Monday, August 25, 2014


Many decades ago in the Guyana of my youth one of the worst insults that could be levelled at any Guyanese was to say to them: "Like you went to School August Month!" Those words could become "fighting" words because they would mean that the person to whom the insult was levelled was a "dunce." In those days being a "dunce" was considered a shame. Education was highly prized by Guyanese of all stripes. Because there was no school in "August Month" telling someone "Like you went to School August Month!" meant that you were suggesting they never attended school which meant they were illiterate, uneducated and possibly unintelligent or "stupidy."
The “August holidays” which began mid July and ended mid September was a much anticipated time because we were free from “formal” education. However some form of “formal” education continued for those who had to sit the “Common Entrance Exams” the following April. The “Common Entrance Exams” was the most important exams for 11 year olds in Guyana because the results determined which secondary school you would attend. At the time all the secondary schools (also kindergarten and primary schools) were operated by the Guyana government but everyone vied for those top spots. It was the days of the Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham led PNC government and education was free from kindergarten to university. The competition was fierce to get enough marks to attend Presidents College, Queens College or Bishops High School but no child of secondary school age was left behind during the Burnham era.
On the last day of school in mid July there would be gleeful shouts of “No more Latin, no more French, no more sitting on teacher old bench” as children hurried home to begin the “August holidays.” Unlike North America, Guyana does not have four seasons so there was no “summer holiday.” Guyana has two seasons “dry season” and “rainy season” and both seasons boast similar temperatures of between 25 and 33 degrees Celsius. In the Rupununi which is the largest part of Guyana’s 83,000 square miles (where we share a border with Brazil) the nighttime temperature can dip as low as 12 degrees Celsius. We were never fazed by the temperature in spite of not having access to air-conditioners. During the “August holidays” most families sent their children to visit relatives in other parts of the country for a few days or a few weeks. Sometimes one or both parents would accompany their children on these family visits to renew acquaintances with relatives they had not seen all year. It was the days before the easy access to telephones, computers and programs like Facebook and Skype. As a child my siblings and I accompanied by our parents would visit exciting places including Courtland, Fyrish and Gibraltar on the Courentyne coast, Sandvoort up the Canje River (all villages established by Africans who bought plantation land after Emancipation.) My relatives have lived in these villages for generations (beginning in the 1840s) and it was always exciting and educational to visit. We also visited Mackenzie up the Demerara River where my mother’s older sister, her husband and daughter (they later had 3 more daughters) lived on Mora Street. My aunt had framed photographs of Africans and African Americans who were popular during her childhood and youth. I learned about Billy Eckstein, Sam Cooke, Miriam Makeba, Little Richard, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson and Joe Louis. My aunt’s husband was more interested in Africa and would often relate the story of the Herero people who were massacred (1904-1908) by the Germans in Namibia.
Visiting my grandparents’ home in Stanleytown, Berbice was the greatest adventure because of all the old “Ebony,” “Jet” and “Tan” magazines they had collected for many years. I never got tired of reading those old magazines. The lives of African Americans were so different from the lives we led in Guyana. Some of the stories were entertaining and some were distressing. I will never forget the images of 14 year old Emmett Till killed for supposedly whistling at a White woman or the image of an obviously terrified 15 year Elizabeth Eckford stalked by a mob of White people baying for her blood, chanting “n***er” and “lynch her.” My grandparents also had the most fascinating framed photographs including those of the Ethiopian royal family with a huge framed photograph of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I in pride of place in the living room. Mounted high on the wall as you walked into the space there he was resplendent in his ceremonial uniform and those bright piercing eyes. There were photographs of the Empress Menen proudly wearing her natural hair like a crown and pictures of the Emperor, Empress and their children together. Apart from the books and photographs my grandparents’ property had more fruit trees than anyone I knew. The fruits included oranges, gooseberries, tamarind, mangoes, tangerines, coconuts, guavas, pears and papaw. There were even a few cotton trees and it was fascinating to watch the beautiful yellow flowers become pods then the cotton popping out of the pods.
The beginning of the summer holidays being enjoyed by Toronto District School Board (TDSB) students brings back beautiful memories of “August holidays” in Guyana. I hope that my grandchildren and all TDSB students will have fond memories of the years they spend in the education system in spite of the shortcomings of the system. For two months these precious children (our future) will be away from formal education but we can ensure that they continue to be educated by encouraging reading and exploration of their culture and history. I wish every student a safe and enjoyable summer holiday/vacation.

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