Time keeps moving on beyond us human beings. However, there can be moments to reflect, examine, and appreciate, highlights on life’s journey, both happy and sad. Some parts of that journey may even be painful, hard to look at and relive, even in the mind.
My journey as an educator started for me on Nevis, at age 14. An older sister, Esther, who had access to the public library in Charlestown, took the time and read to the other members of the family on weekends. Because of that experience, I too, fell in love with reading.
When I was about the fourth grade in school, the public library became mobile and visited my school about twice per month. I was there in line, and ready, to join the library when it came. Soon, I was a member of the library and reading regularly. In time, I fell deeply in love with reading, and continued to hold my own at school. While in the seventh grade, I did not pay too much attention to who was first or second in the class, but I was holding my own and doing well as a good all-round student. I was fascinated with English and Shakespeare.
There were other students in the class older than me, but when there was the vacancy for a young pupilteacher, I was given the opportunity to fill the position. Our school was a large, open building with long benches and desks. We saw and heard one another. The grades went from junior-standard up to the seventh grade.
During that time, elementary students becoming teachers was possible, but it was not something that came easy. Then, once the selection was done, there were students to teach, and teacher-training exams to pass. If one failed two successive exams, that was the end of the teaching experience. So, there I was, with a class to teach and exams to pass. It was quite a challenge then, one which required very focused reading, and careful note taking. Thanks to my sister, and the public library, by then I was ready to take that dare.
When I became a teacher, that was the first time I wore shoes to the school. Quite often my toes were burst and bleeding. Except when going to church, we went around barefoot. Of the 12 or so teachers at the school, I was the youngest, but we developed a good camaraderie. My first teaching assignment was with a grade two class. I still do not remember anything I taught them. However, I survived, started my growth in the profession and in academia. It was back then, through trial and error, that I learned to read for understanding, not just for memory.
Once I discovered that approach to study, I became better prepared both as a teacher, and as a student. By the time I was assigned to teach at the fifth grade, I loved the material I was reading, while at the same time, becoming intrigued with academia and teaching. Classes were large, with 30 or more students. The largest class I ever taught, later on at Comberemere School, consisted of 52 students.
As usual, teachers were paid poorly. My first salary was $18 per month. Then it was increased to $22 per month. Despite the meager salary, the group of young teachers at White Hall School taught our students the best we could, studied competitively to pass our exams, and we kept our place in education. It was for more than the money — commitment and pride were at stake.
Migration to England, Canada, the USA, and the Virgin Islands was becoming increasingly attractive, but a number of us stayed home and kept on with education. First we passed the local teachers’ exams successfully, then came the standardized exams, the College of Preceptors Exam or CP and the General Certificate of Education or GCE, set in England. Once I passed those exams successful, I became a candidate to attend the Leeward Islands Teachers College, in Antigua, and got the call to go.
My teachers’ college experiences were interesting and challenging. One could not miss the Antiguan cultural idiosyncrasies. I had my first experiences in anthropology, too. I completed the two years successfully, then led the other students into the graduation ceremony, carrying the lighted torch, because I was the youngest student in the group. For me, that experience challenged me consistently to continue carrying and passing the torch of enlightenment, especially to my students. It was also in Antigua that I got turned on to photography. The college had a training program in the craft. It won my heart.
On my return to Nevis, I was assigned to Comberemere School. Soon, I became convinced that teaching in Nevis would be the rest of my life. However, that was only a part of, not the rest of my story. While at Comberemere I received a scholarship offer, to study for a bachelor’s degree at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania. Later, I also did graduate studies at Lehigh University, Temple University and Walden University. I taught high school in both Philadelphia and Allentown, Pa. When I left Pennsylvania, I was convinced the Caribbean area needed me more than the USA. Actually, I turned down a safe job offer there, and returned to St. Kitts-Nevis.
Unfortunately, when I got home, I found the politics too sensitive and threatening to free speech. When I got an invitation to be an educator in the U.S. Virgin Islands, I accepted the offer, and migrated here in 1984.
The longest stint I have experienced in education, and in my life, has been here in the U.S. Virgin Islands. I worked in the public schools, and in the private Seventh-day Adventist School on St. Thomas. During both experiences I touched lives from grade K-12. The journey was not always a smooth sail. There were challenges and rough seas at times. However, through it all, I was able to defy the odds. Today, I am still standing tall.
Now, I look back at a journey in education, which I started on Nevis, during the month of July, many years ago. That journey has ended for me in the U.S. Virgin Islands in July 2020. Through those years I managed to touched many lives, young and old. In the process, others touched my life, too. In retrospect, I have few regrets. If it were possible, I would do it all over again. Meanwhile, I continue to thank God for his leading and how he transformed my life. It is all a much longer, and intriguing story, which I have endeavored to note in my autobiography: “My Birth Was Not Destiny.”
— Whitman Browne was principal of St. Thomas-St. John Seventh-day Adventist School. He lives on St. Thomas.