By Kenton X. Chance
Most passers-by may not pay any attention to the trees planted in the yard of St. Joseph’s Convent Kingstown (SJCK), an all-girls Catholic secondary school located along North River Road.
But every time Richard Daniel Cumberbatch passes by, he is reminded that he and some of his students planted a tree there some 40 years ago.
On Oct. 1, 1971, he became one of the first male members of staff at the school, which is run by Catholic nuns, and planted the tree in the schoolyard after a field trip to Dumbarton with students.
He remembers that he was “so scared” the first time he walked into the schoolyard. After all, he went to the all-boys St. Vincent Grammar School and was taught that the Convent’s schoolyard was “out of bounds”.
The fact that Cumberbatch had received a special invitation from the Convent principal herself to teach at the school did not help his fears. But he went on to spend almost four years to the day, leaving the staff on Sept. 30 1975, having taught biology, science, and mathematics during his tenure.
And, as the tree has grown and its roots gone deep into the schoolyard, so has the reach and influence of the “girls” who Cumberbatch tutored during his days at the school.
And just as the tree stands majestically in the schoolyard, so stood he and three other teachers from that era at an event at a hotel recently, where they were honoured by their former students during a surprise event.
Cumberbatch told his former students that he felt “great; very much appreciated” by their gesture, which was conceptualised by Desiree Williams-Richard.
Also honoured at the event were former teachers Liley Cato, Cassy-Ann Abbott and Gordon Michael Davy.
Addressing the former educators, Williams-Richard said, “Today, we recognise the great sacrifices that you, as teachers, have made for us”.
Williams-Richard, who is based overseas and came back to St. Vincent and the Grenadines for the event, added: “As students, we often fail to identify the contributions our teachers make in our formative years. It is not until we are adults that we realise their importance at every milestone in our lives.”
She said the wisdom of their teachers was the guiding force in their lives even after they left SJCK and embraced the adult world.
“You became the yardsticks by which we measured all our future teachers, and they fell short,” Williams-Richard further said. “Today, we would like to honour you for all you did for us.”
She told the retired teachers that perhaps the greatest joy in being a teacher is in knowing that their labour is not in vain.
“As we take this walk down memory lane, I would first like you to know that all of us have grown up to become productive, contributing members of society because of the impact you had on us.
“Thank you for guiding, inspiring and helping to make us who we are today,” she said
She said the teachers have helped them in more ways than by simply enriching their basic knowledge. “Each of you, in one way or another, played a part in shaping our lives. To us, you were more than just educators. You wore the hats of counsellors, critics, mentors, and sometimes, mirrors.”
The former teachers were facing their students as adults and equals.
But when Cumberbatch walked into the classroom as a recent A’Level graduate four decades ago, he had to draw on the skills of one of his favourite actors.
“… having been a fan of Clint Eastwood and being able to hide all my emotions, on the outward appearance, I looked like everything was OK…” he admitted.
He told his former charges that he shares a lot of memories from the four years he spent at SJCK.
“Not only you think that we impacted you positively, but, the students there also had an impact on my life,” he said.
But amidst the joys of teaching at the school, he also logged “the most embarrassing moment of his life”.
He recounted there was a “famous Form 2A”, which included “some of the older girls and some repeaters”, adding that only one of the 26 of them reached Form 5.
He had just started to teach and a student came to him at the front of the class and quietly said, “Mr. Cumberbatch, if your belly hurting you, what’s wrong with you?”
“Well, I thought it was a genuine question, so I said in the same tone of voice, ‘Could be for many reasons’ — which was an honest answer,” Cumberbatch said.
“And from the time I said that, the girl said, ‘Sir, don’t get fresh with me!’ And I stood there and all I was asking was for the earth to take me in because the entire hall heard her say that. But, as I said, I had that face that I had practised (The Clint Eastwood face).”
The principal came and settled the matter, giving the student a few lashes.
“I was so scared but I learnt,” Cumberbatch said, adding that he went on to have so many good experiences at SJCK that he went back in 1994 to St. Joseph’s Convent Marriaqua, where he stayed for 18 years.
“I am saying that I have learnt a lot; my experiences have been good. It has made me a better person having dealt with persons like Desiree and the two Cross– Rosses; not to mention somebody you call Hya-say (Hyacinth),” he said to laughter.
“I really enjoyed myself at Convent Kingstown,” he reiterated. “And so, I truly appreciate tonight what you have done… Thanks for this gesture. It really has made my night great.”
Cumberbatch’s former colleague, Liley Cato, had the event in stitches as he reminisced on his time at SJCK, where he taught English language, English literature, and human and social biology from 1970 to 1978.
He said that when he arrived at the hotel where the event was held, he stood by the steps and thought to himself that the event was “a big trick”, adding that he realised that he knew everybody who was standing on the balcony.
Cato said that he stood there “out of breath”, allowing himself to adjust to “the whole situation”.
The former teacher, who went on to work in the private sector before retiring recently, said he likes to look back in the past a lot “because I think yesteryear, for me, looks better than the years to come.
“So when I looked up and I saw you (the former students), I said this is part and parcel of my yesteryear. And you are better than the things today.”
He said that when he was asked to come and “help” teach English at the school, he said, “To whom?”
The sister (nun) said, to the students, Cato recounted, added, he responded, “Not that type, sister.”
“What do you mean?” the nun asked.
“I said, when I look through the window at the other teachers in there, I am so sorry for them,” he said to laughter.
The principal had further inquired about what he meant, and Cato explained: “Those are not my type. Either the police will come here today or somebody at New Haven,” he said to even more laughter.
Cato said that it pleases him much when he chances upon his former students and the conversation invariably goes back to their time at SJCK.
Some of the students have done very well, including one to whom he had said quietly, “Your usage of simile and metaphor is unfortunate.”
Cato said that same student, whom he did not identify by name, met him sometime after and told him he had written a book, “The Journey of a West Indian Soul” (by Isabelle Lewis), a publication that he says occupies pride of place in his library.
His former student told him that she was going to launch the book and she wanted him to read it two days before the launch.
But she went on to tell her former teacher of English, that if he said the book was not good enough to be launched, it would be discarded, although it had been printed.
Cato told the gathering that he was reading the book and in one of the chapters “is my name in the raw.
“I am almost being made into a criminal. And I said, ‘It cannot be launched because there is an indictment against me in the book’,” He said to raucous laughter.
But the former student fired back: “No, that is my best line. And if that is the problem, it would be launched.”
Cato said that when he was teaching at SJCK, he was “the only male for miles around town…
“It was a little frightening. You don’t know what they are thinking — they may gang up against me,” he said to even more laughter.
But he went on to fill in for the principal when she went on leave and left him in charge of the school — and all went well.
Cato, however, admitted that he never expected to be honoured, adding, “and for that, I can say we are truly grateful.”
He said that his years as a teacher have served him in good stead, although, he said, teaching is a vocation without a lot of money.
“But, the other benefits you would get add up,” he said, mentioning among them, unfettered access to former students who are now in influential positions in the private and public sector.
“The privileges come day after day … we wouldn’t say what the salary was, but the satisfaction you get, well, even tonight, it adds up,” he said.
Cassy-Ann Abbott was the sole female among the four honourees.
“Thank you very much. I feel very honoured to have been a part of this and certainly, my memories of all of you are great,” she said.
She, however, admitted that after all those years, she is still unable to distinguish between two of her students who were twins.
It took her a while to realise that one had pierced ears. But now, as adults, they both do, and Abbott struggled to say who was who at the event at which she was honoured.
Abbot, who taught English language, English literature, history, social studies, Spanish and geography, spoke of the relationship she developed with her former students, including one who became an educator and her colleague at SJCK.
So close the friendship got that Abbott toasted her former student and then colleague, who is still an educator, at her wedding.
Abbott encouraged her former students to send their children and grandchildren to Catholic schools, adding that her own children did well at the religious schools.
“So I would like to encourage you to build up our school again,” he said and appealed to Minister of Education, Jimmy Prince, who was also a teacher at SJCK and who also attended the event, to help to build up the Catholic school.
At the event, Gordon Michael Davy would reveal how profound an impact that SJCK had on him even as he was being celebrated by his past students.
He remembered standing in front of the general assembly for an entire month — when it should have been one week — having to say prayers for the assembly.
Davy, who taught history, geography, commerce and athletics at the school between September 1973 and July 1978 was an Anglican and not a catholic.
“But little did I know that the prayers that I said and my involvement in the religious life of the school has led me to slowly but surely become a Catholic. And I am today a Catholic and I am grateful for the exposure and the patience that many of the nuns had with me…” he told his former students.
“This evening, I am truly honoured that you have invited me and my wife and you have invited many of the other teachers who were there who … have guided you in your upbringing.
He reminisced about the times when he asked the students what they were looking forward to.
In those days, a lot of their parents were overseas, and New York was the destination of choice, he said.
A lot of the students said they wanted to go to New York to meet their relatives.
Davy would encourage the student to study and they would say they want to immigrate
“And the idea, the impression that came over to me, was that they want to be part of the nice activity, the nice life for New York,” he said.
But it is pleasing when he meets up one of those same students years later and hear they are registered nurses or some other professionals, Davy said.
“It is so gratifying. It is so different from the answers I got when they were school children that I always felt that something did work eventually,” he said.
Davy wished his former students well, telling them, “Life has not ended for you.
“… I really want to say that I appreciate the effort that was put into this gathering. … I know a lot of work … [has] gone into it, a lot of thought and dedication and it comes out of your appreciation for us as teachers and I thank you and we, as teachers, thank you also very much for the effort,” he said.
The graduates presented their former teachers with gifts, including bouquets and laptops and treated them and their spouses and children to a meal at the hotel.
They gave meaning to the saying that “Teaching is like rings on a tree. What you teach … is forever with them”, with the question for current teachers: “What kind of ring will you leave?”