Teachers Great And Small
by Orville Green
My earliest recollections of ‘real’ school relate to my attendance at All Saints Infant School, on Matthew’s Lane (“Matches” Lane, the common mispronunciation), in downtown Kingston, where I learned the hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful. That song especially delighted me because, to my child’s mind, it made specific reference to my two favourite teachers, Miss Ramsay and Miss Hewitt.
The explanation lies in the second line of the song, which mentioned “all teachers great and small.” I had no doubt of the allusion to the tall, dark-skinned Miss Ramsay, and to the vertically challenged, light-brown-complexioned Miss Hewitt. I belted out those words lustily whenever we sang that song during worship, smiling knowingly at Miss Ramsay and Miss Hewitt.
During those tender years, my favourite pastime at home was to perch for hours in the pomegranate tree ('panganat’ to many people) that overhung the front fence, where it adjoined the premises at number 34 Myers Street. I entertained myself there with songs, nursery rhymes, and the like. From my vantage point a few feet above the top of the fence, I could see as far as the Pattersons’ house to the west and to Mr. Saunders’ leather shop to the east.
I occasionally suspended my self-entertainment as passers-by called to me, or I called to them, then picked up again where I left off. No matter how low I felt at any time, All Things Bright and Beautiful could restore my sense of well-being.
One day, as I regaled myself with song and rhyme in my usual perch, a keen-eared passerby heard my rendition of All Things Bright and Beautiful and tried to convince me that there was an error in my delivery. My critic could not persuade me to change what I knew was correct. “All creatures great and small? What is a creature?” I had never heard of creatures. Teachers, I understood -- great, like Miss Ramsay; and small, like Miss Hewitt. That was obvious. But creatures made no sense to me. However, my critic persisted and out of respect for my elder, I conceded in that moment; but my scepticism remained.
My days at All Saints Infant School were marked by occurrences that had no direct connection with actually being in school. At that time, my father was a revenue clerk in the Collector General’s Department on downtown King Street and rode to work on a Phillips bicycle of indeterminate vintage. All Saints was on his route downtown, so Daddy ‘towed’ me to school on the bicycle’s cross bar.
The trip from Myers Street generally proceeded well until we arrived at the foot of Livingstone Street, where there was a downgrade (ideal for ‘coasting’ the bicycle) and a sweeping left-hand curve into Studley Park Road. There was usually a swarm of ‘mini-mini’ flies in mid-curve, floating about like a diaphanous bouncing ball.
Many mornings, as my father and I came swooping around that curve, the wind rushing past my ears with a delightfully gentle roar, one of these diminutive insects unerringly found its way into one of my eyes. The instant, burning sensation would cause me to cry out in discomfort.
My father would pull over to the sidewalk, take out his clean, crisply ironed white ‘kerchief, moisten one corner with saliva, peel back the lids of my assaulted eye, locate the creature’s limp, dark corpse and remove it with the moist tip of the ‘kerchief. Oh, sweet relief! For a few days afterwards, I would close my eyes as we approached that accident zone, and I would be fine…until the next time I forgot to remember.
Immediately after negotiating that curve, just past Calabar College’s hostel (dormitory) on the right, we made a sharp right turn at the Studley Park Road gully -- “Slidey Batty” or “Skating Gully” to schoolchildren who provided entertainment or were entertained there after school. The slope where the gully passed under the street was the main attraction of that location. Boys sat on their exercise books to slide down the incline, observed and cheered on by other children watching them from street level.
In the afternoon, their hooting and hollering added to the cacophony of noise from traffic, street vendors and idlers at the little grocery shop just east of the gully. In the morning, however, there was a peaceful calm as my father and I coasted into Upper Rose Lane, with the Calabar College and Calabar High School premises on the left, and the gully on the right.
At this point in the trip, approaching the western wall of Chetolah Park elementary school, the goose pimples predictably and suddenly attacked my skinny little body with vengeance: we were nearing the shack where the Black Heart Man lived, with the Duppy Cherry tree in front, on the edge of the gully. Even the boldest boys walked only on the opposite side of the street at this point.
I don’t think my father ever got any hint of my fear but, as soon as we had passed Slidey Batty, I closed my eyes so tightly that at times I wondered if my eyeballs could be forced through the eyelids. When I was certain we had passed the dreaded hovel, I opened my eyes again and silently breathed a sigh of relief.
Ever the whistler, my father often floated a catchy tune or two as we proceeded down Rose Lane toward North Street. I braced myself for the final challenge as we crossed North Street and approached the Kingston Public Hospital chapel, dubbed “dead house” by the general populace because of its daily funeral services. My mother’s Aunt Molly, with whom I stayed before and after school, lived directly opposite the chapel, which opened onto Charles Street, about a block away from All Saints.
It took every ounce of courage in my shivering little body to survive the time I had to spend at Aunt Molly’s each day. During school time, however, I always felt warmly cosseted and safe in the presence of my teachers, great and small.