JULIA County-Henry wears many hats – educator, singer, storyteller, cultural activist, among others.
Now 60 and after three decades of teaching, she’s learning the extent of the impact she had on others as she heads into retirement.
She grew up in Bamboo Village, La Romaine which she said was a “very quiet, laid-back community.”
She always knew she was talented. But it was when she attended San Fernando Government Secondary School, commonly called Modsec, that she started allowing others to see it.
She said the school was “culturally alive.”
“A friend of mine – we used to sing together at lunchtime – and she said, ‘You could sing, Julia! Join the choir.’”
Through this, she participated in competitions such as the Music Festival and San Fest.
When she was in form three, she said a fellow student, Mark David asked her to join a play – The Bread Winners.
“I said, ‘Yes, okay, let me try it.’
“I ended up winning best supporting actress...Seeing my potential in acting was the most surprising thing.
“I wasn’t so sure of myself, and I know everyone knows me to be sure of myself. But at that time, I felt self conscious and I was a bit shy.”
She said the culture at Modsec focused heavily on training the next generation.
In addition to the school choir, she led the La Romaine RC Church choir from age 14-30, participated in the Junior Carnival Competition and appeared on Scouting For Talent.
Combining teaching and the arts
She began teaching principles of accounts and principles of business in 1991 and taught at St James Secondary, Point Fortin College (now Point Fortin East), and Chaguanas Senior Composite. She then made herself at home at Mayaro Composite School (Now Mayaro Secondary). She also lived in Mayaro for some time. It was there her creativity flourished.
She also took the school to San Fest and judged many cultural events.
She even met late local author Michael Anthony through a group – South East Eco Tours Ltd – formed by teachers and past students.
“Mayaro has forestry, wildlife, the Otoire River, Trinity Hills, elements of Amerindian settlements...
“We realised it was rich in eco-tourism so we promoted that, and Michael Anthony being a historian was a natural go-to.”
They got sponsorship from the German and Canadian embassies which provided a boat, along with things to furnish the building they rented in Point Radix.
They sang and performed there for tourists.
She collaborated with Anthony on a song he wrote titled The Rose of Mayaro.
She was also musical director of the Mayaro Folk Performers, who won the Prime Minister’s Best Village competition in 1993.
Vernon St Louis, president of the Mayaro Folk Performers told Sunday Newsday he still recalled her “melodious” voice and welcoming spirit.
The 66-year-old said he worked with County-Henry and the group in the early 90s when he was actor.
“She is a real, real nice person. She is very creative, cultural, disciplined and had a love for craft,” he said.
Admittedly, he said, it was difficult to find the words to properly explain County-Henry’s artistic talent.
He added, “When it came to rehearsals, though, she didn’t play any games. She was a stickler for time.”
A new home
In 2004, she found a new home at Vessigny Secondary School (VSS), where she also served as a dean.
She wrote Our Very Own – VSS’ school song. Incorporating the school’s motto Upward and Onward, she penned, “Our school is a place of achievement where seeds of ambition are grown/An ideal warm environment in which seedlings are nurtured and grown/Upward and onward we soar to the sky, our branches towering high...”
Social studies teacher Rachel Baptiste had a choir for the Inter-school Christian Fellowship (ISCF) and would often ask County-Henry for help.
But after Baptiste could no longer do it, County-Henry took over the show and transformed the ISCF choir into the school choir.
“The school had football, marching band, a few fellas in athletics, but I wasn’t aware of anything (cultural).
“The children were very willing. At one point, the choir had 67 children,” she said, laughing.
She said it boosted her self-confidence.
A rapso lover, she regularly incorporated the genre into the choir’s performances.
After a graduation performance, then principal Carol Baboolal asked her if she could write a school song.
“I said, ‘Maybe.’”
She said a lot of her inspiration comes when she’s by her kitchen sink, and to this day, she doesn’t know why.
“So I was washing wares and the first four lines came to me with the melody.”
She wrote it down but later forgot the melody and feared the song would not materialise beyond an idea.
But some weeks later, it returned.
“I said it had to be meant to be because nothing comes back to my head once it’s lost, usually.”
The first time the choir performed it, she was filled with pride.
“Because when you creating things and you’re not really out there, you always second guess yourself. And to see these children and how they held on to their song and sang it with pride.”
But she credited God for helping her write the song, saying, “I always tell people, I on my own cannot write a song like that. To God be the glory.”
She went on to assist with school productions such as The Price of Progress, Mandela, Winter Wonderland, among others.
Feeling the love
VSS alumni planned a surprise performance for her at her retirement programme on September 29. They did a medley of songs the choir performed over the years. Months of planning went into this, including co-ordination with her family and co-workers.
“When I reach by the library and I see (my past students), I say, ‘But what trouble is this!’ I was completely surprised.
“I positioned myself and I started singing too. It was the best.”
Initially, she did not want a ceremony, but felt it was unfair not to give others a chance to show appreciation.
“I felt proud. The love I gave came right back at me and I never knew I had such an impact on these children.
“I know they loved what they were doing but to see it culminate in front of me, it was the most amazing thing in the world. I was in my element.”
Past student Keiron Baptiste said County-Henry was generous, straightforward and inspiring.
“She has a method of teaching that is second to none.
“She would sit down and talk and link the topic to real-life situations so you could draw references.”
On her straightforwardness, he recalled joining the school choir but she told him: “Nah! You is not to sing. Come and knock a little drum (instead).”
“And today, I’m playing with a rhythm section, I have a drumming group.”
Head of the business department at VSS Mala Ramsaran worked with County-Henry for 19 years.
She said, “Her dedication to her students was always above and beyond, ensuring the SBAs were properly done, even if it meant uploading scores in the 99th hour and stressing me out. She managed to get it done.”
Another past student, Arron George, who regularly played piano for the choir said County-Henry presented culture in such a way that “you wanted to (participate in) it.
He recalled seeking her help with writing a song to enter a calypso competition, in which he placed third.
“It was so wonderful. And then I went on to win calypso competitions just based on her giving me that push to start.”
Deborah Maitland attended VSS from 2010-2014 and described County-Henry as a hidden gem.
“I think if people knew how talented she was they would give her her own comedy show on TV or multiple reality shows.
Maitland added, “She spoke to her students respectfully and truthfully and that made me respect her as a person.”
Kobe Sandy, former UWI, St Augustine Students Guild president and alderman in the Point Fortin Borough Corporation said while County-Henry never taught him principles of business, “she taught me principles of life.
“Her coaching, guidance, and tough love have sown seeds of success and growth within my life and the fruits are on public display today.”
He credited his appreciation for culture and the arts to her, describing her legacy as “enormous.”
Another teacher said students appreciated her wise advice.
“She helped raise the self-esteem of many students who might have gone through their school life as unseen or even viewed in a negative light because of behavioural problems.
“She offered them opportunities and a safe space to express themselves through the arts.”
County-Henry, the teacher added, sacrificed a lot of her personal time to help students.
“She did everything to help them achieve successes.”
Others described her as witty, down-to-earth and an excellent orator and songstress.
“She was able to spread cheer and laughter in spite of anything that she may have been going through.”
As for what’s next for County-Henry, she’s not quite sure yet. But for now, she will focus on enjoying the free time.
She thanked her husband Deryck Henry and her three sons for their support.
And she made it clear: “I loved my job.”