only relate electronically with their students in this COVID-19 crisis.
I remained in Silkgrass for 2 years. When the light plant was shut off at 10:00 p.m., the village became a graveyard, but for the occasional barking dog, and the soughing silkgrass. Boredom drove me to distance learning and kerosene lamps. After 2 years, I went back to Belize City to high school teaching, teachers’ college and university. Somewhere in my psyche I felt I had finally earned that high school recommendation.