Improving on the Ten Commandments

In one sense, this is the personal story of Eva Sooganie David-Swain, daughter of Clara and David Pattia. According to tradition, her name should be Eva Sooganie Pattia, but Eva broke with tradition, taking her father’s first name. Stepping away from normal life, she cared for younger siblings, as well as for her parents. Eva’s break with tradition took shape in a life oriented by attendance at Northeastern College – an extraordinary life spent improving on the “ten commandments” in Trinidad and Tobago.

Ordinary Life

Eva spent her childhood in the village of Vega de Oropouche in Trinidad and Tobago. There, children fished in the river from where they fetched all water used at home. They walked with their father to the garden to grow and harvest almost all the food they ate – crops such as corn, bananas, yam, vegetables and fruit. They ground corn into corn flour, cooked on an open fire, slept on the floor and made the best of life as they knew it.
Then a family history of blindness struck, leaving Eva, at age eight with a blind mother. Overnight, care of her siblings passed to her. This was the background to attendance at primary school, as Eva David put it, on the “ten commandments.” Contrary to what seemed likely in these, or better circumstances, it was soon obvious that she had an intense hunger for learning. In her words,

I read, read, read! At North Oropouche R.C., the school I attended as a child… at the age of eight I was able to read any book in the library. One day I read the Guardian (daily newspaper) editorial in the village shop, and I earned the princely prize of twenty-four pence! Having to look after an ageing father, blind mother and eight siblings (four of whom had to have eye surgery) and generally being mother to the entire family was challenging, but I did not let that stop me from accomplishing my goals.

Reading opened doors in remote Vega de Oropouche. Eva was fortunate first, to be living in the 1950s and secondly, to have teachers who recognised the potential of the eight-year-old. John and Pearly Homer made her school librarian. With their encouragement, she was the first person from North Oropouche R.C. and also likely from northeastern Trinidad to win a college exhibition. For the girl who wanted to be a teacher, who enjoyed teaching siblings, village children and younger fellow students, life would no longer be ordinary.

Discarding the Ordinary

At best, without the exhibition she would have become a pupil-teacher, kept on at primary school and possibly offered a stipend at the discretion of the Head Teacher. Or like her father, she may have become a labourer on a cocoa estate. Then likely, she would have had to surrender her dreams to the man who started courting her when she was fifteen. However desperate she may have felt, she would likely have abandoned all prospects of improving herself and escaping life as her mother knew it.

Improving

Examination success made personal improvement unavoidable. The path to further study led from the countryside to St Joseph, a town about an hour away by bus. She may as well have traveled to another planet. For though it was a religious school, she could not attend St Joseph’s Convent, with the “ten commandments” exposed. None of the chiggers, yaws and sores common among people without shoes entered this school. And though it cost a small fortune to cover her toes, it cost more in personal comfort. Squinting, with a faraway look in her eyes she remembers, “I couldn’t even walk in those shoes.” In time however, despite personal challenges finding a way out of ordinary, country life, she learnt much more than how to walk in shoes.

Challenges

Life was an intense logistical challenge. To get to school on time, Eva had to be up by four on mornings and leave home in a hurry, “without even a sip to drink.” Therefore, opening of Northeastern College in 1961, within walking distance of Vega de Oropouche brought welcome relief.

Illness lessened that relief. While at St Joseph’s Convent, she had to contend with a first serious attack of rheumatoid arthritis. Again, in her final year at Northeastern, as she was preparing for G.C.E. exams, a second attack of the same illness left her hospitalized for months. She remembers finally being released from hospital on 24 April, 1965 and writing her first examination exactly a month later, feeling it was a lost cause. Fortunately though, she had been preparing.

While waiting for results, Eva continued to prepare for life, acting with a sister “almost like parents” in providing care and discipline for younger siblings. This meant teaching herself to sew, not only to clothe her siblings, but also to create elaborate wedding dresses for friends. It meant learning embroidery, making fabric dolls, floral arrangements, perfecting cookery and, among other things, getting started in writing as a lifetime activity.

improving - a hand-made doll

Eva David-Swain with hand-made rag-doll, 2005

Always focussed on her career, she also taught children in Vega de Oropouche. Months later, Eva David was elated to learn she had passed seven of eight subjects, one of them with distinction.

Eva used writing to teach an audience larger than her classes.
Her public profile includes an enthusiastic review of published poetry and stories.
Her experience in waiting for examination results and interest in the welfare of young persons informed her letter writing half a century later of a letter on “the perennial bugbear of what to do with students awaiting the results of the SEA.”
Several letters to the Editor praise staff at the Sangre Grande Hospital, where she receives regular attention. These refer to the Health Ministry issues that undermine the service offered there by helpful staff.

Civic concern marks a letter that leads to the pointed question, “does being functionally illiterate lead to indiscipline in our school(s)?
Her letter of 17 February 2017, “Let’s help educate and uplift our children,” captures the passion of a lifetime as she

marvel(s) at the way… a bit of “tough love” (through) free lessons in English language, creative writing and “broughtupsy” (left)… “unmanageable” teenagers… pleasantly surprised at… success in their exams, especially in English and creative writing… (enabling them) to come to terms with the realisation that they are indeed important and that there are indeed people who really care about them and want to see them become good citizens, no matter what obstacles they may encounter.

Teaching Career

In the course of improving herself, Eva became a trendsetter. In 1965 she was the first valedictorian, first employee and first teacher produced by Northeastern College. On graduating with distinction in 1978 from the Roman Catholic Women’s Training College, she was the first former student to return to North Oropouche R.C. School as a teacher.

L to R: the former Kathleen Clark, the late R.C.Laltoo, Head of QRC and after, of Northeastern, the late Deputy Commissioner of Police, Winston Cooper, and Eva at 50th Anniversary celebration of Northeastern Alumni

Improving on her circumstances meant development of Eva’s mothering skills. Beside caring for three children of her own, she came to be known for taking her sewing machine to school to design and make costumes. This approach benefited students she taught at Biche, St Francis, Arima Girls’ and St Joseph Girls’ R.C. Schools. At Dinsley-Trincity School, she rose to the level of Principal, her contribution then peaking at Matura Government Primary School, from where she retired.

With colleagues at retirement function

After retirement, Eva continued to contribute her skill and experience at the private St Andrew’s College in Sangre Grande and at Valencia North Secondary School. At St Andrew’s, a young man reflected on her success, commenting that without her, he would have ended up in the Youth Training Centre. That success crystallized in a class of boys she taught at Valencia North who were hardly able to read or write, and were “extremely streetwise.” Like classrooms of others before them, they responded predictably to her typical sensitive approach, expressed in her first anthology of poems:

I just want somebody to listen
Listen to me nuh man
I have things bottle up
Bottle up inside my chest
Bottle up inside my head
I just want somebody to listen
Hear what I have to say
How I feel about things
My hopes, my fears, my dreams
All I want is some good advice
To get pointed in the right direction
But nobody have time!
They too busy
Busy socialising
Busy fraternising
Busy patronising
Busy womanising
And me?
Busy agonising
Drowning in worries and sorrow
I still waiting
Looking with flambeau in high noonday
For somebody who would tell me
“I HAVE TIME FOR YOU.” 1

For Eva, improving, listening and teaching came to mean more than a job, or income. Long after she waited for examination results, and villagers paid her two dollars per month to tutor their children, teaching had become a matter, effectively of religious zeal. On retiring in 1999, she evidently published her poems, hoping to kick-start funding for construction of a homework centre. Despite being unable to implement that idea, Eva persisted with makeshift arrangements at home, tutoring children and adults, not only in

academics but (in) life skills, morals and values as well. She teaches… the importance of caring for each other, the importance of education and they (children) know that any problem they have—school or life related—she is there to listen to them with an unbiased ear.

Such was her commitment to education that without the support she expected, Eva was now teaching primary and secondary students in organized classes, voluntarily. As one reporter observed, eleven years after her retirement, “it goes beyond the money — not that she doesn’t have uses for it like everyone else.” Which is where Eva’s story is hardly just a personal matter.

Another Perspective

One twelve-year-old leaving her village for another planet, as it were, represented thousands who benefited from initiatives intended to transform a nation. As she grew to age twelve in that nation, most parents had only basic primary education. This did not mean, however that there was no interest in education. Traditional underfunding restricted access to schools, the Head of Government himself being the prime example of that restriction. Astonishingly, he was also the prime example of benefits available from removing barriers to education.

Colonial limits on schooling gave way slowly under the influence of a popular, school-centred movement led by the former Head of Patience Hill R.C. School in Tobago. Enrolment in the single government-run secondary school in the colony started to grow, but was still well under five hundred at Eva’s birth. By the time she was twelve however, a second government school opened, and government was constructing several others.

Pressure grew to raise secondary enrolment above an improving, but still unnatural low level of 15,000. 3 With 37,000 children older than Eva caught hopelessly alongside 150,000 younger ones in primary schools, government had to act urgently. To release the pressure of rising expectation, it agreed with the largest denominational board, and in effect with all boards to extend provision of school places. Thus, winning an exhibition permitted Eva to attend the nearest convent school, pending transfer to the government school soon opened nearer home.

Eva’s progress reflected that of thousands of children long considered not amenable to improvement, and not worth sending to school by those who had their “ten commandments” covered. Yet, from the 1960s thousands of such children proved perfectly able to learn not only to walk in shoes, but also to do far more. In the face of this proof that seemed impossible before the 1960s, many with their “ten commandments” newly covered soon forgot the discomfort of persons still without advantages they already took for granted.

By the 1980s, the floodgates to education opened. Construction of twenty-one new schools and use of a double-shift system made more than 40,000 places available for students to enter the secondary school system.2 Regrettably however, Trinidad and Tobago had slipped again into the default position held by a relatively small number of privileged persons who saw the mass of the population as incapable of discipline in matters such, for instance as forming lines, using the roads, in disposal of waste and in noise levels when playing music.

Alumna Reminiscing: Eva David-Swain, July 2016

Conclusion

Indiscipline grew more disturbing nationwide while the concern, intervention and pleading of teachers such as Eva seemed to be only a personal concern. It seemed personal although Eva’s recognition of a sleeping “glutton for education,” and her passion to share that insight with young persons was hardly unique.
Far from being personal to Eva, that passion drove a unique local movement to promote education for all. It marked stellar work by teachers and coaches that was poorly acknowledged at home in Trinidad and Tobago and throughout the region.
As in the case of a Prime Minister driven by Inward Hunger, such personal effort continues to produce personal success at a global level, a success driven by schools like Northeastern, that enable children such as Eva to improve on the “ten commandments.”

 

References

1 Eva S. David Peterson, For Mammie, You, and Me, (Sangre Grande, Trinidad and Tobago: Self-published, 1999) 22.
2 Ryan, Selwyn D, “Breaking the “Damn” Circle (the Politics of Education),” Eric Williams: The Myth and the Man. University of the West Indies Press 2009, 582.
3 Eric Williams, ‘Education and Decolonisation,’ an address to the Caribbean Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists at Maracas, Trinidad and Tobago, 29 August 1974, 1, 7.

 

(This post celebrates re-launch of Northeastern College Alumni Association, 5th March 2017.)

 

About the Author Horace Scobie

I belong to the Mossi people of Burkina Faso in West Africa, brought to the Caribbean in years when Tobago changed hands as many as thirty times among rival European states. The reason for that rivalry was obvious. My ancestors were taken to Tobago to work for Scottish planters primarily. They grew cotton and sugar cane, generating wealth legendary in Edinburgh and London at the end of the eighteenth century. I am also the product of circumstances described on a "mystery" tombstone in Plymouth, on the western side of Tobago. It reminds readers of the nameless mother held in a relationship like one in my ancestral line that left me with the Scottish name, Scobie. Those were the years when samaan trees first stood distinct on the Tobago skyline as Moravians and long after, Seventh-day Adventists made schools so much a part of everyday life that islanders began to see education no longer as a privilege, but as a right.

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