Mel Cooke, Sunday Gleaner Writer
Esther Tyson has already spent her final day with students at Ardenne High School, St Andrew, where she has been principal for 11 years. It was a send-off to remember, and Tyson who, after two stints at Ardenne (the first a brief return to her alma mater) after a couple years at Manchester High and over a decade at St Andrew High, does not wear the aura of a hard-boiled educator, says tears came to her eyes.
"You know they clapped, because they were determined they were going to make me cry," she said in a recent interview.
"We usually have a closing ceremony the last day of school for the children. I figured they would do something because it was the last day that the students were going to see me. And it became one over-the-top something! They went on! They had my head prefects over the years lining the hall ... . I said 'How did they go and get all of these young people who are very busy in their jobs, and whatever, to be there?'" Tyson said.
Seasons of life
She goes on pre-retirement leave on August 31 and full retirement at the end of September.
"It's early retirement. I decided I needed be more flexible for my family, and I have other things I need to do. I believe life comes in seasons and I think it is time for me to go into another season of my life. I know I want to write. I have a number of writing projects that I want to do. I am going to do some online tutoring to keep my hands in there, and also some projects with the Ministry of Education. And I have more work to do with church," Tyson said.
But let's back up a few years. There were tears near to the starting point of her association with Ardenne, not because of students or teachers, but because of the boarding situation in which she, the typical "girl from country", found herself. She came from Chapelton, Clarendon, after finishing at Chapelton Primary, to a hostile living environment in Kingston.
Ardenne was an automatic choice not only because it was affiliated with the same denomination in which Tyson's father ministered and pastored 10 churches, but it was also his dream to see his children attend the Ardenne Road institution. He was trained at the Jamaica Bible Institute, the precursor to Ardenne High. Three of the six children did and the others went to Clarendon College.
He got his wish, but initially, it turned out to be a nightmare for the then Esther Simpson. "It was very traumatic, because the person that I lived with for my first year abused me - physically, emotionally, verbally. I ran away at age 11 from where I was living," Tyson said.
She took only one thing with her - the book she had borrowed from the library. The only place she knew in Kingston apart from "school, church, and the shop next door" was a cousin's home in Pembroke Hall. The boarding facilities were off Hagley Park Road.
"One Saturday, I just said I was going to the library, because I was always going to the library, and she had gone to the market, and I just started walking. Afterwards, I realised I had walked to Six Miles. And I didn't have any money. I stopped at the bus stop and asked this lady how to find Pembroke Hall," Tyson said. The lady not only gave Tyson directions, but also asked if she had money. "I said 'No, my mother never gave me any'. So she gave me 'truppance'," Tyson laughed heartily as she recalled, "and said 'is penny ha'penny for the bus fare'."
She eventually found her refuge, and in short order, Daddy turned up. The woman from whom Tyson had fled had sent a message on the bus that passed the family house in Chapelton - "Esther had run away."
Tyson ended up living with her form teacher, Laura Beckford, near the end of first form "and my life changed". That went for her "long, thick" hair, which Tyson had been unable to manage herself, to the uniforms which she could not manage, and, therefore, "did not look right" and moving in a small bed in the same room as the little girl to keep her company until she was settled.
A new beginning
"I went to school and everybody was in shock because this is Esther Simpson whose hair is now combed properly; my uniform is properly ironed; my lunch is packed. I felt so special. That woman has a space in my heart. When she died at 100-and-odd, they asked me to speak at her funeral and I told everybody what she did; how she changed my life. She made me feel like a person."
Not surprising, Tyson's grades also improved. Her favourite subject was English, in which Tyson later got her first degree.
But it was not all books. Far from it, as Tyson said, as an Ardenne student, choir was her life. "I did nothing else at Ardenne because in those days you went to choir at break time, you went to choir after school, you went to choir every day. That's all we did ... . It was our life."
Going straight to the University of the West Indies after Ardenne, Tyson lived on Mary Seacole Hall and had a run-in with the Chancellorites who came over to Seacole singing their version of At The Cross, and putting "bad word" to it.
"I took up a big ole rock from my room door and I fling it right 'round at them," she recalled, laughing. "They turned around and started singing 'Esther Simpson is a ... whatever." Undaunted, "The next day I walked straight through Chancellor and nobody could look me in the face."
Tyson joined the University Singers, did community programmes with Youth for Christ, and later, was full time with the Sunshine Singers gospel group for two years. That did not go down well with her father, as Tyson was the first person in her family to go to university and she had told him she was going to teach. "Daddy had high blood pressure, and had to take to bed ... . I was afraid to go home. People were down on me (saying) how mi wicked; all mi want is fame and popularity," she said.
Still, teaching was always on Tyson's radar. "I always wanted to be a teacher - from I was a little girl. I read all the time," Tyson said, promptly producing her Kindle (an electronic book-reader device) for brief inspection.
"When my mother sent me to tidy a room, I read every book in there before doing anything. So she used to quarrel with me. I always wanted to teach English because I just loved books and I loved reading. I never dreamt of being a principal, I simply wanted to teach," she added.
Now when the 2011-2012 school term begins in a few weeks, for the first time in over two decades, Esther Tyson will not be heading off to school. So how does she intend to spend that first morning?
Without hesitation, Tyson says: "I am going to spend a longer time talking to God. That's very important to me."