Looking back at Smith's Church Congregational
a tribute by Godfrey Chin, a former student 1942-1948
December 3, 2006
Smith Memorial Primary School on Hadfield Street. The original school building is to the left of the photograph, whilst the larger building was built some years ago to accommodate the growing number of students.
Having written extensively about my high school days at Central High in the early fifties, I am obliged to share my fond public school memories at Smith's Church Congregational on the occasion of its 163rd Anniversary.
While many of you reading this probably went to another public school, from Skeldon to Morawhanna, we all shared in the legacy of a sound British education, are proud of our foundation, and travelled the same road. If so, kindling one memory of your wonderful yesteryears, in our 'beautiful Guyana' would be worth this vicarious journey.
From the private Kindergarten Creche, Regent St, between Yong Hing's Grocery, at Alexander St. and Coppin's two cents Cherry Drink Parlour, west of Bourda Market, I graduated to the ABC Standard, Smith's Church Annexe in September 1942. WWII had engulfed the world, as my kind teacher ruled my first slate, with a nail. Thereafter, slate pencils became my sword, as I pinpricked to master the Alphabet and the King's English. Sixty-four years later, I am still chicken-picking letters - one finger touch on this dam Bill Gates contraption! My circle of life is complete!
At that time, Hadfield Street was being resurfaced with 'white coral' imported from Barbados. Elderly women sat on the roadside, under umbrellas - pulverising the coral with hammers, for six cents a barrel - while we collected special pieces for slate-pencil sharpeners, and whistles. Mr Ramhit, who owned the cake-shop at 115 Regent Street, was then a skilled road supervisor responsible for maintaining our streets. Today, we need a hundred Ramhits, equipment and currency to rehabilitate the ruinous ruts that plague the city and environs!
Our primary 'catechism' was a colourful 26 illustrated compartment poster - A for Apple - B for Bat - C for Cat etc. Recitation tables were a ditty sing-a-long: two tens are twenty; twenty - twenty and one makes twenty-one; twenty-two; twenty three ... Today, I thank heavens for this start in Arithmetic, the current generation of sales clerks rely on calculators.
Children making purchases outside the school during recess.
But it was not only the three R's - Reading, 'Riting and 'Rithmetic - that were taught. We were schooled, before we learnt 'talk-back' and rudeness to our elders, in the codes of etiquette and decorum. This was before Miss Manners' advice column was syndicated worldwide. While the world had Ann Landers, we had our own Helen Haynes Lovelorn advice columns in the dailies.
Similar to the Alphabet Poster, the Rules of Good Conduct were clearly set out to be memorised. 'Good Morning - Thank Yous - were obligatory salutations. Quiet speech was a sign of refinement; Children should be seen not heard; Elders must be respected...
Hell - good manners and etiquette are being revitalised, as you read this, among the natives back home! Thank Heavens, World Cup coming up. Is it too late to close the gate on the decay and default in good manners these last 40 years?
Every Guyanese child must have been admonished some time in his school career by his parents, with the following truth: "Heights by great men reached and kept were not obtained by sudden flight but, they while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night." (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)
As writing with ink was introduced with the Vere Foster's Copy Book - our intro. to penmanship was consolidated, with repetitious tracings of dotted script clichÃ©s and gems, extolling the virtues of life: 'A rolling stone gathers no moss' and 'Too many cooks spoil the broth!'
Ink was supplied in jugs by the Education Department on High Street. Inkwells filled at the stand pipe, were then inserted in holes on the desk - while you sucked the 'wax coating off the nibs'. Choice of nibs - pointed or chiselled - Can't remember their names now. A senior moment.
Before bleach, ink stains on school outfits were the nemesis of 'salt-soap.' Carbolic and Zex soaps were kings! This was before Tide soap powder, liquid detergents and Downy. At this time, a clothes line was a necessity, also for skipping, and games of cowboy and Indians. Baby napkins on clothes line in drizzling rain, were anxiously watched, as was fresh milk scalding on the fire or proxy votes in the general elections.
The goblet, placed in open jalousies, cooled our drinking water, and vats became extinct after piped water was introduced in 1949. Wonder what ever happened to that tribe of Sanitary Inspectors who visited monthly and added gubby fish to the vat to eat the mosquito larvae. Yuck!
Fountain pens, Parker and Waterman's, were a luxury. Ball points which debuted at Christmas in 1945, reached British Guiana (BG), the next year, as the 'pen that could write underwater.' The blue cover exercise books, were our tablets - single and double line - with the back page, our ready reference of avoirdupois weights, pounds/shillings/pence, metric tables, and the everlasting "Thirty days hath September, April June and Novemberâ€¦" Alya remember that?
By First Standard, the West Indian Reader was our Primer, and, as the Mighty Sparrow later ridiculed, "'Dan was the man in the van and the cow jumped over the moon after Winkie, Blinkie and Nod set sail". Some schools, e.g. Moravian, and Christ Church, used the Royal Reader! My favourite from these readers was the story of the woman who coaxed the cow onto her roof to eat the grass growing there, and tied the other end of the rope around her waist, as she tended her kitchen chores!
Too small in 'little school' to play football and cricket in the schoolyard with the big bullies, you settled for cush for buttons - jummimg - gam - rake - string figures - carbon and hairy/dorey/tilya /chowrie/zampa/zig/jhuta-one with your age-group, which included Desmond Luck, Ed Gordon and Brian Sadler.
A highlight of the early days were the beautiful well-trained teachers, who graduated at Teacher's Training College, and interned at public schools. In Second Standard, I fell in love with a temporary teacher and my grades peaked to 100 until the most embarrassing moment in my entire life.
On a Saturday afternoon, while travelling in the wicker-basket of a carrier-bike after delivering bread to be baked, at the baker-shop, my uncle busy navigating, wished a smoke and passed his pack of Lighthouse, for me to light one. Obliging, I lit the cigarette, inhaled to ensure it was lit and lo and behold, riding past at that very moment, was the teacher I had plans to marry! Her face grimaced in shock and remorse at this seven-year-old little Caesar, and I played hookey to the end of the term!
By school year, commencing September 1945, I was promoted to Third Standard and Mr Rudder was the teacher. He made us climb the tamarind tree in the next yard for switches which were cheaper than wild cane. Of course many days his bicycle was 'punctured', until he learnt civility!
Feb 23rd, 3.35 pm: That year was Black Friday, the Great Fire at Bookers Drug Store. Hammie Green in his new Anthology of Georgetown, records his rush from Smith's Church to witness the fire. I ran from Ramcharran's Drug Store, Middle Street and Pluto Martindale, a young teacher from St Andrews, followed the Stabroek Fire Engines to see the raging inferno. Missing a fire in the city, in those days was infra dig.
May 7 was my eighth birthday. My gift was a whole boiled egg all to myself, no sharing. Germany surrendered the next day - VE Day. Was that a coincidence? September 3rd next, Japan capitulated as the Atomic Age enfolded. My favourite nylon about jumping from the frying pan into the fire was the Japanese, who survived Hiroshima, and fled the next day to Nagasaki for a safe haven!
Celebrating VJ Day, we drilled in the Hadfield Street avenue in front of the school. Iris Leitch our music teacher crash-coursed our singing skills and two weeks later in spanking school uniforms - the boys in khaki short pants, white shirt, socks and yachting shoes - our voices were raised in unison at the Astor Cinema, with all the other schools singing patriotic tributes: "God save the King", "Land of Hope and Glory", "Rule Britannia", "Star Spangled Banner" and "Song of Guyana's Children".
The Militia Band attended in colourful ceremonial wear, with red epaulettes and Major Henwood conducting. I will always remember how he graciously passed the baton to Lynette Dolphin to lead the panoply of Guyana Folk Songs including "Satira Gal" and "Itanami".
Was this symbolic of the passing of British power to the locals which came 21 years later? And after which Ol Mas' set in, in my Guyana, until today it reigns and crime rains on the natives? Oh my poor homeland!
Each participant was then given a paperbag of buns, a soft drink and treated to selected cartoons: The Three Stooges and a Western on the silver screen. We reassembled outside, paraded north up Carmichael Street for a march-past salute to the Governor, Sir Gordon Lethem standing on a rostrum, regal in his white feathered helmet!
Extra curricular activities at Smith's included sewing for girls and my assignment weekly, was to fetch the huge hamper sewing basket from the head teacher, Mrs Pollard's home on Bourda Street opposite the Creche! The boys were sent to woodworking classes in Charlestown, while at midday, the needy received lunch at the soup-kitchen on St Philips.
There were reading periods each week, when reading was encouraged in the classroom as books from the school's library were made available. At that time the popular daily comic strips were Phantom, Mandrake and Orphan Annie. Sunday was Tarzan, Prince Valiant and the Classics Illustrated Comics were collector's items. The Public Free Library encouraged our literary yearning, with the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Biggles and Billy Bunter!
The Sylvester family, many of whom attended Smith's Church, lived obliquely opposite the school. I still remember listening in their home, to the overseas broadcast in March, 1947, when our Cliff Anderson lost his challenge to Al Phillips for the British Empire Featherweight title, because of a cowboy hometown decision.
And history was repeated last week, 59 years later, when Guyanese Leon Moore lost in Barranquilla, Columbia his WBO title fight, against home fighter Irene Pacheco. It was another cowboy decision which angered the fans who witnessed the fight, and felt the Guyanese was definitely the winner. However, the two Columbian judges, Brothers Martin and Leonel Mercado, have been suspended for life, for their biased and highly controversial scoring.
In the forties, fathers were busy providing food for the table. Mothers were the domestic engineers, cooking, housekeeping and attending to our every ill, pain and joy. We thus scavenged on our own, learnt self reliance, independence and inter-dependence with friends, whose colour, creed, class and religion made no difference, in a melting pot of warm close camaraderie. All ahwe was truly one family then!
With no cars or bicycles, we walked to and from, everywhere. From Sea Wall to Punt Trench, Water Street to Lama Back Dam. Pocket piece was as scarce as out-of-season guava and empty rum bottles were a handsome four cents treasure.
Pit [stalls] was four cents half price. House, Balcony and Box were for the rich , yet we contrived not to miss any of the westerns, serials or action flicks at the local cinemas.
Our swimming pools were the Lama, Forty-feet, Punt Trench, South Road and East Street canals and the Demerara River off Fort Groyne Sea Wall. Luckhoo Public Pool opened in the early sixties. Our weekly household chores were to sweep the yard and bottom-house with pointa broom, clean the fowl coop, spread fresh sawdust, and bathe your rice-eater pet.
We wore hand-me-downs, relished leftovers and were happier than today's Air-Jordan kids in their designer fashion wear! Christmas savings were put in boxes, box-hands, Post Office Savings Bank, friendly burial societies and Mom's cookie jars, which splurging fathers could never find! A popular western hit tune was "Don't sell Daddy any more whiskey!"
The War Years saw acute shortages. No flour, cassava and plantain (our staples) and makeshift, cut and contrive were the order of the day. A soapy lather could be obtained from dungs leaves, while black sage was our toothbrush. Every ill or ailment was treated with ol wives bush remedy. Regular doses of senna-pods, castor oil, cascara, epsom salts kept body and mind, live and strong.
And we were happy, contented, and resourceful. Hell, we were preparing for the Banlon Days of the seventies.
By Gubby Allen's MCC Tour' 47, a Schoolboys Stand was built at GCC Bourda. The season ticket cost $3. Non-jar cricket bats were $10 and wind-puss doving our football craze. Balata balls were boiled and rolled in upturned champagne bottles while cork balls became popular. Cork was essential in balata balls, with all them drainage trenches around!
Each term the entire school attended service at our church opposite, where Rev Hawley Bryant warned us of the vices of sin, and reminded us of the martyrdom of John Smith, our patron. It was such a pleasure playing with the Bryant boys in the manse yard, eating fruit fresh from their orchard, and sharing jelly sandwiches, at convenient tea-time visits.
By 11 years, Scholarship Common Entrance loomed requiring serious homework, school studies, endless essays, Shilling arithmetic sums, history from De Weever's Children Story of Guyana, and more grammar and syntax than Shakespeare ever garnered.
In April, your final chance for Scholarship- as you took the National Exams at Broad Street Government School along with 5,000-odd hopefuls nationwide.
A novena or Lent fast created miracles, as we strove to surpass our parents' education standards, for better jobs in the public service or private sector.
Yes, in those days, we prayed in schools, and social morality was the norm. Daphne Rogers was our scholarship class teacher. The brilliant ones included Elgar Cummings, Shirley Field-Ridley, Ada Thompson, Gloria Arthur, Marc Matthews, Winston Haynes, Raphael Blue, Windsor Bruce, Joy and Noel Leitch, Dunstan Mitchell. Wow! an Ocean's Eleven to please this cook-shop-fly! Any of you reading this, let's meet at next year's anniversary at our Alma Mater, Hadfield Street, Georgetown.
Results of scholarship were published in the Argosy, Chronicle, Graphic and the Official Gazette opening another path as you fulfilled book lists and new uniforms to enter the threshold of secondary education and life's journey through QC, St Stanislaus, Bishops' or the several secondary schools available! Ya think it was easy! Those were the days, my friend.........
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