Days like today I feel guilty. Looking out the window I see my mother working the vegetable plot. Sometimes she straightens up, pressed one hand against her back and wipes her arm across her forehead. That’s when it’s hard not to go out to help, but I know what she’ll say: You get inside and do your lessons and when you finish, you come help. She’s always telling me to do lessons. Mr. Clark, the teacher at St. Lawrence chapel school mostly makes us learn catechism and I memorized that already. But if I go out and tell my mother I finished, she’ll say Get back inside and do your numbers! or Do your letters! So I stay in and study some more. I keep hoping my father will come back to help her. He’s in Trinidad. My mother says you can get three times the pay for the same work there and when he comes back they’ll have some money and she won’t have to work so hard. * My best friend Jatty Grigg has to work all the time. His parents need the extra pair of hands to help pay the tenancy, so he only comes to chapel school about half the time. But it’s Saturday so there’s no school today anyway.
Every Saturday the women go up to do washing at the pond. All the women do is chatter all day. Jatty and me and the other boys kick a rag ball around the field. We don’t have to do anything except sometimes sprinkle cassava starch on the clothes when they tell us to or turn the clothes over on the bleach rock. Saturday is the best day of the week. * The teacher, Mr. Clark, is all right except one eye is always looking in a different direction so you never know if he’s talking to you. My mother makes me go on time but Mr. Clark is usually at least an hour late so I’m alone in the classroom a lot. I look at the books from the cabinet (no one ever locks it). One of them has pictures of people’s insides and I hide it behind Plato’s Dialogues in case Mr. Clark comes earlier than usual. One week I counted and he was only in the classroom for four hours.
Today he told us that the school inspector is coming. Mr. Clark looked nervous about it. Jatty told me Mr. Clark gets paid by how well we do on the exam. From the way Mr. Clark was carrying on, I believe it. He was giving out licks with his paddle faster than you could answer. After class he asked me to give extra lessons to the other kids so they’d be ready. I wanted to tell him to do it himself, but I knew it would only get me more licks. * Jatty got mad because he can’t do arithmetic. I was trying to show him and some other kids but Jatty wouldn’t listen. He said what good is arithmetic when you’re cutting can or digging sweet potato? Because that’s all any of us are going to do anyway. I told him he was ignorant and he hit me so I hit him back and pretty soon we were rolling around in the dirt in front of my house. I kept on hitting him because I thought he might be right.
At first I didn’t ask my mother about what Jatty said because I thought she’d get mad. She was cooking salt fish outside in the rock kitchen. She could see I was thinking about something so she made me ask. She didn’t get mad like I thought. She got quiet.
She said when slavery ended, not much changed. Most doors stayed closed. But one that did open was education. Maybe you’ll end up cutting cane, she said. I want something better for you but maybe you’ll end up cutting cane. It’s important to learn that you’ve got value as a human being, regardless of what other people say you’re worth. That’s what comes from education. I think I know what she meant but none of that would have convinced Jatty. * The inspector came today. Mr. Clark was especially nervous. His eye was rolling around in his head like crazy and whenever somebody answered a question wrong he banged his hand on his desk. Finally the inspector asked Mr. Clark to wait outside.
Most everybody knew the catechism and most could do their numbers and letters. When the inspector got to me he asked me the usual questions and when I knew the answers he asked some harder ones. When I knew the answers to those too he looked surprised. He pulled down one of the books from the cabinet (Plato’s Dialogues, one I’ve looked at plenty of times in the mornings before Mr. Clark arrives) and asked me to read him some. I told him the first couple of lines without looking. After all this, the inspector talked to Mr. Clark and Mr. Clark looked real happy. Jatty leaned over and said, Well, I guess he’s gonna get paid. * When I came back with firewood from the gully Mr. Crowe was standing in front of the house. I waited on the other side of the hedge, thinking I could hide until he went away. My mother says he’s the same as he was before they ended slavery. He doesn’t see any difference between overseeing slaves and managing located laborers. He was standing with his hands on the top of his white breeches. I heard him say my name. He was talking about the exam. He was saying how much he believed in education for Negroes.
Learn punctuality, he said. Learn to perform your duties cheerfully. But don’t learn aspirations, don’t try to exceed your station because it will only lead to trouble.
My mother was quiet while he said this. Even though we pay on time, Mr. Crowe can evict us any time he likes. From the look on her face, if she opened her mouth it was going to be trouble. After he left all she said was, Don’t mind him. He’s ignorant. * Now that Mr. Clark’s been paid and he doesn’t have a visit from the inspector to worry about, he was extra late today. Since there’s nothing at home except work, most of us kicked a rag ball around the yard outside St. Lawrence Church. Pretty soon a preacher came along. Jatty said we were gonna get licks for playing ball in the churchyard. But the preacher just wanted to know which one was Nat. I told him I was and he said he was from Pilgrim’s Place secondary school here in Christchurch. They found out about my exam and they were offering me a place at their school. I figured it was a joke and so did Jatty. But the preacher marched me home to my mother and told her the same thing. I didn’t see her smile or cry or shout but I could hear all three in her voice when she said, Nat, you’re smart enough to know an open door when you see one.
Author’s note: The first major gesture towards education for all in Barbados was made in the form of the Negro Education Grant of 1835, though the motives behind these initial moves were dubious. Newly emancipated Blacks were hungry for education but the planters saw schooling merely as a means for producing a docile working class and tried to influence the curriculum accordingly.
The picture today is very different. Since independence from Britain in 1966, the government of Barbados has been distinguished by its commitment to education. Today, more than 20% of its annual spending goes to education (compare that with 5% in the U.S.). Education on the island is of the highest quality, regardless of the student’s sex, race or colour.
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Source: Ian R. Clayton, Originally on Barbados.org