A Canadian Girl at St. Rose’s, Guyana
By Shelagh Plunkett
Sister Hazel frowned as she examined the papers that told the story of my education up to when we’d left Canada.
That was 1974, and my mother and I had been called in to meet the headmistress of St. Rose’s High School in Georgetown, Guyana. My father had taken a position on a CIDA-funded project and his contract stipulated that his three children would be educated in what were among the country’s top schools. St. Rose’s definitely fit that criteria, but Sister Hazel wasn’t about to acquiesce.
“Your daughter’s academic standing is quite poor. Her grades aren’t bad but the quality of her education is substandard. The overall result is poor. She will have to sit a test before I can consider her for possible enrolment in St. Rose’s.”
Sister Hazel explained that my inferior Canadian education would bring down the overall standard of her school, and all St. Rose’s girls would suffer the consequences. That seemed a bizarre notion. Canadian schoolteachers, for the most part, didn’t think that way. Besides, how could an education in a tiny, fledgling country outsmart and outperform one from Canada? It could and it did.
I failed the entry exam. Sister Hazel’s concession was to allow me to rewrite it after a summer’s worth of tutoring by her teacher-nuns. I passed, and in the new school year stood among 900 other St. Rose’s girls as Sister Hazel urged us to “strive toward personal growth” and to “help each other toward the same goal.”
It was the start of a remarkable passage in my life. Though short – I was at St. Rose’s just a year and a half ” it had a greater impact on who I am today than all the other years I spent in the Canadian education system.
Much of the curriculum seems archaic now ” penmanship, watercolour painting, geography of Guyana. But the greater part of what I learned holds true. In addition to drilling me in discipline, organization, research skills, critical thinking, and the art of essay writing, the nuns and my fellow students instilled in me a sense of community. As a St. Rose’s girl, I experienced for the first time what it was to be a valued member of a group.
Now, that’s even more bizarre than Sister Hazel’s pronouncement upon meeting my mother and me. How could being the only white girl, the clear outsider, among a group of 900 leave me feeling more included than being one like all the others at a Canadian high school? It could and it did.
Schools are, generally, a reflection of the society in which they exist. At high school in Vancouver, nobody cared what we did so long as we made a reasonable display of attendance. School was to be endured and a fairly meaningless waste of time. At St. Rose’s, the reverse was the reality; school there infused me with a vital and significant sense of purpose.
I know now, and had an inkling then, though only with the sophistication of a 13-year-old, that for many Guyanese the oft heard “all o’ we is one family” was worse than just a platitude. Far from being included, many Guyanese felt their government targeted them for exclusion. But, the rhetoric of the day was thrilling for a girl who’d never been told she could play a part in the success or failure of a larger group ” a school, a country.
It is a sad truth that the Guyanese government’s agenda hid deep lies working to divide the country’s people but, despite that, the lessons of community involvement, the goal of “each one teach one,” the honouring of an individual’s worth as part of a greater body are deserving in themselves.
There was much about the St. Rose’s model that I don’t support ” fear of the switch and public humiliation being two – but instilling in children pride and a sense that each plays an important role in the world is a powerful lesson. In essence, St. Rose’s told me, “buck up, you’re the future,” and who can argue with the value of that?
Shelagh Plunkett is a writer based in Montreal. Her memoir, The Water Here is Never Blue, about her adolescence in Guyana and Timor is available through Penguin Canada. For excerpts, visit Shelagh’s blog at http://shelaghplunkett.wordpress.com