By Kenton X. Chance
As 41-year-old Junior Baptiste walked to receive his Bachelor of Laws from the University of the West Indies, all he could hear amidst the noise of the crowd was the voice of his deceased grandmother asking him if he, too, wants to work the iron hoe.
The woman, Edna Baptiste, died in 2008, and of all the things that her grandson, now a father of five children, longed for on his graduation day, was for her to see him receive his diploma.
Ms Baptiste had saved from her EC$50-per-month “Poor Relief” to ensure that there was EC$41 every term to pay her grandson’s secondary school fees.
For if, after her grandson failed the Common Entrance Examination twice, the urging of teacher Brendon Child had not swayed Ms Baptiste, Junior might never have gone to secondary school.
He might not have realised his full potential, and might have been relegated to the arrowroot fields, where the basic entry requirement is physical strength.
Baptiste and two others were among the police officers to be elevated in the latest round of promotions within the Royal St. Vincent and the Grenadines Police Force.
However, the seemingly rapid rise of Baptiste, Shawn Chandler and Cornelius Tittle does not tell the story of their journey to their current ranks.
Chandler and Tittle were promoted from the rank of constable to Sergeant, while Junior Baptiste moved from leading seaman to petty officer in the Coast Guard.
Their promotions came after they completed bachelor’s degrees at the University of the West Indies.
Their achievements were significant in light of the fact that none of the men had passed the examinations that determined the placement in the secondary schools of the nation’s adolescents.
Further, the men seemed to have been united by an invisible thread of unfortunate commonalities, including less than ideal family structures during their formative years.
Baptiste, who is from Owia, was a leading seaman at the time of the interview last month, praised his grandparents who decided to pay for him to go to secondary school after he failed the common entrance examination twice.
“I didn’t pass the Common Entrance Exam and I attempted it twice,” he said of the examination that has since been replaced by the Caribbean Primary Exit Assessment, which now determines secondary school placement of primary school leavers.
Like Baptiste, Chandler, 41, did not pass the Common Entrance Exam.
“I went back at the School Leaving Examination the year after and that is where I really pulled myself together with teachers like Mr. McGregor Sealey,” Chandler told iWitness News, in an interview that also came before the promotions were announced.
“I came second and I went off to the St. Martin’s Secondary School in 1996, where I met back all my friends who did the same Common Entrance Exam — because I started at the third form.”
At 27, Tittle received his primary school education under a different dispensation. He, too, however, did not pass the Common Entrance Examination.
“But due to the policy of the [Unity Labour Party] government in relation to education, I was able to go to Georgetown Secondary School,” he told iWitness News, adding that he went on to leave secondary school with passes in seven CXC subjects, including Maths and English.
With the support of his grandmother, and his grandfather, Cecil “Banker” Nanton – who is also now deceased — Baptiste went to Bishop’s College Georgetown — now Georgetown Secondary School. He graduated from secondary school with passes in five subjects and went on to work at Bonadie’s Supermarket in Kingstown.
Meanwhile, Chandler’s learning challenges continued to dog him as he pursued his education in the nation’s capital. The urgings of one of his teachers, Philbert “P John” helped him through his secondary school years and then later on throughout his life.
“I went to drop his history subject and he sat me down and he told me, ‘A slow learner, once he finds the inner self and is placed in the right environment, can be a force to be reckoned with’,” Chandler recounted to iWitness News.
“Those words, I stuck them in the back of my head, and I kept working,” said Chandler, who went on to graduate with passes in five subjects.
After graduating secondary school, Chandler worked as a security guard for five years, Baptiste, who gained five subjects, worked at a supermarket in Kingstown, and Tittle was unemployed for two years before enlisting in the Police Force.
But between the time he applied and when he was accepted into the constabulary, Tittle would enrol in the A’ Level programme at the Community College in 2009 where he completed one semester before he was called up to serve.
He would return some years later as a student in the pilot group of the college’s associate degree programme.
As fate would have it, all three men would end up as members of the Royal St. Vincent and the Grenadines Police Force.
Baptiste enlisted on Sept. 1, 1995 and has been a Coast Guard officer since 1999.
Chandler became a police officer on Dec. 24, 2001 and Tittle enlisted on Dec. 16, 2009
Baptiste, who completed a bachelor’s degree in law, said he has always had a dream of becoming a lawyer. He, however, did not make any conscious efforts to realise that dream until one of his superiors, Inspector Tannis, asked him what he was doing about his dream.
So, in 2010, Baptiste enrolled at the Community College, where he pursued an associate degree in paralegal studies, as a member of the pilot group of students.
Also in that same group of students were Chandler and Tittle.
Tittle had enrolled in the programme, having seen studying law as a natural progression.
“I am a police officer, I deal with legal issues daily… I wanted to market myself as a police officer. I wanted to elevate myself in the ranks and I decided to do it by educating myself, instead of sticking around and waiting for 20 years and service to determine how far I go,” he told iWitness News, also during an interview before the promotions were announced.
In 2008, Chandler, who had previously been assigned to the Special Services Unit, was transferred to the Narcotics Unit. His new assignment brought him in regular contact with the courts.
“So it is there I started to get involved with the court system and the bartering by certain lawyers, like Grant Connell and Arthur Williams, when giving evidence in court and the way they would come at me.”
One day, he saw a communiqué come to the police station asking officers if they wanted to pursue studies at the Community College. Chandler took up the opportunity, and at the college, he met Baptiste and Tittle and they all completed the associate degree in law.
“So the knowledge gained there, when I went back to the court, I was a little more cemented and gave lawyers a little more run for their money. So, from there, I decided it was time to make the next move.”
The next move was to complete the full degree at the University of the West Indies’ Cave Hill Campus in Barbados.
Chandler, who is from McKies Hill, was born in Barbados to a Vincentian father and moved to his father’s homeland at age 2.
And so, in 2013, he moved back to the land of his birth, “all alone” to continue his studies. “Because I was accustomed to my buddies,” he told iWitness News, explaining his “all alone” reference.
But he later received word that the following year, Tittle and Baptiste would also be coming to Barbados to continue their studies.
Chandler, however, did not continue studies in law.
“To be honest, when I went there, I know my weakness — I am not strong in language and I was advised by the academic counsellor there that it would be best for me to do public sector management,” he told iWitness News.
Chandler said he is very strong in maths and was pursuing A’ Level maths when he received his acceptance information from the university. “I threw away maths and focused on the English and I passed the English Language Proficiency Test reasonably well.”
All three men told iWitness News that the poverty that they came from was an inspiration for them to attain their degrees.
“I feel that it is the drive that I have and coming from a poor family background, it helped to push me,” Chandler told iWitness News.
He said his “journey” at university “was not a bed of roses”.
“But I pulled myself together with the help of my colleague, Mr. Baptiste, here and I worked towards it. I had to work 48 hours a week and still got to school for 75 hours because you had to put in hours,” Chandler said of his challenge to pay for studies.
“I only took [a loan of] EC$30,000 for my studies because I am a Bajan national. Housing and all that was taken care of. But, come see me and come live with me is two different things. So when I went to live with my family, I had to find different means of earning income,” Chandler said.
Chandler, the father of a 7-year-old daughter, encouraged persons “to set your goals, don’t procrastinate and just keep working toward achieving that goal”.
He praised his guardians, family friends William and Ettie Skeete for their contribution to the person he has become.
“They showed me from a very young age what it means to work hard for what you want to accomplish in life. Their children continued to play a part in my life even today. Their daughter, Susan Skeete, mortgaged her property so I could go off to study and Coranie and Mrs Duncan from Kingstown Park signed to my bond. So I’m grateful for what was done. No other person would have put up everything for me and leave their son for second place. That’s to show I’m family,” Chandler said of the Skeetes.
Finances were also a major consideration for Tittle, who took a student loan to go to UWI in 2014.
“I came from a very poor family. I am originally from Byera but I grew up in Colonarie after my parents’ marriage fell apart at age 8… I benefitted from the Disadvantaged Student Loan programme, which is a fruit of the Education Revolution and did my LLB at Cave Hill and I am here today…
“I feel that after studying this programme that my brain has been reconfigured because I think differently, I move differently and I don’t know if it is something about studying or studying law in general that gives you a general perspective on life generally because you know law affects every little thing you do.”
Tittle is now on attachment at the Office of the Director of Public Prosecution.
He said he studied law as a means of marketing himself.
“I don’t intend to be one of those persons who just stick around and just settle with the status quo: you have some CXC, possibly some A’ Levels and then you find a job and that’s it. I want to put myself in a position that I can be a challenge for the highest position.”
Tittle said he plans to go off to Hugh Wooding law school next year. The “prosecutor in training” said this is why he is doing an internship at the DPP’s office for a year.
Tittle, however, said that he plans to remain a police officer.
“I think I want to be one of those persons who — it is already happening — raise the bar of police officer. You can’t just settle for some CXCs and that’s it. I want to be one of those persons to raise the bar of the Royal St. Vincent and the Grenadines Police Force. It has started because, Inspector [John] Ballah, he is a lawyer as well and I am aspiring to be more like him. The Commissioner is a lawyer, the deputy Commissioner also. So these guys are who I am aspiring to become like,” Tittle told iWitness News.
For his part, Baptiste told iWitness News that he plans to remain a police officer, although he hopes to specialise in maritime law.
“I realise it doesn’t have any person in that area currently in St. Vincent. And seeing I have a background in Coast Guard and I have a lot of knowledge about law of the seas and so forth, I think that is the best option for me right now.”
For persons who might not be performing as well as they would like, academically, Baptiste said:
“All children are not the same, some would learn quickly and others will get there but they would get there slowly. So, I would encourage mothers, fathers, just to support their children, be there, try with them and someday, they will get there,” said Baptiste, a father of five children, ages 6 to 14.
“If my grandmother had just decided that she was not going to send me to a secondary school, right there and then, I would have been home or something like that. On the streets or something,” said Baptiste, whose parents migrated when he was months old, but supported him after he enrolled in secondary school.
But while he spoke the words of encouragement, Baptiste seemed to be in disbelief about what he has actually achieved.
“I now have a bachelor’s degree in law,” he said, speaking the words as if he had to say them aloud to convince himself that it is, in fact, true.
“It is a great achievement. It is an achievement that right now I wish my grandmother were here. I know the struggles that she went through,” Baptiste said.