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Farewell, Ms St John

Peter W. Wickham

Farewell, Ms St John

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Last week Barbados lost one of our long-standing and distinguished educators who was known by the name Ruby St John and whom I knew by “Mrs St John”.  
This lady might not be as familiar to most readers as she was to me and, as such, she requires an introduction, which places her as a former deputy principal of the Christ Church Girls Foundation School, who carried on after amalgamation in 1979 and thereafter retired in 1983.
She continued her “career” well into retirement and taught English at the Barbados Community College and in more recent years was one of a team of “proofreaders” employed by the NATION to ensure grammatical infelicities were minimised in the product you read daily.  
Ms St John was among a select group of parents who are better known on account of their children’s designation, and while many parents in her situation object to being the mother or father of “X”, she was happy to be known as the mother of her daughter, who holds a lofty position in the national heath infrastructure of this country. This speaks volumes about her character.
I first met Ms St John in June 1979 when my sister took me to school with her for one of the last days so I could become “familiar” with the environment, as I was also successful in gaining entry to that noble institution in the 11-Plus examination.
Ms St John thought it was a wonderful idea that I should spend the day with them and thereafter welcomed me back in September that year with the admonition that I should enjoy my stay there, but not so much that I want to remain for longer than five years.  
I have always remarked that my connection to this teacher was one of the more pleasant coincidences of my life since she was an English teacher in a girls’ school up until 1979 and had co-education not been introduced I would perhaps never have had the good fortune of being taught by this lady.
Although co-education is now standard in Barbados, in those days it was not and the mandatory integration of the schools across this country that took effect that year was quite traumatic for several teachers; I would imagine Ms St John was similarly impacted. Co-education meant change and change is difficult for young people, far less older teachers who were already close to retirement.
In this regard, Foundation School presented a peculiar challenge since it was not like Lodge, St Michael’s or Queen’s College, as it was two distinct schools with two distinct cultures and, indeed, social class structures that were being forced together.
The impact of co-education was also more personal for Ms St John since she would have likely become principal at the girls school, if it were not for the amalgamation, which gave the leadership of the boys school priority, and apparently upset several of the teachers on that “side” of the institution.
It is ironic that I learnt all this during the filming of a documentary in 2009, since none of us students had the slightest idea of what transpired at that time.
The fact that the teachers in general and Ms St John in particular were able to help us advance our education, notwithstanding the fact that our presence was to some extent disruptive, is a testimony to their professionalism and commitment, the brand of which has long since gone “out of style”. As the eulogist at her funeral stated, “she cared” and this was obvious to all who fell within her reach.
Subsequent to the amalgamation, Ms St John became an administrative peculiarity since the title “deputy principal” was somewhat tenuous at that time and at any rate there were now two at the institution. The net effect was that she was assigned the rather inelegant title of “mistress with special responsibilities” which I understood to mean she would be responsible for disciplining the girls.
There was also a clash of school culture here because at Foundation the boys were routinely flogged, while the girls were not. Since it was seen to be politically incorrect for a male principal to flog female students, this  responsibility was assigned to the “mistress with special responsibilities”, which was an easy task for Ms St John, who maintained her opposition to corporal punishment, at least as it related to girls.
It was therefore fortunate that when yours truly and half-dozen other students (both boys and girls) were taken before her to be disciplined for a somewhat salacious offence, flogging was not an option. Her alternative intervention was to force us to recognize the error of our ways and thereafter spend time in quiet reflection on the nature of our mistake, which was considerably more effective.
Years later I would again encounter Ms St John in a professional capacity when I briefly joined the staff of the Continuing Education Department at the Barbados Community College she tutored in English.
In this role, Ms St John was always ready with a word of advice, but the greatest benefit was the knowledge that she saw her role at the college as a mission to improve the use of English among a group that was severely challenged in this regard.
It was, of course, a job but she made it clear that teaching was no simple “job” but instead was a vocation that was valuable way beyond the salary we received, and we needed to treat it with commensurate reverence.
More recently our paths crossed again in her role as one of a team of literary editors responsible for ensuring that the paper you read is sufficiently free of grammatical and other errors. As such her outstanding command of the English language clashed with my often imperfect attempts to write, and here also I learnt much.
There is always so much to learn from the life of a teacher that goes beyond the text of that which is imparted in the classroom. This lady’s life of service to this country presented several lessons we will continue to learn from for many years to come.
• Peter W. Wickham ([email protected]) is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).