Back in the day, Boys Grammar School, later renamed The St. Vincent Grammar School, was THE school. It was the school that prestigious people attended. The Governor, Prime Minister, top doctors and outstanding athletes, you name them, they went there, and to attend the same school as they did was indeed an honor, at least in my books.
My first day of school, I was so caught up in the atmosphere of just being there that I hardly noticed the pain in my head as it succumbed to being slapped by the ‘old boys’ as part of the school’s hazing. “Are you a new boy?” I was asked again and again. To my ‘yes’ reply, I was tapped upside the head. (they called it tapping but it felt less like a tap and more like a hard slap). Once I tried saying no in the hopes that I could fool them into thinking I was not a newbie. Smack! “Don’t lie to us!” I didn’t have to be told twice. I took my tapping like a man. A small price to pay to be attending the Boys Grammar School. (Tapping was banned soon after, so unfortunately, I never had my chance to be a tapper).
My first year was a blur. I strutted around downtown in my khaki uniform like a soldier on parade. My skinny legs with knobby knees jutting out of my shorts were nothing to be proud of but I didn’t care. In a couple of years they would be covered with long pants. I could wait.
I had to repeat first Form! Yes I did. I admit, I was a country boy attending the top school and in town to boot! I was like a kid in a candy store. I explored downtown, I learned and mastered the pool game, I hung out at the library, for the wrong reasons of course, I followed my hard-assed town friends and stole books from our favorite bookstore. (More on that later). I knew where all the cool bars and hangouts were. Ras Ital, then the most prominent Rastaman on the island, was a popular eating place. We ate Ital food,(Rasta veggie dish), played pool and enjoyed the sweet smell of ganja on our lunch breaks. Pulsating reggae music and darkened room completed the experience. So you see, there was just no room for studying. Oh, the dark room also made it so relaxing that we were late getting back from lunches.
Boys Grammar School as the name suggests, was an all boys’ school. Other than having English as part of its curriculum, it had nothing to do with Grammar. I was never sure why the ‘Grammar’ but I think it was an English thing since I’ve seen a lot of schools in England with the ‘Grammar’ in their names. The fact that our school system was based on the English system may confirm this.
Coincidentally, conveniently and ironically, the Girls High School, which is also the sister school to Grammar School, was next to us. Just a wire fence prevented us from trespassing. Many an hour was wasted just looking through the fence to catch a glimpse of some uniformed lass walking around the compound. The girls were not oblivious to our longing stares and most of the time, responded in kind. We were warned never to trespass or encroach. Tantalized from a distance. So close and yet so far…We could almost smell their perfume.
So like I said, I failed my first year and had to stay back while watching my classmates advance. Well some of them at least. A few proved their loyalty by also failing and staying back with me. Looking on the bright side, I gained some new lifelong friends from the new batch of boys.
I vowed to pull up my socks from then on. (No pun) I still strutted around downtown and engaged in non-scholastic activities but I also started making time for homework and curricular activities. (I still hated anything to do with numbers so math homework was out).
By that time, I also had my first crush. I bet you are thinking that my town-boy-smarter-than-country-boy friends taught me a way to sneak over to the GHS (Girls’ High School) without being caught. No, I had a crush on my English teacher! She was no ordinary teacher. She was THE English teacher. Freshly graduated from GHS herself, where her mom was the headmistress no less. She came from a well-known and prestigious family. I was out of her league but at my age, leagues didn’t exist and crushes knew no boundaries. So me being a poor country boy and all was no deterrent.
My teacher was a fine specimen to my virgin eyes that had no clue what a fine specimen was. She should have been an art teacher as everything she said was art to me. I hung on to her every word. Most kids my age looked forward to weekends, not me. They were not welcomed as they meant two whole days of not seeing Miss A. Coincidentally, English was also my favorite subject so I just could not get enough of it.
My obsession manifested itself in my English essays. I always found a way to incorporate Andrea into my stories, so much so that she called me to her office one day to discuss this. I was ecstatic! I finally was going to have some alone time with her, one on one!. She asked me why I wrote the way I did. I stood there like a deer in headlights. I was speechless. I couldn’t muster a word to save myself. Yeah, me, the wordy guy who couldn’t shut up if paid to do so, was speechless standing in front of my crush. How embarrassing. She took me out of my misery by telling me not to worry and explained that it was just a phase and I will be fine. Then she dismissed me. Just like that. Our first time alone and I didn’t take the chance to profess my feelings for her. I don’t think I ever said bye.
She was right. After a while, without fuel, my phase did disappear and I was able to lead a normal English teacher-obsession-free life. I still think she was a fine specimen though.
My proudest moment came when I finally got my chance to be a ‘big boy’. I was in long pants! Complete with tie and jacket with school crest on the pocket (Worn on first and last days of school). If you thought I strutted before, then you should have seen me then. I made sure to get full value out of my new uniform. I paraded it around town like a wandering street model. Jacket over my arm, then over the shoulder, buttoned and unbuttoned, I tried every look and style. At assemblies, I made sure everyone got a glimpse of me as I hollered to the strains of our school song ‘Per aspera ad astra’. I wish I could have bottled that experience.
Caning was the punishment administered at that time, cruel and unusual if you ask me. The head teacher would get you to stand facing backwards against a chair with your backside presenting a nice target to him. He would then whack your offered rear end with a cane. We called it ‘twack’ and I got twacked once. Three strokes for enjoying a stick sweetie, (Lollipop) in class. A free period to boot! I hated that class monitor for a long time after that. The head teacher too for that matter.
We used to be late getting back from lunch as we would go down to the wharf and watched the boats and ships. Sometimes we sat on the rocks and skipped stones. One day we were running really late and as we neared the school we saw the head teacher standing at the door to the office. He was peering at us in his famous dark glasses. Without changing expression, he raised his arm and with his index finger, beckoned us. I told my pals to remove their watches and I quickly turned back the hands of my watch to an earlier time. He asked, ‘Do you know what time it is?” I replied that I did but apparently my watch must be wrong. I showed him my watch and he let us off with a warning. Yep, I was a quick thinker back then.
Sports day, which pitted the various houses against each other was a big favorite. Although my house, Lopey, had a few notables, I felt a bit embarrassed being Lopey. Miller and Reeves had the cool guys and athletes and I was understandably jealous. Lopey was the equivalent to GHS’ Grimble house. At the time, both were underachieving. I am sorry but I didn’t wear my yellow Lopey ribbon proudly. Yellow wasn’t and still isn’t a color that strikes fear in anyone.
Oh, about the books we pilfered. (I know you are probably thinking, “Get to the part where you stole books”). The boys in my immediate circle of friends were all avid readers. Comics, Westerns, Crimes, we read them all. So it was natural that we found a bookstore to cater to our needs and we did. Being in Wayfarer bookstore was like being in a book buffet. We never intended to become small time crooks. Actually we never wanted to be any type of crooks, just to go there, buy or browse books, and get out. But inevitably, we gave in to our impulses. Well not exactly our impulses. It was the town boys again who first introduced us to book stealing. (Those darn Town Boys eh!) We started with small comic books and then they showed us how to smuggle paper backs and hard covers in the confines of our waistbands. Some of us daring ones would even smuggle two books at a time! It was like Christmas every day.
Then one day we heard the words that would become etched forever in our memory and become a catchphrase among us. While engaged in the task of stuffing a book down his pants, a customer who happened to see this act, said to my friend, ‘Put it back!’ He complied without comment. This should have served as a warning that our time was up but it did not. We continued our smuggling operation until one day it all came apart. I was heading back to school with my criminal buddies, excited about our latest haul. We were blocks away from the bookstore and I was bragging about how easy the operation was when I felt someone grabbed me, turned me around, reached into my pants and withdrew my bounty. It was an employee from the bookstore. How rude! Sexual assault? Harassment?
By the time we got to school all nervous and trembling, the principal had already been alerted to our criminal activities and was waiting for us. After giving us the speech on the severity of what we did, we were sent home and told not to come back without our parents. It seemed like everyone on the little island knew about this. ‘Put it back!’ became a catchphrase. We were later able to laugh about it and some of us never stole again.
Note: BoysGrammar School was later changed to St. Vincent Grammar School after girls were accepted in upper form. (Advanced level).
Some of those who carved a niche in my memory:
Andrea Keizer – Of course she’s number one. English teacher
Mr. Campbell – Head teacher and the only person to cane me
Drakes – (steel throat) – Best math teacher in the land. RIP
Moony – Best 100m runner at the time. (I thought he was the world’s fastest man then).
Mr. Leacock – Accounts teacher who brought his drill sergeant experience into the classroom.
Mr. Cummings – French teacher who seemed to be in his own world. I wonder what he’s up to?
F.I Jack – Very nice history teacher. Unruffled.
C.P Hall – Geography teacher. He was temperamental. Surprised me when he got into Calypso singing.
Neddy – Another French teacher with an attitude. Always kicked me out of the classroom. “Walcott! Leave the class!” Seriously? He’s probably in jail somewhere.
The gang who made it all possible, Moony (Edmond Jackson), Rickie (Burnett), Cally, Squealer, Elliot (Mystery), Goodluck, Sappy and the other town boys who thought they knew everything. (Sorry guys if I missed any notables, it’s been a while).
Per Aspera Ad Astra!