Mon | Aug 20, 2018

Gordon Robinson | Cultivating talent

Published:Tuesday | February 13, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Russell Bell, math teacher extraordinaire.

When I attended secondary school in 19 (mumble, mumble), Jamaica's education standards were exceptionally high.

From then, the Campion College template was best. Campion focused on development of the mind and emphasised analytical thinking. Teachers welcomed disagreement and discussion. Extra-curricular activities, including physical sports, were encouraged, but only as catalysts for mind development. No sports star got an easy passage at Campion. Education targeted life skills.

Two incidents stand out in my memory. The class that included me, at the time and in the context of an all-boys' school, was among the best ever. If your term average was below 90 per cent, you fell outside the top 15. We were competitive and took a pride in grades that I don't see among teenage boys anymore.

No parent had to force me to do homework. Whenever I shirked homework, I could be assured that, the following day, Fr Winchman (Physics) would open with the dreaded "Take out a half-sheet o' paper!" signalling a pop quiz.

On the first day of the second term in fourth form, we arrived at class to find a strange-looking, bespectacled boy sitting at a front desk as if it was his. Naturally, nobody spoke to him, but, after checking 'sources', we learned he was a third-former named Stephen Blake whose mother complained to the headmaster wasn't "challenged" so he was skipped to fourth form. Seriously? Our form? The best ever? Madness!

We decided to teach this young upstart a lesson he'd never forget and applied added effort to that term's work. At the end of term, he finished first with a 99 per cent average. At the end of the third term, he finished first with a 99 per cent average. Thereafter, we pretended we weren't trying.

In those days, individual academic potential was recognised and encouraged. After the Old Ball and Chain's 'baby', SputNick, was born, it didn't take long for us to recognise he was different. Old BC, as she'd done with all her sons, began reading to him daily from birth. His brothers, the Computer Whiz and the Ampersand, had attended Sts Peter & Paul Prep, then Campion (the Ampersand after a mini-revolt that saw him starting at St George's), and it was assumed SputNick's educational path would be identical.

When Old BC produced evidence he'd be wasting his time in nursery school, Sts Peter & Paul scorned her and advised he wouldn't be 'skipped'. Rather than fight them, she sent SputNick to St Andrew Prep, led by the outstanding Madge Broderick, who unhesitatingly 'skipped' SputNick to kindergarten, then immediately 'skipped' him again when even that proved not "challenging".

The entire school rallied instantly. Form teacher Bethinia Edwards, who included SputNick in her advanced education thesis; the amazing Lady Richardson, who gave special one-on-one lessons in reading/comprehension; and Ms Broderick's brilliant, visionary protege, Renee Rattray, who helped improve his writing skills, came together to ensure special attention for a student with unique needs.

The result? SputNick entered Campion at nine and, on his 25th birthday in November, will have been a doctor for three years-plus. How many Jamaican schools would've stifled his progress and bored him into lethargy? How many SputNicks without the benefit of assertive, insistent parents like Old BC have been repressed in the last 25 years?

While I was in third form, a US diplomat sent his son to Campion. He was two years older than we, but struggled to keep up. By the time the Computer Whiz went to Ithaca College 30 years later, an American liberal arts degree was superior to any 'equivalent' offered by UWI. Jamaica's education has become parochial and robotic, while American colleges embrace globalisation.

We MUST catch up. We MUST eschew jingoism and accept regionalism, then globalisation, so students' experiences can extend beyond our shores. Do we teach the works of C.L.R. James, Claude McKay, Roger Mais, V.S. Naipaul, John Hearne, Rachel Manley, Mervyn Morris, Velma Pollard or Edward Baugh in our literature classes?

In case anyone gets the impression SputNick alone benefited from this joint parent-teacher effort, none of Old BC's three sons escaped modern reality that forces children into 'extra' lessons. One day, 'extras' teacher, the great Russell Bell, called her to ask what she did with her sons that all three were so good at math. Education begins with parenting and continues at school. Dysfunctional homes produce dysfunctional students. We MUST identify the differently talented and educate to individual needs. We MUST develop all talents equally or end up with a dysfunctional society.

Peace and love.

- Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.