“My Story” Chapter 05

“My Story” – by Randall Butisingh.

(Reminiscences during my life beginning 1913)

CHAPTER FIVE

School life for me began for me at the age of three.  In those days there were no kindergartens and I was thrust into the Congregational primary school, in Buxton, among older children.  From the beginning it was terror for me.  I saw the head teacher beat my half sister in the hand with a tamarind rod.  She squirmed after each stroke and placed her hand in her armpits to alleviate the sting of the lash.  He gave her three strokes; it was not for bad behaviour but for not knowing her school lessons.  I was in fear for the whole day.  The headmaster was nicknamed ‘Chimney bam’.  Bam is an onomatopoeic word .which suggested the loud noise made by a falling object.  Head teachers in those days would get pieces of the thick leather used to spin the wheels of the engines in the sugar factories.  This instrument when it comes in contact with the palm of the hand or the buttocks makes a loud noise.  “Chimney Bam” suggested the noise made by the falling of the tall brick chimney used in the sugar estates to allow the smoke from the sugar factory to escape.

I must also mention that in those days, the noise made in the classes was ear-splitting and could be heard on the public road about a hundred yards or more away.  What makes it worse, there were no classrooms; each classs had to vie with the others to get heard.  It was not the noise of chaos, but it was that of learning by rote.

My parents saw my fear and removed me to the Methodist school in Buxton.  I know, in those days, African parents encouraged teachers to mete out corporal punishment to their children.  They did it at home, sometimes with great brutality.    This was not so in the majority of Indian families.  The children of Indians were more amenable to discipline; they were not accustomed to corporal punishment at home and a stern look from the teacher would have been enough deterrent for any lapse of conduct.  I must admit, though, in my case, my mother who was brought up in an African environment never spared the rod.  We loved our father more because he never flogged us.

Because of my living in Buxton and attending the village school, and my going to church, most of my friends were Afro Guianese.  I was at the crossroads of two cultures which will have a significant bearing on my beliefs and my spiritual life.  My mother was Hindu but she saw that we had Christian training.  She liked Christianity, and at one time she invited the catechist who was a converted Hindu to teach her the catechism – I used to sit with her – but she never made a full commitment and would sometimes do her Hindu puja (worship).  It was not until she was old when she was baptized and died a Christian.  My father, who may have been baptized as a child, never went to church, but associated with the Hindus until he was getting old.  When he died, he was a member of the Lutheran Church.  So, as a child I was faced with the conflict of not associating with the Hindus and not fully befriending the Africans who were Christians and my schoolmates..

My time spent at the Methodist School while I was still very young was not so filled with fear.  There was  some corporal punishment there too, but not severe and I was kindly treated by two of my teachers, one a female who would take me to her home, which was near, at recreation time and the other a young male who earned my respect until the last time we met.  He was nearing old age at the time.

Apart from the Head teacher who was certificated, almost all the other teachers were uncertificated or inexperienced.  At that time there was an acute shortage of certificated or experienced teachers.  The syllabus required instruction in the Three R’s: reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. There were no allowances made for innate dullness, slow learning or late developers.  All were bundled in the same category.  Non achievement was attributed to laziness and the rod was regarded as the motivator.

I remember a colleague telling me a story of his head teacher who, immediately before he went into the Examination room, placed him on the fender of his car and administered six strokes on his buttocks with a cane as a stimulus and a stimulant.  Such was the belief in the efficacy of the rod.

When I first went to school, I began learning the alphabet from a card hung up on the easel.  The drill was done day after day until the letters were learnt.  Then three-letter words were placed on the blackboard and we spelt each over and over again until we memorized the spelling.  We were never taught phonetics.  I first started writing with my teacher holding my hand and forming the letter ‘a’.  It did not take me long to master the technique of reading.  I read fluently raising my voice at a comma and dropping it at a period.  That was all that was required.  There was no exercise in comprehension, and to all of us children who spoke only Creolese (English Dialect), we were unable to fully comprehend the texts.  Reading was nothing but mechanical, and as some educators put it, “barking at print”.

This is an example of what I meant by “barking at print”.  When I was a young teacher, the Commissioner of Education visited the school.  I was doing a lesson in reading.  The passage was not prepared.  I called on a boy to read, not the best in the class then.  He got up and began haltingly but in a loud voice.  Suddenly there was a pin drop silence in the whole school which had no classrooms.  They stopped working and listened to him.  He called each word independently and not as if it was part of a sentence.  I did not stop him but allowed him to finish the paragraph.  The Commissioner looked at me and to the hearing of the whole school said; “that reading was atrocious.”  I did not know what to say at the time.  I replied that these are country children not used to speaking English.  I saw the look of contempt in his face.  He did not realize that it was the system of which he was the head resulted in that situation.

But there were exceptions.  I was just beginning to teach at the age of fifteen as a pupil teacher when this tall, handsome Scotsman, the Assistant Commissioner, with a pleasant countenance came and found me taking a reading lesson in the third standard.  He asked me quite gently to illustrate the lesson.  I was tongue-tied.  I did not speak or move.  At that stage in my teaching career I was inarticulate.  After a few seconds of gentle persuasion, he took the chalk and demonstrated on the blackboard.  Then he handed me the chalk, smiled and left without making any comments.  These two individuals remained in my memory – the opposite in attitude – The Englishman and the Scotsman.

It was not hard to see how the English language was difficult for the children whose parents spoke Creolese at home.  English was required at school and the teacher would expect nothing but good English when the child is spoken to.  This hindered articulation as the child was afraid to express itself.  Oral expression was one of my problems in school.  I wrote better, but my thought process was hindered because of a poor vocabulary.

Arithmetic was my bugbear.  It was the subject for which I was most punished.  As I mentioned earlier I was sent to school at a very early age.  I was able to go through school because of my reading and spelling ability, but I was unable to grasp the concept of numbers; subtraction and long division were difficult to me in the beginning.   Exercises in British currency – Pounds Sterling, were particularly difficult.  It was not until I reached the last class in the primary school, at the age of twelve, that I began to understand figures to a certain extent.

At the age of ten I and four others were selected to study for the Government Scholarship which gives the winner admission to Queen’s College, a high and prestigious educational institution.   Its masters, at the beginning came from England.  The discipline was excellent.  Anyone graduating from Queen’s college was sure to get a job in the Civil Service or big business.  I was eleven at the time.  This, for the first time gave a boost to my confidence and my parents were happy.  They bought the required text books and I was required to remain in school after the regular hours to continue study until 6 p.m.  We also had to go to the head teacher’s house on Saturdays and during holidays for further instructions.

Among the group was one Ballgreene Nehaul.  He was very studious and was always seen reading. He was never seen idle, except for a little play, now and then.  I liked him very much and we became good friends.  He was chubby and for that his teacher nicknamed him Tipoo.  Tipoo Sahib was an Indian warrior who fought against the British in India and was involved in the imprisonment of English civilians in the Black hole of Calcutta

I was eleven when, with four other pupils selected, we wrote the County Scholarship Examination.  None of us qualified, but I made second place among the five.  This made my parents feel good.  This motivated me somewhat, but it did not make me like studies.  I used to think of the day when I would finish school and be free from studies with its concomitant stimulus, corporal punishment.  There was not a day when I would not be punished.  The period for Arithmetic was a time of fear.  I could not keep up with the others and so I was punished for what I could not do.  It was results that mattered to the teacher; effort was ignored.  The teacher’s ignorance of the principles of teaching was suffering to me.  If my teacher had started me from where I was and let me develop at my own rate.  Arithmetic would have not been the bugbear it was; but to face failure day by day was disheartening and demoralizing

Teacher Felix Stephenson was a good headmaster, a good teacher and a good man. He was strict, but he exuded compassion and he did many things to make school life pleasant like sports, concerts, cricket for the boys and rounders for the girls, treats and fairs.

We were all under twelve and we had another chance to sit the County Scholarship Examination.  We had hardly begun preparation when we got news of the illness of our headmaster.  He was stricken with Typhoid fever which in the early part of the twentieth century was a dreaded disease, as it often proved fatal.  That was in 1924; medicine was not very advanced and within a few days he died.  He was only thirty-six years old.  My first reaction was not one of sadness.  I had a sense of freedom. There would be no more extra lessons and no more corporal punishment.  The Stephenson family was well educated and respected family in Buxton. Felix had a brother called “Sargie”, a veteran of World War I, Buller, Wilbert Stephenson and Maude Stephenson, who was a trained teacher.

With that feeling I attended the funeral.  It was the longest procession I ever witnessed.  When the horse-drawn hearse reached the church, the last of the mourners had not yet left the house which was about a quarter mile away.  The large church was packed to capacity with hundreds standing in the rear and a huge throng outside. I recall nothing of the service but the hymn “Abide with me”.  That is my favourite hymn.  It is beautiful poetry and philosophy. I can repeat the stanzas word for word and I get emotional whenever I seek the words for solace.

As children, we believed that his spirit would come out of the grave on the third day; so we counted the days and watched for signs of his resurrection, for the opening of the grave.  Of course, we saw no signs.

Shortly after his death, another headmaster, Mr. Fox, who seemed to be in his sixties, was appointed.  In those days, in a denominational school which was dually controlled, the criteria for appointment of headmaster by the school manager who was vicar or rector of the church, was not length of service or academic qualification.  The minimum in qualification and the ability to play the church organ were sufficient recommendation.  The head teacher was also required to be secretary to the vicar, to be Sunday school superintendent, choir master and sometimes lay reader.

Within weeks of the new head teacher’s arrival, we approached him and told him that we were candidates for the County Scholarship.  Four out of the five of us were chosen.  I was not because my parents could not afford the books needed.  Again, no one qualified.  Mr. Fox did not complete a year, following his appointment, when he died.

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4 Comments »

  1. Dear Mr. Butisingh

    I am interested in knowing if you knew the Talbots from Buxton. My grandfather was Jonathan Stier Talbot. His siblings were ;
    Dr. David Abner Talbot
    Benjamin Talbot
    Joseph Talbot
    Jessie Talbot
    Emmice Talbot.

    Thank you.

    • randallbutisingh said,

      Dear Laurie,
      I knew your grandfather Steir Talbott very well. I also knew one of his sisters, the teacher, whom the Prince of Wales chose, among all the other beautiful ladies, some were whites, to dance with when he came to Guyana. I was a boy then about ten or eleven years old. My parents were too poor to send me to Georgetown with my other schoolmates to see him. It was your grandfather’s sister who read him a poem she composed and presented him with a bouquet. Your grandfather also had a brother who was sergeant major stationed at the Vigilance Police Station. I remember when one of your Grandfather’s sisters died. I was at the funeral parlour and saw her body. I do not know his other siblings. Your grandfather was a dignified polished gentleman, always well dressed. I cannot recall when and where he died.

      • Thanks a whole lot for this information. Another cousin of mine, still alive is Dr., Bishop Frederick H. Talbot, former ambassador to the US and Canada.

        I am advertising my organization Guyanese Academics located online at http://guyaneseacademics.org

        Guyanese Academics was established to record, publish and preserve the legacies of Guyanese Academics globally. Minimum membership requirement is a Bachelor Degree. It is free to join.

        Mr. Laurie Talbot
        President, Founder and Trustee
        Guysnese Academics
        347-627-2213

  2. Vi said,

    Mr. Butisingh I attended Congregational primary school and I can identify with your experience. I had a teacher (not a Buxtonian) that was a terrorist that needed anger management. He would jump on the desk, eyes blood red and lash you everywhere with the tamarind rod like he wanted to kill you. This individual took corporal punishment to a different level. We probably can look at this case as you mentioned – as a lack of proper training and the Afro Guyanese parents giving too much liberty to the teachers.


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