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Those Grammar School days – When students had guts (Pt 3)

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The original article in what has turned out to be a series was to have been the only one, but it developed a momentum of its own, which I simply followed. My first job after leaving school was as a non-graduate master at the St Vincent Grammar School, a post I held for two years.

What struck me most during that time was a crisis that developed at the school during the 66-67 school year. Following the resignation of the former headmistress of the Girls’ High School, Mrs Elaine Connell, who taught classes at the two government secondary schools, was asked to act two days before the scheduled start of the term. {{more}}She informed the relevant authorities that she would only have been able to do so if the opening of school was delayed for a week. Following an exchange of letters, she was informed that her dismissal was contemplated and that in the process, she was suspended. The Secondary School Teachers Association, the body that represented teachers from secondary schools, met on the issue, wrote to government requesting her reinstatement and urged a reply by Friday, September 30. The issue affected primarily government secondary schools, but the total body took the decision. At that meeting, Oscar Allen was appointed secretary and I assistant secretary. The reply we considered unsatisfactory and mobilized the staff of both schools for strike action.

The headmaster dismissed school, but the students got involved and organized a demonstration that was joined by the students of the GHS. They marched to the Education Department and then to the Ministry of Education with placards, demanding the return of Mrs Connell. If my memory serves me correctly, they might also have gone to Government House on that day. A release from the Ministry urged parents not to send their children to school, since arrangements were not in place to reopen schools on the following Monday. The Emergency Students Council made a release of its own, requesting students to assemble at the Grammar School Playing Field in uniform on that Monday, October 3, and asked for the cooperation of parents. On Monday, attention was focused on Government House, despite opposition from some sectors of the society. Another trip was made to Government House on Wednesday, with the students using transportation provided by supporters. They were stopped at the gates and told they could not drive in. Their response was to get out of the vehicles and to walk in. A petition signed by students was delivered to Administrator Chapman.

Unfortunately, some of the information is sketchy, but many persons are still around who would have detailed information. I cannot recall the number of occasions on which the students went to Government House and how the crisis actually ended. It was rumoured, however, that the ‘interdict’ against Mrs Connell had been lifted and that her time in Barbados, where she had gone, was to be considered absence on sick leave. According to the Vincentian newspaper, proceedings on other charges were to continue, “though not with a view to dismissal.” What I have presented is a brief over-view minus the details, but a number of other things were happening. Parents met on Monday, October 3 and passed resolutions to the Secretary of State, expressing lack of confidence in the Administrator and Education Officer. Teachers of secondary schools were considered civil servants and a special meeting of the CSA, which attracted over 200 persons, selected a delegation to meet the Administrator.

Headlines of the Vincentian newspaper on October 1 read, “High Schools on Strike”: “Pandemonium in Kingstown.” The paper applauded the students. In one of its editorials, captioned “The Future of St.Vincent,” it wrote, “The Youth of St.Vincent is showing their elders the way.” It quoted the

president of the Student Council in an address to the Student Body, “I would like you to know that because of your solidarity in this matter I can see that there is hope for the future of St.Vincent.” The Vincentian continued, “children have shown a maturity which has put their elders to shame.” They “had the temerity, had the tenacity to challenge the wrongdoing, to make an attempt to right an injustice, to take upon themselves the responsibility which many of their elders skirted.”

So far, so good! It was easy to suggest that the future of the country was in good hands, but what has happened since then? Where are those boys in whose hands, the future of the country rested? The demonstration was obviously spontaneous; the boys included other matters in their protest – the case of a student in detention who was asked to scrub the laboratory floor with soap and water, and the physical handling of students by the Canadian teachers. But let us broaden the context. General elections had recently concluded, with Joshua’s PPP being returned by a narrow margin. One remembers the ice cream and other goodies sent to the students when they had virtually taken over Government House. These were provided largely by businesses that supported the Labour Party. Despite all of this, the fact is that students were willing to stand up. They organized and conducted themselves in a manner that was highly applauded. The teachers were put in the background and the students carried the fight. That’s when our young people had guts!

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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