THE EDITOR, Sir:
This is the third in a series of letters by Rupert Johnson on elementary education in pre-Independence Jamaica.
Have there been any significant changes in the Jamaican educational system since Independence? Jog your memory and judge for yourself.
How can I ever forget those lined and blank slates and slate pencils - little slates and big slates back in the 1940s? Sometimes the wooden frames of the slates came apart, leaving the raw, sharp edges of the slates exposed. These could be dangerous in the hands of an angry and aggressive pupil.
The slates had their legitimate use, however. These could be used over and over again by wiping out what was previously written. But the slate had a serious shortcoming. It could not retain important information for future reference.
The little slates were used in the Lower Division, and the big slates in the Middle Division.
Sometimes exercise books were introduced in the Third Standard, but these were generally reserved for the Upper Division, starting in the Fourth Standard.
Oh! Those treasured exercise 'press books'. Once per week the prized press books were pulled out of the press or shelved cupboard. The press book was a special exercise book that recorded the best written work by each pupil for the week.
Before the press books were even handed out to the pupils, the ink had to be prepared. The weekly mixture of ink powder with water was an honoured task given to the brightest and most responsible pupils. After the mixture, the ink was carefully poured into little ink-wells and placed in holes on each desk.
Nothing was written in the press books until the work was painstakingly corrected by the teacher. Then and only then was the final draft written with pen and ink. The handwriting (penmanship) in the press books had to be extremely neat and tidy. This was done with a 'common pen' - that is, a 'G' nib attached to a metal holder, and the metal holder was attached to a small round stick.
It is to be noted that this was the only type of pen that could execute the mandatory light up-stroke, and heavy down-stroke that characterised cursive, or joined-up, writing. It is also to be noted that blotting paper was used to soak up excess ink in order to give the written work a good appearance. Indeed, the press book was a precious book that the school inspector had to examine very carefully on his official visit to the school.
It is sad to say that with the advent of the ballpoint pen, handwriting seems to have become a lost art.
Handwriting was compulsory back then. Legibility was indispensable. And pupils had to be very careful with the proper formation of letters when dictation was administered. There had to be no confusion with the letters 'a' and 'o', 'i' and 'e', and so on. Dictation was, therefore, one of the most intimidating subjects in the curriculum.
The dictation procedure was firmly established. A passage was selected by the teacher and then read to the pupils in short phrases and sentences. The pupils had to write every word that was dictated, paying special attention to the insertion of punctuation marks.
The pupils had to figure out the placement of punctuation marks by merely listening to the pauses and inflexion in the teacher's voice. The omission of punctuation marks would be recorded as mistakes.
It is interesting to note that every red ink mark indicated a mistake, and that the sum total of these mistakes gave a clear indication of the number of strokes to be administered with a cane or leather strap.