This week the St. Vincent Girls’ High School is marking its 100th anniversary as an educational institution. I have no doubt that the celebratory events will prompt a few trips down memory lane and some contemplation for the future. I am no exception.  In fact, I have found that the celebrations have put in a frame of mind to closely scrutinize my Alma Mater for the role she has (not) played in shaping the person I am today. While many take that trip with fond memories of the friendships established, the teachers and headmistresses that made an impact on their world sense, mine is a little more complex.  Whenever the St. Vincent Girls’ High School comes to mind I experience a mixture of emotions, to say the least.  This is mainly a result of the many eyes/perspectives through which I view the institution. These perspectives represent the various stages through which I would have passed in my journey to Black/African/Caribbean woman consciousness.

When I entered the GHS I was one of three girls from my primary school to do this. I could remember the elation upon hearing the news that I had placed 44th in that year’s Common Entrance Exam.  In my first form I met some pretty interesting characters. I was also placed in Moffet House which, at the time, was enjoying a seemingly never ending stint at the bottom of the GHS sporting tables. Here I was, doe-eyed to the institution, learning French and trying my best to get my folks at home to speak it with me, trying to impress my needlework teacher, balancing school work with the trials of adolescence in an institution that was determined to make a “lady” out of me:

Young ladies do not walk in the street while eating. Young ladies do not make such a ruckus while on the street and especially while in uniform. Young ladies are not to be seen on the street after certain hours in uniform.  Young ladies are only to wear small hooped earrings (if it’s bigger than your pinkie finger then it’s too big). Young ladies are only to wear plain studs in their ears, no fancy jewelry.  Young ladies are to walk single file along narrow stairways and sidewalks and young ladies must never, ever, walk on the GHS lawn.  (I am hearing the voices of Mrs. Jeanne Horne and Mrs. Ercelle Thomas as I type these last two.)

In addition to the ‘finer qualities’ of womanhood, the GHS instilled in me a sense of academic pride.  Hearing your name read out loud during mark reading as having placed in the top three of your class was motivation for me to excel in academics once I had advanced to the higher forms. I was also motivated by a desire to become a female Perry Mason and a female MacGyver at the same time. These goals spurred me on. As it stands I am neither a female Perry Mason nor MacGyver, instead, I found that my calling is to teach, to disseminate the knowledge I have obtained to those that do not have it.  This is something I am proud of and it is a journey I embarked upon thanks to a gentle nudge from the late Sister Pat of the St. Joseph’s Convent Marriaqua, my first employer, and the love and support of my parents.

While I was more than competent with my academics the other aspects of my life at the GHS were not so straight forward. I had wandered into an institution that had some unwritten rules as well as the written ones you get on orientation day. There was a sense in which the Old Girls’ School had transmitted a hierarchy that it had inherited from colonial days. The children whose parents had been previously attached to the school were aware of this and then there were those, like me, who were not. Not being aware of these unwritten rules meant that I was uninhibited by them, I would speak my mind as I saw it, calling a spade a spade. That last bit often saw me at loggerheads with those who were aware of these unwritten rules.  My days as a student of my old primary school had already shaped a distinct personality who was fierce in her defense of her identity.  I was (and still am) very bookish. Former GHS librarians could attest to this. Plus I had acquired a different taste in music,  something I had inherited from my parents.  I came to the GHS with a strong sense of self, which often meant that I was not a “follow the crowd teenager.” It also meant more loggerheads, to put it lightly. Thus while many look back on their GHS days in happy nostalgia, I mostly remember how difficult it was to remain an individual with a different world sense.

After returning to St. Vincent from the UWI I found that my view of the GHS had undergone a significant change. I realized that I had spent 5 of my formative years in that institution yet I knew very little about what it meant to be “Vincentian.” This was very important to me as a student confronted with inter-island campus politics while at the UWI. I found that I had to pause and take stock of my Vincentian-ness while my colleagues from other islands were able to rattle off their respective “nesses.” I could rattle off the names of the great West Indian authors, the works of whom I was studied at the GHS, and others I met at the UWI. But I couldn’t say with certainty, who were the Vincentian authors and what was the names of their works. I found that I knew more about the traditions and customs of other territories than my own.  I had to look again at the GHS.  What a great opportunity this school has had for instilling a strong sense of Vincentian identity over the past 100 years? What better time to cement a national spirit that allows for us to move forward in the world with a strong sense of St. Vincent and the Grenadines-ness?

I began looking, in awe, at my Alma Mater for her power in shaping our lives and identity and realized how colossally underused she really was and still is, frankly. In academics she is strongest there is no doubt about that, and she has challenged and broken certain precepts which had placed restrictions on a girl’s education. However, more and more I am beginning to appreciate how she needs to evolve to face the challenges that her wards will encounter in these changing times.

Firstly, while my Alma Mater has enabled many young women to become independent in that they are more than capable of gaining and keeping various forms of employment, she can go a step further in enabling their self reliance. Traditionally, girls have been expected to learn and master the various aspects of domesticity namely cooking, cleaning, and sewing. In addition to the more academic subject areas, Alma Mater has offered courses such as Food and Nutrition, as well as Clothing and Textiles. I remember at one point that girls in 2 Crick and Connell were given the opportunity to learn metal works, making baking tins/pans among other items. These subject areas are very consistent with the traditional belief that a woman’s place is in the home. In these traditional homes, the roles are clearly divided along gender lines with the domain of the husband being more related to physical duties such as carpentry, masonry, plumbing, automobile repair and electrical repair.  Thus, it would seem, that our Amla Mater, despite her evolution, still retains vestiges of her past with regards to her original purpose, i.e., to turn girls into good wives and mothers.

Let me be clear, I am not one to frown upon girls (or boys) learning what I would call life skills that will no doubt aid them in their future. However, I am aware of the fact that times have evolved. Many of our girls will end up having to manage homes as single parents. That is a reality that we cannot escape. Thus introducing them to life skills outside those traditionally ascribed to women would further strengthen their future independence. Alongside academics and treated with respect and not as fall back subject areas, these subject areas would afford our girls with skills that would make them both more marketable (a point I will develop shortly) and truly independent as their list of options for career paths increases.

To understand the point made previously about the ‘marketability’, we need to consider that we are currently in an age where the Caribbean has been inching closer and closer towards a Single Market and Economy, or CSME. The signing of the revised Treaty of Chaguaramas has afforded citizens of the signatory states the right and opportunity to seek employment, provide services, and the right to move capital to establish their businesses in any member state, from Jamaica in the north to Suriname in the south. A quick look at the employment listings on various online Caribbean employment network sites would reveal a demand for skilled personnel in various fields. A citizen of St. Vincent and the Grenadines need only become qualified in a particular field, with a particular skill to be eligible for any of the many job opportunities that are becoming more and more available under  CSME. It would make sense therefore, to assist our girls in becoming truly well rounded individuals by exposing them to a wide range of skills during their formative years, in addition to the already expanded academic curriculum. With these skills our girls would have a greater chance of capitalizing on regional opportunities.

An equally important point would be to enable our students to make direct contributions to the growth of our economy, not as employees, but as innovators. We are a nation that has historically depended on agriculture. Admittedly, within recent years, the shift has been away from agriculture, the wisdom of which is yet to be seen, frankly. In a country with limited resources it is prudent to ensure maximum productivity from our main resource. In my view St. Vincent and the Grenadines has two such resources –the rich agricultural lands and our people.  Statistically, the ‘brightest minds’ pass through Girls’ High School. Yet, the Girls’ High School has not and does not offer any classes in Agricultural Science. This subject is largely reserved for rural schools. Again, I have to question the philosophy/wisdom behind not exposing our students to a subject area that directly covers the main income earning sector of our country.

There are many benefits to be gained from exposing our students to Agricultural Science. Firstly, it may lead to more resources being poured into development of farming techniques, the chemistry and biology of Agriculture. It may lead to the development/designing of farming equipment that would decrease labor and increase yield, which would lead to the reduction of cost and then cause our produce to be more competitive on the markets locally, regionally, and internationally.

Secondly, exposing more of our students to Agricultural Science may lead to innovations in Agro-processing, and eventually, more home based production. It may lead to more local products being harnessed and utilized in their fullest potential and more economically efficient product production.

Thirdly, with more of our students taking Agricultural Science, it may eventually lead to a nation that it more food independent and secure. This point is especially important when we consider the recent events with regards to the world food crisis that saw a dramatic increase in the cost of many imported food products. Agricultural Science will endow our students with specific skill that will allow them/us to be more food independent and food secure.

I realize that most of the ideas that I have put forward may seem farfetched, far off and even a bit idealistic. I know that world trends and experts may say that agriculture is dead or dying and that small economies may be better served by becoming more service oriented, tourism, off shore finance and the like. I have heard the arguments; nevertheless I see that the key to development of any nation is to be self-sustaining. The key to self-sustenance is making the most of your resources. Frankly speaking, Agriculture and Vincentians remain under-utilized resources in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The way to rectify this is to expand our notion of education to see it as key to the survival of the nation in the long term. The way to rectify this is to re-examine the role that agriculture plays/ has played in our nation’s development and find more ways develop our agriculture.

The way to rectify this is to examine our ides of agriculture. We need to look at agriculture not as the labor for the less academically capable, or for the lower classes. Rather, we need to see it for its truest potential and then invest ourselves, wholeheartedly, into the realization of this potential.

I realize that many of the people reading this article might think that the type of economic transformation that I am suggesting will not happen overnight and may indeed be quite some time before they are realized. This is a sentiment that I appreciate, but consider this –we are nation of 31 years and thirty years is a very small number of years in terms nationhood, especially when you consider our history. If we start to comprehensively and consistently implement these changes, with specific long term goals in mind, the benefits will no doubt emerge.

To return to my Alma Mater, the best place to start changing these attitudes is within our schools. My Alma Mater has a greater role play in the development of the many girls that pass through her halls, as well as our nation.  Close examination of what more she can contribute is especially desirable and pertinent at this her 100th year of existence. She is older by far than our nation. She is our grandmother, our mother, our big sister. She has done well over the 100 years, but let her not rest on her laurels while the world and our nation change around her.