It’s hard for Peter St Pierre to hide his passion for living life to the fullest, and why should he have to? He’s thus far been privileged to teach the nation’s youth for 36 years, 26 of which were spent as a social studies teacher at Corinth Secondary, and ten at Marchand Combined. He’s also graced several calypso stages, even winning the title of Calypso Monarch in 1984. He remembers it like it was yesterday. The year before that, his first time on the Calypso stage, he’d made it to the semi-finals. From there, the only way to go was up.
“I enjoyed it tremendously!” he said beaming, when we spoke last week. “Before I entered Calypso I used to write for some of the other guys and they loved it. I said to myself, ‘But I can sing! If I can sing, why not write my own lyrics?’ ”
I had arrived that day to Peter grasping firmly to a journal, while he wheeled from his balcony into his house with the help of “old faithful”, a wheelchair that surely had seen better days. When I inquired, he responded: “I always keep note so that I know what I should do, and I know what I should cut off. I know when to step on the gas, and I can get a general picture of what my week was like, or the month.”
The purpose of our meeting had to do with Peter winning the STAR’s 30th anniversary trivia competition, but my visit quickly changed course. A cluster of trophies too numerous to count caught my attention. Peter followed my gaze and, with a smile, he proceeded to regale me with the sum of his life, starting with his expansive career as a teacher.
“I think I was a favourite for a lot of the students and it was a pleasure of mine teaching them,” he said. “I brought in the classroom an excitement many teachers did not bring. I got the students involved. I got them excited, wanting to take it to another level. In my time, sometimes the bell would ring and they would ask me, ‘Sir, stay a little while longer please?’ It showed how much they enjoyed what they were doing.”
His dedication and love for what he did led to him being named Teacher of the Year at Corinth Secondary for many years. He also received Teacher of the District awards.
Still today Peter believes teaching is something he was born for. Not only did he enjoy the dissemination of information, but helping to do so in a manner that felt “light”.
“Some topics are not easy to digest until you get involved in a lot of reading, and a lot of discussion,” he said. “A lot of the students don’t like discussion now, or what they’re discussing is trivial. The seemingly minor is major to them. We need to be able to do things that will excite them more in the schools.”
Even though he said goodbye to the classroom in 2009, he still runs into people who shower him with praises for the positive impact he’s made on their lives.
In the midst of his teaching career, Peter decided to dip a toe into the calypso arena. In addition to him winning the crown, he also served on the executive of the Calypso Association, firstly as Vice President, then as Treasurer. One of his fondest memories is starting the Junior Calypso competition in Saint Lucia.
“That was in 1987,” he said. “I was the first coordinator. It has grown quite a lot, although we need to get the subject areas coordinating with each other so that you can improve the quality of the project, so students are not only going to be singing around Calypso time, but throughout the year.”
He spoke in particular of inter-school and inter-community competitions.
“I think Jason ‘Bachelor’ Joseph is trying his best,” he added.
On the state of calypso today: “The landscape has changed. There was a time when a lot of stinging lyrics used to come down. There was also a lot of humour. But right now a lot of persons are very serious, and what they think is humour falls flat.”
According to Peter, things have also changed on the professional side – artistes now work with management teams, and rely more on composers and less on their own original lyrics, something he feels makes it easier for performers because they have little else to think about but their delivery.
As we spoke he pulled out a photo album filled with the faces of competitors he’d gone up against, including The Mighty Pelay, Invader, Bingo, and others.
“Anything anyone needs to know about Calypso they can find it right here,” he laughed. “I have the biggest Calypso library in Saint Lucia.”
Peter’s last Calypso performance was on October 12, 2016, years after he had stopped competing. The local Calypso fraternity had organized a medical fund-raising event for longtime competitor Cyril ‘Get Through’ Felix, and he says something compelled him to perform that day.
“Something drove me, and said, ‘Go and perform there.’ I had not performed for 12 years. He died the same day,” he said. “Very unfortunate, may he rest in peace.”
In that same month Peter suffered from complications related to diabetes and had to have one of his legs amputated.
“I knew I was diabetic but I think I didn’t take the maximum care that I should have, and that’s a message to a lot of persons,” he said. “I was not on insulin then, so I felt that I was all right, but I was slowly sinking deep. With my condition I had to stay away from stressful environments, and even teaching is a stressful environment.
“At the hospital I had to choose whether I would allow the next leg to also be affected, or to amputate this one,” he added. “I chose amputation.”
Today Peter blames himself for not having made the right dietary choices but says the consequence pales in comparison to the level of alienation he now feels from society.
“A lot of persons treat you with less value,” he said, “and that is very serious. It tells something about our country because I’m on the other side of the fence. I can tell you now what it really is. Sometimes I feel very depressed but with God above, and there is a good God above, I survive.”
Peter’s physical disability now means he’s not as mobile as he used to be. The fact that he can’t make it up the stairs and out of his house on his own, even just to get to the roadside, devastates him. He’s even more disheartened by the disregard he feels from people who make promises to take him on outings that they never keep.
“It can be frustrating,” he told me. “If I had my legs Miss Williams, I would have gone to the bus.”
There is a silver lining though, in the form of the National Council of and for People with Disabilities (NCPD). Peter says the local organization has taken him out of the house on at least three occasions to attend workshops.
“I really want to thank them,” he said. “Sometimes I even thought I was in prison: jailed, shackled in a house which really can be uncomfortable. Thanks to them they actually gave me a wheelchair, which I use when I go to places outside or to a friend’s home.”
Peter had strong words of condemnation though for a society he felt did not respect people with disabilities.
“It reflects on my country,” he said. “It tells me what my country thinks about me. They had you up there, now you’re in that situation, they drop you on the side.”
As part of his treatment for diabetes, Peter will remain dependent on insulin for the rest of his life. As we spoke he made an appeal to the public: “I need a prosthetic urgently; I’m tired of sitting.”
On the brink of turning 60, Peter has mostly remained optimistic about his situation.
He devotes much of his time to arts and craft, and loves watching documentaries and features, in particular, local events that are broadcast live. He relayed great disappointment that the annual lantern festival was not carried live last year.
“It distressed me,” he said.
“I wanted to call the radio station.”
He gestured to a corner of the room populated with craft projects. The central focus was several artsy lantern fixtures. He explained his process of putting them together, and filled me in on which ones were complete, and which others were still a work in progress.
“This year I’ll make about eight and give the others away to friends,” he said. “It’s my passion, it’s my calling. Once I can see a smile on someone’s face, I’m happy.”
Though the Festival of Lights is three months away, Peter, who has been both a participant and a judge in years past, is ready to share the messages his lanterns bring to life with the world. He hopes to be a part of the spectacle this year, as long as his rides pull through!