Mon | Jul 13, 2020

This ‘tablet’ packed a punch

Published:Sunday | September 1, 2019 | 12:00 AMDave Rodney - Sunday Gleaner Writer

As kids are getting ready to go back to school, in parents are on a shopping frenzy, and one of the hot items on the shopping list is a tablet. They come in various sizes, shapes, and colours, and nearly all have accompanying learning apps.

But decades ago, before there were tablets, Jamaican kids enjoyed their learning experience with a handheld device called a slate.

Slates were made from a thin, hardened shale-like grey material. They were flat and roughly eight by 10, close to the size of a standard exercise book. They came with wooden borders to protect the ‘end user’ from their sharp and dangerous edges. Some were embellished with an ‘app’ – rows of colourful beads for counting and the writing was done with a slate pencil or an object sharp enough to create a clear imprint on the hardened material.

There were no save buttons on slates, so anything written on them was eventually erased by a damp cloth, wet sponge, or wet finger. They were widely used across Jamaica in the pre-independence years and even long after in basic, infant, and kindergarten schools. Slates sometimes had into horizontal lines on them to better assist children with developing their penmanship skills.

At an outside radio broadcast recently, Jamaicans were asked about their recollection of slates. Most had no idea what they were, but a few older Jamaicans remembered their slate days with fondness.

“I seem to remember using one as a little girl about five years old in Frankfield, where my father was pastoring,” Alaine Lawrence revealed. “Many students did not have a fancy slate with beads, and the slate broke easily if they were dropped, so some students just had to work with a small piece of a slate,” Lawrence continued.


Nobody seemed to be quite sure how the work done on slates was evaluated, but what is certain is that the memories of the slate linger on for those who used them.

“I bought one for my husband as a Christmas gift,” Juliet Murphy, a Jamaican who lives in California, told Arts and Education. “He was so fascinated when I told him that’s how I started learning to write in school, and it had the beads, as well, and a slate pencil,” she added. Another Jamaican in California, Dian Harrison Holland, who sells Jamaica to tourists, keeps a slate in her office as a clear reminder of her happy Jamaican past.

But children will always be children, both girls and boys, and some found unintended uses for the fragile but deadly slate.

“I remember breaking my slate on a boy’s head because he stole my slate pencil,” Claudette Beckford-Brady, now a bestselling author of several novels ,including Sweet Home, Jamaica confessed. “I got a beating when I got home for breaking the slate, and another beating when my great-grandmother found out how it got broken”.

Beckford-Brady was asked if her early use of the slate helped to foster her love for writing. “I can’t say that the slate helped to foster my love for writing as I didn’t discover that love until later years,” she replied.

Well, slates are now back, and with some luck, those who wish to relive the memories from long ago can buy one in the same store where children now buy popular tablets.