Cynthia Cooke | What are an educator’s responsibilities?
Recently, I saw a post by one of my past students asking, what would Mrs Cooke have to say at assembly the Monday morning after the death of George Floyd. I smiled to myself and thought, “They were really listening.”
As an educator, I felt it was my responsibility to realise that I had an audience of almost 1,400 students waiting to hear what I had to say about many issues that were topical. I also knew that whatever I said, many would remember and maybe even act accordingly. We need to make sure that when they forward in this generation, they do so triumphantly.
When there was a murder, I would try to find a song to describe my feelings. “Murderer, you inside mussi hollow, how can you take the life of another,” is what worked then. For the beginning of the school year, ‘Each is given a bag of tools, a shapeless mass, and a book of rules.’ When the girls lost confidence in themselves because they thought they did not look good, it was, ‘It must have broke your poor little heart, when the boys used to say, ‘You look better in the dark’. But now, they’d give all they learnt in school to be somewhere in the dark with you. Homely girl you are a beautiful woman.’
It was my responsibility to show them that when their pants are below their waist and their faces are bleached, it covers up who they are because they are only seen as ‘one of those people’, and others cannot see that they are ‘young, gifted, and black.’ It was my duty to find successful people who looked like them to let them see what they can become because they are ‘young, gifted, and black.’
It was my responsibility to let them know that they can make a statement when they walk together in large numbers. To tell those who bothered them down the road that we are a protective force and we will see your wrong and testify. We will say “Welcome, Merlene Ottey!” as we line the sidewalk on Windward Road, and we will say, “We are ready” when we march to the stadium to attend Champs. We knew how to don our red shirts and walk from the stadium through Barbican and to Hope Gardens when we were hurting and we needed a balm and some time out.
It was my responsibility to teach the students how to question Pythagoras’ theorem and why some leaves are green and others have a different hue. Rather than run away from the army of worms that covered the floors and ground overnight, not only do we enforce that if Jah is on your side, you need not run away from the pestilence that falleth by night, but you learn about the behaviour of the Poinciana tree through the seasons. They must also learn that the police cannot enter the school compound in large numbers armed with big guns drawn to scare the students nor use your connection to the officers of the law to get them to intimidate another student. They must be taught how to challenge injustice everywhere by arming themselves with facts and knowledge of what is right. They were taught to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
It was my responsibility to show them all the beauty they possess inside through their skills and aptitude in competitions and concerts. It was my duty to let them jump and cheer in victory and to commiserate together when we are defeated and sing that ‘every little thing will be all right’ and to celebrate achievements and hug and cry with those among us who grieve. ‘They knew, if it’s to be, it’s up to me.’
We must let them know that 165 of them can be entered for the French CXC exams when most schools don’t even have a teacher. It was my responsibility to encouraXge the over 100 upper sixth-form students to apply to tertiary institutions and my joy when they were accepted and to remind them that ‘only dem dat bear di sour a dem a go bear di sweet.’ Not only did they know that they were, ‘young, gifted, and black,’ but that ‘God made them special,’ and they believed that they ‘can fly’.
TEACH THEM HISTORY
Our responsibility is to let them know that our history didn’t start when the Europeans came to Jamaica; that Christianity did not start in Africa when the Europeans went there with their white Jesus with blonde hair; that the Africans were there at the birth of Christ with their gifts of gold, silver, and myrrh. They need to know that the God we serve is a loving God who made us beautiful and wonderful and made us all equal.
So what would I tell the assembly that Monday morning after George Floyd’s death? I would tell them of me as a little dry-foot knotty-head black-skin child growing up with eight siblings and a very fair-skinned mother with long hair and a dark-skinned father. That I endured the taunts within and without my family because my mother was proud of her dark-skinned daughter, and I was willing to fight physically and orally to establish my belief that I belonged. I would tell them that there were many who fought, sometimes with their life, to ensure that people like them could go to high school and to exploit the opportunities that have been presented to them and fight to preserve it for those who are to come.
My charge to them would be that it’s their time. They were taught to question. They can read and analyse. They know how to speak and walk together in numbers to make their voices heard. They will know that God is on their side. When that leg is lifted or that noose is prepared, the leg lifter or those with the noose will see an army around them, well prepared, with determination that they will never go backwards. No more will they kill our brothers while we stand aside and look. Aided by the technology of cell-phone cameras, that neck will become an instrument that will blow their breath away, and we will breathe,
Cynthia Cooke is the former principal of Camperdown High School.