Vanessa Forde has been a student and teacher of many things. She is a mother, a friend, a steelpan player, a mas maker, a former junior national netball player, a former dancer, a manager, a cook and a national award recipient.
Born in March 1962, the year of Trinidad and Tobago’s independence, she considers herself a gift to the nation.
The Belmont native is also a proud past student of St Francois Girls’ College where she taught clothing and textile but substituted in chemistry, music and other subjects from 1989 until she retired in 2022. She also taught at several primary schools for six years before working at her alma mater.
Forde has played pan with various steelbands over the years, the last few years with Trinidad All Stars and is the treasurer of its Senior Foundation. She currently manages the under-21 national netball team, lectures in garment construction, textile chemistry and computer aided design at UWI on a part-time basis, teaches life skills to children on the autism spectrum and is the chair of the Port of Spain North/ St Ann’s West Women’s League.
“Time management is very important. You have to schedule everything you do,” she said.
She is also the bandleader of the children’s mas band Classix Productions which was formed by her and six friends in 2003. She explained the founders came from the Richard Bartholomew senior mas band and he, along with Randy Halfhide, was one of the main reasons she started the children’s band.
“Richard inspired me to start my own band because for years I worked for other people, including Peter Minshall, and he always found my work was so well done. He would say, ‘Why don’t you do your own thing?’ And so I eventually did.”
Classix won the Children’s Parade of the Band small band category the first year they played and consistently stayed in the top three – either Band of the Year, Junior Carnival King or Queen – even as the band moved to the medium and large categories over the years.
“I love children so you'll find that I go the extra mile for them. So even our band, we give the entire school for the deaf free costumes every year for the past 15 years.”
She also teaches quilting, stitching patterns into foam for costumes, to some of her past students and past band members who often return to volunteer and give back to the band and the community.
She works with the band’s designer, Mike Johnson, to create the costumes while volunteers help with the welding, sewing, wire bending and all the other skills involved in making mas because they liked building costumes from scratch. She said they come for the love of the art and to lime.
“In children’s mas we try to keep the tradition alive. That’s why we teach the young people. I have a few who come on weekends to learn the art of mas.”
This year, the band’s theme is Look! Everybody come for Carnival! It has eight sections, several individual costumes, and two kings and queens each.
“Everybody wants to see what TT Carnival is about. They’re fascinated. They hear it’s one of the wonders of the world so everybody want to come.”
She told WMN even after the Carnival season people would pass by the mas camp in Belmont asking if she was having a lime. She said friends and people in the area would just show up with food and alcohol on Old Year’s night and Independence Day, and she feels good to know people feel safe in her space.
A LIFE WELL LIVED
Forde said she loves interacting with children from a young age. While she did not necessarily want to be a teacher, she knew she wanted to work with children. She recalled gathering the children in the area and combing their hair or taking them to the movies.
She attended Teachers Training College and got her first teaching job at Eastern Boys’ Primary School. But she was always interested in clothing and food so she took several courses in both fields.
In 1998 she earned a degree in human ecology and, in 2002, a masters in agricultural diversification, both from UWI St Augustine.
“My grandmother was a seamstress so I learned to sew from her. I thought it best to further that because I wanted to be a designer. While that never came to pass, I learned intricate sewing so I sew for brides and such.
“But I also did catering and did wedding cakes. I just tried some of everything and had a very full life. Now I’m old I can tell my grandchildren what I’ve done.”
In 2022, Forde received the Hummingbird medal silver in the sphere of culture for her involvement in the mas and pan fraternities and her teaching the skills involved.
“I was totally unaware. They real caught me. When a lady called and asked if I would be willing to receive an award, I said, ‘Of course,” but I didn’t know it was the national award! It was only when they called the week before to give me instructions that I realised what was going on. It was a surprise.”
She said she called one of her two sons to inform him and he told her it was him, and several of her friends, who submitted her name and provided the relevant information to the award committee.
Forde added that she was glad she retired when she did as she saw how the type of children, parents and teachers changed over the past 40 years. She said in her time it was easier to correct children as they were generally better behaved, respected their teachers and parents supported the teachers.
“All of a sudden there was an era where parents were children themselves. So you found you couldn’t talk to their child hard. They (students) would say, ‘I will tell my mammy,’ they are very disrespectful and the parents ready to come for you. Now the children are out of control.
“Also, now there are a lot of lazy teachers. They are in it for the vacation. I remember giving up my vacation to teach when I had exam students. Teachers now not willing to do that unless they are getting paid. I never asked for a cent for lessons in my entire life.
“I think if you’re doing some extra work with a child, it should be because you care about that child and you want to see them go forward and do better.”
For Forde, retirement does not mean more time to “do nothing.”
She said she tries to go on a cruise with her girlfriends every year and often visits her sons who live in the US.
“I am happy, extremely happy. I don't think I need anything. I would just love to spend a little more time with my grandchildren (ages nine and six) because they are who I live for. I'm hopeful my other son, who's getting married in March, will have a couple of those for me too because I love children and I think I'm at my best when my grandchildren are around me.”
She would also like to open a finishing school for young women one day. She wants to provide a place they could improve themselves, learn to be leaders instead of followers and feel better about themselves. And she believes intelligent, self-motivated, self-aware and ambitions women would be interested.
"I want to have a school where they could come and learn etiquette, hear motivational talks, learn about self-worth, empowerment and that kind of thing.”
She said even some intelligent women have low self-esteem and so “allow young men to do what they want” to them because they do not understand they are special in their own way.
She believes part of that is because of a lack of spirituality. She said they do not believe in a higher power, do not believe in anything and so do not have faith to inspire them or bolster them through difficult times.