AS TOLD TO BC PIRES
My name is Ken Jaikaransingh and I spent 17 years at St Mary’s, the College of the Immaculate Conception (CIC).
I come from a family of seven children in Upper St Vincent Street, probably the most diverse street in Port of Spain. Offices and government buildings dominated the lower southern end. Our family home was a stone's throw from all of the city's cinemas, where I spent considerable time.
I’m apprehensive that my eldest brother still lives alone in the old family home, where I park when I have to go downtown. The old neighbourhood has a depressingly alien feel. Office buildings occupy what were once family homes. The house next door, corner cafe and barrack yard (beyond) have become a parking lot. At night, there’s no one in a street that once bubbled with chatter and excitement.
From Tranquillity Boys Government School, I sat the first-ever Common Entrance Examination in 1961 and went to St Mary's College in January 1962.
I spent my first year at UWI (aged only) 17 in residence at Milner Hall.
(Amongst) much older colleagues, I walked up Frederick Street past my alma mater as part of the crowd that marched to the Jamaican High Commission over the expulsion of Walter Rodney. The events of 1969-1971 unfolded all around me and (helped form) how I saw the world.
At UWI, even a casual conversation with Professor Gordon Rohlehr enriched me.
I became a lapsed Catholic in my early 20s and, despite making attempts to reconnect with the faith, have found it too difficult a reconciliation.
I have become quite disenchanted with all organised religions. The evangelicals and Catholic priests who exhorted their followers to see Donald Trump as the Anointed One have reinforced my conviction.
I used to dance as a younger man. But the joy evaporated when the knees gave way.
I can watch The Godfather, Chinatown, The Shawshank Redemption and Lawrence of Arabia any time.
But few movies drag me out of my house these days. Joker did, as did Judy.
The best novel I've read is VS Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas, a masterpiece on many levels. Trinidadian but universal, comic yet tragic, full of rich characterisation and oddly political. Clare Adam’s Golden Child is the best West Indian novel I've read for a while.
My father brought me through the Pembroke Street “Small Yard” entrance and up the stairs to my new classroom.
It was difficult not to be overawed by this huge cream-coloured complex. Your name was chalked on your desk.
So different from primary school: you had different teachers for each subject. Latin, algebra, geometry, French, Spanish...these were brave new worlds. It would take some while to be less apprehensive.
Academically, St Mary's was hierarchical but egalitarian. The brightest boys were in the “A” or “special” classes and you rose to or fell from (upper and lower streams based on exam performance). I was put in 1A Special in January 1962 and remained in the top stream but many who entered with me began the traumatic slide down.
In September 1963, I wasn’t even 13 years old but I was already in form four, having skipped form three.
I began to be dimly aware but I was too young and naïve to make any connection between certain students (being) excessively punished for minor misdemeanours and class or racial prejudice.
I won the (in-school) Fr Graf Literary Prize for a semi-comic story called The Loser, about a hustler who steals money from a collection box in a church, plays a horse-racing bet he wins. (But) then the horse is disqualified.
It's fairly juvenile, but I think I earned brownie points for locating the collection box in the CIC chapel! The prize was a CIC medal and a copy of the Complete Works of Shakespeare. I still have them both.
In 1972, after a year of teaching at Hillview College, Fr Lai Fook called to ask me personally to return to St Mary’s, to teach literature and Spanish.
I was (also) given a full roster of (extracurricular) activities, including editing the college annual after its (priest) editor took up a position in Rome. I was never briefed and was given no handover notes. (So) I didn’t realise I was (supposed to keep a) diary of school activities for reports in the annual – many of which had taken place in the year before my arrival! The annual I eventually produced was late, poorly edited, devoid of much important content and well below the standard of what had been produced before and since.
I was relieved of the editor's responsibility. It is something I remain ashamed of even today.
The school I had returned to was not the school I had left a few short years before.
The 1970 explosion of social unrest had affected the school, too. Cries of discrimination and unjust treatment were coming from the student population.
For a significant handful, St Mary's represented much of what needed to be corrected in the society at large.
I ran afoul of Fr Lai Fook over “the Callender Affair,” the dismissal of Wayne Callender, the captain of the First XI football team, (whom some) in the school administration considered a “Communist.” Louis Nurse, a student, wrote a calypso for the school concert with the hook line, “Lai Fook throw Callender outta soccer!”
Getting a negative confidential report from Fr Lai Fook for my part in the Callender Affair distressed me. But I contested that successfully at the Ministry of Education.
We would eventually reconcile but Fr Lai Fook and I didn't speak to each other for a year or two after these events.
I enjoyed teaching. I always have. But I learnt more from my students than I taught them. Both in the classroom and in daily life. I owe them all a debt .
My younger brother Errol, who was also a teacher at CIC, went on to become principal of Presentation College.
But, until BC Pires asked me now, I never knew that Errol and I had the nicknames of Bligny and Zadig (the fictional elder and younger brothers who featured in the French textbook).
The St Mary's staffroom was a significant ideas-exchange forum, where topics ranged from cricket to politics, calypso to world affairs.
It could not be otherwise when people like CV Gocking, Pat Clarke, June Alfred, Mervyn Millette and Carol Keller were around.
The greatest (thing about teaching is to) be remembered by so many students, and to see how many of them have made their mark in life. If teachers earn little more than the appreciation of their students, they have still been handsomely rewarded.
I spent ten months in the UK due to the border closure in Trinidad. I was fortunate to bunk for what was expected to be a fortnight at my son's one-bedroom apartment in Oxford. My son, a first-year junior doctor, came down with covid.
Having to work one's way through a mystifying maze to get an exemption to fly home was daunting. Again, I was fortunate to eventually smash my way through the obstacles, but there are so many still lingering disconsolately waiting for sensible management of the process to begin.
I avoid useless discussions with people who see discussion as trying to score points and winning instead of being an exchange of ideas.
The best thing about retirement is living live at a more sedate place. The worst is having only yourself as company.
A Trinbagonian is someone created by a rich palette of cultures, ethnicities, social and economic diversity and shared experiences. We don't all draw in equal amounts or from all elements of that palette, but we recognise it in each other.
To me, Trinidad and Tobago means the place where I have always lived, physically and figuratively. It's not a perfect place by any means, but it's my spiritual and imaginative cradle.
Read the full version of this feature on Saturday at www.BCPires.com