A-M u s i n g s: An Epiphany

No angel of god appeared that day; there were no claps of thunder and no blinding lights, but it was indeed an epiphanic experience. And in Desbarra, of all places!

For those of you who do not know, and believe me, many of you don’t, Desbarra is a small community on the northeast coast overlooking Grande Anse, just to the north of the mountain La Sorcière, which means the sorceress, but can also be spelled La Sourcière, which means a female water diviner; so take your pick! The mountain was a safe haven for brigands during their war. So there I was, visiting the school, and was invited to visit a classroom by the Principal, the absolutely wonderful Marie Daniel, when it happened – Wow!

For much of my professional life, I had been traveling the world as visiting lecturer, ‘professeur’, workshop leader, project coordinator, guest speaker – you name it – and the author of dozens (actually hundreds) of textbooks that dealt with all aspects of teaching, but especially the problems of English as a Foreign or Second Language, Interference, and Remedial Intervention for pupils who lagged behind.

The lecture circuit had become very arduous. My partner of many years had died of cancer in 1981, and I was getting tired of being on the road or in the air for as many as 200 days of the year bouncing from country to country. So I gave it all up, and my wife and I settled down in St Lucia.

After a couple of years, we started to visit schools, as I’ve mentioned before in these pages. But Desbarra was different. The moment I stepped into the classroom, I knew I was home. Suddenly, my whole career in education, everything I had spoken about in Indonesia, Japan, South America, Europe, Africa, the USA, anywhere and everywhere came rushing back. As Yogi Berra famously said, “It was déjà vu all over again!”

In this small countryside school of 64 pupils – it was quite a thriving community in those days – we had children who spoke a different language at home and at play from the one they were taught in at school. I observed the same blank, uncomprehending stares that I had seen the word over when teachers used words or language the pupils did not understand. This was my territory.

Now at the time, my knowledge of Creole was limited to say the least. And I am pretty sure that the teachers, sensible people that they were, spoke Creole to their kids when I was not there. I was, after all, a visitor who needed to be impressed. But there it was in all its clarity: a situation in which children were expected to learn in a language they did not understand.

Don’t get me wrong: English is the number one language. English should be used for instruction. But the shunning of Creole, the denial of the mother tongue’s existence, is without a doubt one of the most heinous acts of negligence any so-called education system can impose upon the wards in its care.

Creole should be included in every school’s daily fare. It is immediate, available, easily practised and influential. It is a stepping-stone to other languages. And it’s free! If you never learn that you express yourself differently in different languages, you will never learn to speak any language properly.

I spoke to a friend who was to go on to become a Cabinet Minister and he explained that patois was a dialect they used in the countryside and nothing to be reckoned with. Once he became a minister, and understood the need to be able to “connect” with his constituents, he approached us and asked for lessons in Creole. Such is the irony of life.

I tried, in my own small way, to “connect” with the Creole establishment. I visited the Folk Research Centre and was patted on my head – metaphorically, of course, and with a patronizingly friendly smile – though they might have reacted differently had they realized then that I was serious about putting hundreds of thousands of my own dollars into the language – and sent on my way. In an attempt to tempt the media, I had lunch with Stanley Lucien of HTS, and Timothy Poleon, and spoke to Andre Paul and others. I even invited Djouk Bwa to lunch and bought him a packet of cigarettes when he tried to bum one off the non-smoking me.  But there was no way the Creole establishment was going to take me seriously. So off I set on an Odyssey of my own; but more on that another day …

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