I attended what could reasonably be described as a post-colonial girls’ school, one founded by Presbyterian missionaries to the Caribbean who were concerned about the souls of the local Hindu population. It is most well-known beyond its local borders for an excellent cookbook, of which there have been multiple editions.
I spent seven uniformed years there, shaped—perhaps indelibly so—by each of my teachers and many of my classmates.
Seven years is a long time. Eleven to eighteeen, just barely; the very definition of formative years.
When Caribbean people meet for the first time, and especially if they’re people who grew up on the same island, there is first an establishing of geography. Among Trinidadians, the Port of Spain lighthouse is a key marker.
Once quadrants are drawn - north or south, east or west, the unique boundaries of “central” - there follows, inevitably: “what school did you go to?”
It is a short cut. A swift, decisive, and often dismissive means of deciphering class, social proximity, assumed aptitude on mandatory standardized tests with an essay component.
Sometimes, depending on the responses and the perceived nearness in ages of the conversants, names may be traded back and forth. Names of students, of teachers, of principals. Of football players and coaches.
“Oho you were in class with so-and-so?”
The picture is ever more sharply drawn.
At my school we studied the Greek tragedies and Shakespeare and Chaucer and Miller and Williams and in sixth form, if we stuck around for it and were accepted back into it, we would be exposed to one book of Caribbean poetry. There we would, for many of us the first and for many of us the last time, discuss Martin Carter and Olive Senior and Lorna Goodison.
At my school we could pursue Physics or Advanced Mathematics or French (but not all three, because the “Maths” track was distinct from the “Arts and Languages” track was distinct from the “Business and Economics” track was distinct from the “Sciences” track)
And so you’d have the Maths / Further Maths / Physics girls and the English Literature / Spanish Literature / Geography girls and the Economics / Accounting / Management of Business Girls and if your parents could afford you’d see each other again after school and on weekends in the extra lessons that helped determine who’d go on to university and who’d go to work.
For the first three years there was the most amount of mixing - all possibilities were open to you until they weren’t. Everyone studied the same subjects until we didn’t and our options were deliberately narrowed, the classes we were in determined by how we’d done in the tests in those first three years.
We didn’t all make it past year five, because getting into and making it out of years six and seven (“Lower Six” and “Upper Six” at my school), typically required a combination of knowing how to study and how to do well on exams and having the kind of family who wanted and could afford for you to have ambitions for undergraduate further education.
“Did you do A Levels?” is never a neutral question when deployed by people who did.
non nobis solum, sed omnibus
Not for ourselves alone, but for others
We were very good at identifying others.
willed our skins pale
muffled our laughter
lowered our voices
let out our hems
dekinked our hair
denied our sex in gym tunics and bloomers
harnessed our voices to madrigals
and genteel airs
yoked our minds to declensions in Latin
and the language of Shakespeare
Told us nothing about ourselves
There was nothing about us at all
How those pale northern eyes and
aristocratic whispers once erased us
how our loudness, our laughter
There was nothing left of ourselves
Nothing about us at all
— from Colonial Girls’ School by Olive Senior