by Orville Green
“Miss D burs’! Miss D burs’!” The spindly-legged boy shouted from his lookout post at the side of the school building, then started running towards the school garden, repeating his ominous warning that announced the anticipated but unpredictable and unappreciated approach of the headmistress, Mrs. Donaldson.
Breathlessly repeating the warning several more times he darted, wide-eyed, into the garden. His schoolmates quickly busied themselves with their assigned duties. Seconds later, Mrs. Marion Donaldson -- brandishing her trusty cane, her ‘rod of correction’ -- hustled into view.
By the time our revered headmistress arrived, the garden was a veritable beehive of activity, as the recently lollygagging boys busied themselves with tools that only a few moments earlier were merely props on which to lean. Energetic hoeing and strenuous forking of the dry earth to remove weeds elicited approving nods from Miss D; but she was evidently not pleased with the unsuccessful effort to produce straight-edged garden beds. With an admonition here and a compliment there, like a whirlwind she scurried away just as rapidly as she had arrived.
It was Thursday afternoon at Jones Town Primary School, the day when our thoughts and activities turned from academics to practical pursuits. The boys were assigned to the garden to learn and practice a variety of techniques necessary to produce vegetables, as well as the finer points of budding, grafting and tending rose plants; meanwhile, the girls were tutored in sewing.
Thursday was the favourite day of the week for us pupils (the word student was less common then), except for Friday. Friday was “press book” day, when the special exercise books with thick indigo-coloured covers were removed from the teachers’ ‘presses’ (wooden cabinets). Each pupil was given his/her assigned book to practice penmanship by transcribing sentences/passages written on the blackboard.
I began attending the school at age six, after stints at other preparatory academic institutions: beginning with my Aunt Evelyn’s ‘private’ school (when my eyes were at my knees) under the tamarind tree in our yard at Myers Street; then on to the YWCA “Play Centre” on North Street, at the foot of Central Avenue; and All Saints Infant School on Matthew’s Lane, a stone’s throw from Kingston Public Hospital’s back wall on Charles Street.
The latter two provided some special excitement in my tender years, as I was transported there on my father’s Phillips bicycle on what I considered long journeys away from home. However, attending Jones Town Primary School afforded advantages by being only one street away from home: I could delay my departure from home until just a few minutes before ‘bell ring’; I could go home for lunch; and it was also convenient, eventually, to dash home after school for a quick bite before returning to the academic harness of ‘private’ (extra) lessons.
The school’s demographics made it a microcosm of Jamaica’s racial spectrum, even including a family of Africans that only recently had come to the island. More interesting, however, was that students came from as far afield as Greenwich Farm, Waltham Park Road, Delacree Road and Hagley Park Road. Most of them trudged to school after leaving home quite early, arriving at the iron gates on Price Street sweaty and tired.
The L-shaped, bungalow-style school building had a verandah on the east side, the Price Street side -- the main entrance to the building -- and another on the Crook Street side. The unpaved schoolyard was entirely surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, bounded on the north by Love Street, where the formal entrance to the headmistress’ “cottage” -- including a drive-in gate -- was located. A small side gate from the residence afforded access to the school yard. The school garden was west of the school building and adjacent to the rear fence of the headmistress’ premises.
As the southern fence of the garden bordered Crook Street, there were occasional sales of callaloo and other crop yields over that fence, clandestine transactions by persons unknown, and facilitated by its distance from Mrs. Donaldson’s Fourth Class room. A large “casha” (acacia) tree at the front gate, another on the Crook Street side of the building -- outside Mrs. Mendez’ Third Class -- and yet another on the Love Street side, all provided some degree of sun-shade for the schoolyard.
Although I was the first child of my generation in my family to attend the school, I had been preceded by my father’s two sisters and brother; but he had preceded them as one of the early students soon after the school was established in 1913, under the legendary head, Teacher Ricketts.
It is a matter of record that my father and Teacher Ricketts’ two sons went on to represent the school admirably as outstanding students at St. George’s College, and later to bring honour to St. George’s as top performers in the island’s Senior Cambridge examination results. Other Jones Town students over the years have continued the tradition of outstanding performance that pointedly demonstrates the academic foundation laid there.
My time at Jones Town Primary School spanned Second to Fourth classes, in an era when someone desiring to learn a child’s level in the primary education system would likely ask, “Suh, what book yuh reading in now?” Some of the school’s best-known teachers of that period were the aforementioned headmistress, Mrs. Donaldson, ably assisted by Mrs. Violet Mendez, Mrs. Constance Dean, Miss Blanda Rose, Mrs. Alice Grey, Miss Myrtle Brown, Mrs. Ivy Pinnock, and Miss Gladys Stewart.
For those children who attended the Jones Town Baptist Church and Sunday School, there was an extra burden on us to be good at school, both academically and in our deportment, due to the fact that Miss Brown and Miss Stewart (a leader of the Cub Pack, of which I was a member) were also members of the church and Sunday School teachers, while Mrs. Donaldson was church secretary as well!
Having long-since mastered the challenges of the West Indian Reader text book (chapters were: Mr. Joe Builds a House; Mr. Joe and Miss Tibbs; Miss Tibbs Finds Mother Hen; Mr. Dan Arrives; Mother Hen Loses a Chick; Percy the Chick Has a Fall; Mr. Joe Buys a Donkey; etc.), I was placed in Second Class, which went by so quickly that I have almost no recollection of that experience.
Third Class, however, was a different story because there’s no way one could pass through Mrs. Mendez’ jurisdiction without coming out with some vivid memories. In fact, not only was she my class teacher but also a friend of my family’s. Further, my father, in his wisdom, chose her to provide ‘extra’ lessons for me. In her wisdom, she put me with mature students who had finished elementary school and were studying for the Jamaica Pupil Teacher’s Second Year exam!
The stress on me to keep up with the demands of “private lessons” was so great that one afternoon, when we were scheduled to have a test, I went home after school for my usual break but decided to ‘skull’ the class. I craftily sought refuge in the latrine -- while my trusting mother thought I had returned to extra lessons -- and remained there until I calculated that it was too late to attend the class. When my father arrived home that evening, I complained bitterly about the fictional stomach problem that had caused me to miss extra lessons. I persuaded him to provide a written excuse to be presented to Mrs. Mendez the next day, which he did.
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