I was eight years old when my parents decided to transfer me from the clinically clean and well ordered US Government run primary school in the Panama Canal Zone to prep school at DeCarteret College in Mandeville, Jamaica. In those days it had not yet reached college status ... just a primary school. I was a terrible student suffering from what is today known as ADHD. Back then you were simply incorrigibly inattentive and restless. The cure today is a pill taken orally - then the solution was applied at the other end. Looking back I suspect that the latter was more effective, as it forced changes in life style that compensated AD and channeled the Hyper side of it to good effect.
The result was that in late the summer of 1950 equipped with short pants, long socks and a purple blazer crested in white with a Bishop’s Mitre, I was deposited on long steps that lead up to the entrance of a building that looked like a dirty white wedding cake.
Constructed on the ground floor with walls of limestone and whitewashed red earth, the upper all wood, it was fret about with balconies and turrets and there was a new wing in concrete. Overall an untidy conglomeration of ill matched structures which if it could be made to fit any architectural style could only be called Victorian Ramshackle. The whole was perched on a knoll overlooking a playing field with a steep hillside dotted with limestone outcroppings and small sinkholes full of wasp’s nests in between.
In kind with most places of incarceration, each new resident was given an identifying number - in my case fourteen - which I immediately understood to be a whimsy resulting from someone counting the letters in my generously long surname. This number was the identifier on your tin cup, which was used to draw drinking water from the filtered store on the verandah outside the third form classroom. Water at deCarteret college came from catchment tanks and was for new boys, unless filtered unsafe to drink. The main water tanks were full of guppies which ate the water boatmen, mosquito larva and other intruders. The taste mattered little as the school’s initiation ritual was the enforced consumption of red carbolic soap which incapacitated the ability to discern flavor for long enough for the inoculating qualities of guppy slurry to take effect and make the drinking of any water within a five mile radius safe for the initiate.
The Lord was worshipped twice a day at
morning chapel and evensong. His
representative in overall command was the Headmaster the Rev. Morton-York. In the
eyes of an eight year old he was indeed a very worthy representative of his
maker. Tall, bald to being hairless, always dressed in a black suit, he wore a
built up shoe on one foot and walked with a hitch. He was the very epitome of Dickensian
deCarteret College was then home to 42 boys all under the age of twelve who were kept in line by the application of many rules all of which had consequences. These were in the lesser degree the assignment of one hundred mathematical sums and the greater, or the application of the cane by the headmaster. For many the latter the preferable alternative. Always in the afternoon and in his study the unworthy knelt head down on a couch and presented his rear for the application of four or six strokes. The Reverend was not an unkind man and would overlook the gospel, a slim pamphlet perhaps that according to Luke in the left back pocket of your shorts and the somewhat thicker Acts of the Apostles in the right.
The turrets provided rooms for teachers with classrooms on the ground floor and dormitories on the upper. These were large with many beds lined up side by side. Each had a chamber pot beneath, so that kneeling for prayers before lights out served a dual purpose. Spiritual relief followed immediately by physical and then into bed. There was long table at the end of the room with large enameled jugs of water, each sitting in a basin of the same design. This was for cleaning teeth and washing faces on rising in the morning. Light was provided by a single electrical bulb hanging from twisted wire in the center of the room. On Fridays we had bed inspection - you stood beside it with the mattress turned back and the springs were inspected. A broken spring resulted in a hundred sums. This was not a great burden as they were so old and the springs so often repaired that even the youngest fingers could reconnect and repair in good time.
Once a month the school gathered in the gym for foot inspection. Seated in rows we all removed our shoes and socks and the School Nurse wrenched your toes apart to see if you had athletes foot. Most deCarteret College boys developed a simian ability to spread their toes wide and thus avoid the wrench. I can still do it. At a similar interval the Nurse armed with a kidney shaped bowl and scissors cut our fingernails…. even those already bitten to the quick.
The school day was ordered by the bell. It began with chapel and proceeded to afternoon sports played on fields of dark red earth which permeated everything and thus lead to the daily wash. Ahh! that was the point at which you knew without doubt that the processes you were enduring were intended to harden you in preparation for the vicissitudes of life. The shower was a drained room with a concrete floor the walls adorned only with multiple open-ended pipes . The water that pored fourth over the shivering red soaped mass of small boys came directly from the Arctic and I do honestly believe that the pipes connecting us to the far North were fully insulated to ensure that none of the healthy frigidity was lost on route. There was an alternative. With a note from your family or a doctor’s recommendation you could have a hot bath. Under the School Nurse’s supervision you were provided with three inches of barely warmed water in a tin tub for which you had to pay dear by enduring the scorn of your peers.
We thought then the food was atrocious, and looking back down the tunnel of time I can confirm we were quite right. We were all always hungry. The “rules” which you never saw in writing said you could not eat the fruit, mostly oranges and grapefruit, which grew on school property, but in my second year I had gained confidence and seeing that almost all of it fell to rot I began to eat it. No one ever seemed to notice. We had Tuck but the Christian principal by which were obliged to live required that this be shared, so each night only one boy was allowed to bring a contribution for all to the dinner table. Corn Flakes and condensed milk was the favorite, although a goodly hunk of cheese not far behind. A highlight of the meal was often the presentation a single banana for the Headmaster’s dessert. This was served on a small plate, and to the envy and rapt attention of the entire school he would with a knife and fork, turned over in the English manner, slowly peel, carve and eat the fruit without ever touching it.
There are two incidents which I particularly remember. One term someone brought in a small supply of carbon paper. This was new stuff to us and after experimenting with it we decided to try our hand at creating a school newspaper. This was a great success and like all dailies of the time included a four panel comic strip the nature of which I cannot remember. Comics were forbidden and so after we were complimented on our literary achievement we were caned for the comic. The second singular experience resulted from a toothache. I had been having trouble for some time and so the Nurse arranged for a dentist. He came to the school, wheeling in and unfolding a reclining wooden chair with a woven cane seat equipped with a drill which ran off a foot operated treadle like those on the old singer sewing machines. I have never seen its like again, not even in Google. There was no consideration of a pain killer and it requires no imagination to appreciate how slowly the drill revolved. I shudder at the recollection.
Once a month on a Sunday it was permitted for parents to take students out for the day. Departure was after morning service, which was over by 10AM and you were to be back before Evensong. It being unacceptable that there be any reward not earned the fortunate had to recite the Collect for that Sunday to the Headmaster before departing for what was usually a picnic outing to The Caves. Similarly before you were allowed to go home at the end of term you had to be prepared to recite the listing of all the books in the King James version’s old and new testaments. This engendered such terror that as the term approached its finish, boys would be found grouped together chanting them to each other until it they were engraved on the brain. Prompted by this writing I have tried to recall them but find that the years have taken their toll and I now run aground at Kings II. I will go home regardless but can feel the still powerful disapproval of an old man in a black suit.
Looking this over it seems I have painted a grim picture which is not inaccurate, but despite the strict discipline there was some silver lining. The pressures of this life created strong bonds of friendship. For the unpunished there were sports every afternoon and quite a lot of free time. I escaped into reading which with excellent effect has followed me through life. The years served for me to read the entire school library and all the other books I could beg borrow and steal. Along the way I went to school with Tom Brown, adventured with Sweet William and travelled West of the Pecos with Zane Grey. My father paid extra for me to learn to ride, so twice a week a group of us would head off for an afternoon at the Stables where I bonded with an old polo pony called “Blue Boy”. We learned to groom, saddle and care for our horses and the rides took us out on country lanes usually finishing with a mad gallop back to the stable. We were encouraged to shoot and to my surprise at my last Prize Giving Day I was presented with a silver cup awarded for being the most promising marksman of the year. There was a Cub Scout pack and “Bob A Job Day” found us dispersed into the community earning money for scouting.
Occasionally when the Head was not able to take the Sunday service, we would walk into town and attend the Parish Church in Mandeville. This meant that I would pass beside my grandfather grave which lay to the left of the walkway into the church, then stand and kneel below a brass plaque on the wall dedicated to the memory of Lt. Col. WAR Blennerhassett.
Nothing illustrates so well how young we were as our play at the extensive network of roads, parking lots and hollowed out garages that had over years been carved into the red clay embankment on the far side of the playing field. Here we drove, raced and arrayed our Dinky toy cars. If you did not have one when you arrived it was not long before you owned a fleet. The best places in the network were acquired on the basis of hierarchical status. Upward mobility was achieved largely by seniority, although size and strength could ace all other considerations. Nowhere else in our small society were the domination rituals of a group of small boys displayed so forcefully.
Unlike Jamaica College which I later learned to love and in the last years looked forward to returning to, I dreaded each new term at DeCarteret College. Whatever pleasure there was to be found in friendships and activities was overwhelmed by the grim nature of the place and the strictness of the system. Nevertheless credit must be given for the success it achieved in preparing you for the rest of your life. By my final year I had made a beginning at overcoming my learning disability and my grades had improved sufficiently to place me in the upper third of my class. For all of us, going on to Secondary school was a walkover. Whatever fears you might have had in anticipation were soon swept away by greater freedoms and improved living conditions.
I am happy to acknowledge the head start that deCarteret College gave me, but looking at the alternative which my children and grandchildren experienced, I regret that I went out in the world while still so very young. It would have been good to have had more time to enjoy the warmth and comfort of family, but we are all captive to our fate, and needs must make the best of it.