Sat | Jul 20, 2019

My Political Journey | Patterson: I owe a great deal to Calabar

Published:Saturday | December 8, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Calabar High School
Former Prime Minister and old boy P.J. Patterson greets students at a student motivation and empowerment programme before speaking to 40 sixth-form students at Calabar High School last month.

P.J. Patterson, ON, OCC, PC, QC, was Jamaica's sixth and longest-serving prime minister from 1992 to 2006. His book, My Political Journey: Jamaica's Sixth Prime Minister, published by The University of the West Indies Press, will be launched next week. The Gleaner will be publishing excerpts every day until the launch. This is Part Four.

While Calabar was identified as having a special attraction for boys belonging to a "class on the rise", it made sure to welcome all social classes and every colour, so that the student body would be multiracial and start building friendships that would prove lasting and transcend the barriers of race and class.

To find room for the 11 boys who were consigned to second form in 1948, the classroom was in a tiny space between the classrooms for 5A and 5B. Whenever there was a debate among the fifth-formers, I would take every opportunity to listen. On one occasion when the debate was opened to the floor, I dared to put forward my opinion. I was summarily chased out of the room by the seniors, who would not tolerate such audacity from a second-former in short pants.

In due course, I became a formidable debater and represented Calabar in inter-school competitions. This helped to boost my successful campaign for president of the Sixth Form Association. We met every Saturday at either Wolmer's or St Hugh's High School for Girls. We sought to insert our views in the national discourse and to engage in a wide range of community projects. It also provided an excellent opportunity for socialising.

In the scout movement, I rose from being a tenderfoot to patrol leader and later troop leader. This was another opportunity for leadership training. As part of my test to gain the first-class badge, I was required to take three boys with me and set up camp at the Red Hills property which the Baptists had acquired. In the bushes and ruinate we had to contend with rats, snakes and mongoose and we were only able to survive there for a single night.

My sixth-form experience was enhanced by close association with the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). Wesley Powell, founder of Excelsior High School and distinguished educator, was active in the club, and most of the island's prominent businessmen were YMCA members. It sponsored an annual summer day camp for three weeks at Doncaster (Boy Scouts' headquarters). Counsellors were drawn from the high schools and lived at the YMCA at Hanover Street for the three weeks of the camp. I was one. We formed a special bond and developed a strong social conscience.

Each counsellor was given full responsibility for 10 boys for the three weeks. I took my boys on a hike to Wareika Hills one day. We took the route across from Rockfort and back down to the University College of the West Indies. One of my charges fell and broke his ankle, and I had to carry him from the campus down to Hanover Street, some five miles, in the merciless Jamaican sun.

With the increase in student numbers, Calabar had outgrown the space at Studley Park Road and the buildings were crumbling. Hurricane Charlie in 1951 had torn off the roofs of several classrooms, so we had to sit our Senior Cambridge Exams in the open air. In the school's move from Studley Park Road to Red Hills Road in 1952, we senior boys had to help the younger ones to cope with the change of location and our new surroundings.

Among the outstanding members of staff was Neville Dawes, who taught me English literature as his special student. He had a strong impact on me, and to a large degree influenced my choice of an English major at the University College of the West Indies.

Calabar was spawned to remove the vestiges of slavery; to challenge the social status quo; to liberate the mind; to fashion the aptitudes and the disposition of young men to enable them to make their own distinctive mark on the contours of our nation and the horizons of our region and the world.

I owe a great deal to Calabar, which opened the door of opportunity and enabled us to prepare fully to take our place in life and our community. When Calabar celebrated its centenary in 2012, I was asked to serve as patron and honorary chair. It gave me a welcome opportunity to express my indebtedness in the foreword to Arnold Bertram's History of Calabar High School: "From the very start, we learned that Calabar was created for a very special purpose: to enable those of us who came from families of limited financial means to transform our own lives, and in doing so, to point the wider society towards the direction of freedom in the country and full respect for its people."