June 22, 2006

The Beginning of the End

Sitting behind the battered Olivetti in the center of the principal’s office, he tapped away with two fingers, then flicked the carriage, and continued his seemingly furious flurry at the keys. Smoke from his cigarette laid casually on the rim of a brown, glass ashtray coiled around his arms up to his elbows where he had rolled up the sleeves of his white shirt. Tanned and shorn, he was ready for work, another year at Jamaica College, but I was too ashamed to face him. I waited under the shade of the trees that lined the driveway for the din of the typewriter to die down, so I could tell him what he already knew.

The clatter of the keys continued and I’d hoped no one, not even the ubiquitous Jacko, had seen me. The principal’s office was not my most favorite place. I’d been there so many times since I’d entered first form that the cracks in the wooden floor, polished by the cleaning women with hard brushes made from coconut husks, seemed more familiar than the lines in my palms where I had received so many beatings from my teachers.

I wasn’t a bad child. I was merely mischievous. I knew the boundaries of proper manners and decency and I always sidled up to the border, but never crossed. This infuriated many of my teachers. When detentions and other forms of useless punishment didn’t work, they sent me to the principal’s office in the hope that a master, like one we nicknamed, “El Figo Baca,” would spot me and beat the devil out of me.

But the beatings wouldn’t be in my palms as they did in primary school. The punishment would have been delivered to a more delicate part of my anatomy while I was bent over a wooden table.

I looked at the cracks again, and remembered the time when I got my first caning because my Bible knowledge teacher wrote a lie about me and sent me to the principal’s office. I had avoided a caning for four years, but when the principal, Mr. Taylor, opened the letter and asked me why I was fighting with another boy, Wayne Maragh, I was flabbergasted. Wayne and I entered Jamaica College in first form and at that time he was six feet tall. We were now in fourth form and he had grown. He was also one of my best friends with whom I played ping pong and he had rescued me from the fists of other boys who dared to get into verbal sparring with me. When they lost, they tried to resort to physical violence and all Wayne had to say was, “Is my friend that, you know.” There was no way I would have done anything to anger Wayne.

When I pointed out all these facts to the principal, he asked me, “Who am I to believe? Are you telling me, Mr. Philp, that the good reverend is lying?” I spoke the truth, but it didn’t set me free. I got a beating instead. Four strokes over the table. I was more hurt by the injustice than the physical beating. Canings you get over. Injustices you carry long after the physical stripes are gone.

Here I was again at the scene of the crime and not wanting to face my teacher, Dennis Scott. I had seen the look of deep disappointment on his face the last time, and here I was in the same place again. I had failed him. I had failed my family and friends. I had failed myself. For the second time in two years after graduating from fifth form with GCE “O” levels that included a distinction in history, I didn’t pass my GCE “A” levels in literature. I had only passed Economics and GP. And it was no one’s fault but my own.

As one of my classmates had said to my face, “How can you fail literature when Dennis Scott is your teacher? How many of you were in that class?” I couldn’t answer him. There had been three other students beside myself in the class: Paul Brown, Paul Green and Nadi Edwards. We studied James Joyce, Shakespeare, and DH Lawrence. In six months after we had we finished with those writers, Dennis invited some of his friends to talk to us about their work: Christopher Gonzalez, Rex Nettleford and Lorna Goodison.

I had even acted in one of the school plays directed by Dennis, Twelfth Night, where I played a bewildered Antonio. Perhaps that was the only time when Dennis’ praise was not equal to my talent. So, it wasn’t that I didn’t know the material. Nor was it that I didn’t have a passion for literature. I didn’t have an answer. I only had my shame.

I couldn’t face him.

I walked away from the door. He may have called my name but I was long gone before he could rise from his chair. I never went back to Jamaica College even though I lived less than half a mile away. I wondered around Jamaica for a couple months feeling sorry for myself and slipping into a deep depression. What were you thinking? I asked myself. I could feel the envy rising in my chest every time I drove past the UWI Campus at Mona where I knew several of my friends were studying hard, reading the great books, laughing and talking about “Poor Philp. The others were attending Oxford, Cambridge, Princeton, Harvard, Yale, and the ones we used to make fun of ended up in Columbia. And here I was trolling around the campus at night with other neer-do-wells, drinking and smoking, and occasionally bumping into writers like John Hearne at the Extramural Center and meeting one of his gifted students, Fragano Ledgister.

Of course, there was no shortage of reasons supplied by friends and family about my failure. “Too much playing football,” my mother said. But I had been given a chance to play for our Manning Cup team and I couldn’t turn them down. After many years of leaving the training squad a week before the final cut because I feared I would never make the team, Foggy Burrows came to my house and asked me to play for the team. When the regular coach, Dennis Zadie, came back he told me that I’d had a great chance at least once during the previous years, but I’d disappeared. He gave the spot to someone who had stayed around and showed up on the last day.

When Foggy recruited me and the reporter from The Star showed up at practice and in his article compared me to my brother, Ansel, who had played for Jamaica in the early sixties, I was elated. I hadn’t played a game and I was already famous. (Maybe I’d get my picture beside the Star's “Poster Girl.”) I played left wing, center forward, and mid-field and scored six goals during the season—three in one match against St. Catherine High. The girls in the stands loved it.

One the girls in the neighborhood asked me for the t-shirt that had my name on the back and she wore it to the community center. Later, I was told it don’t sit well with another young lady, “My Beatrice, my Penelope,” as I called her—names which she appreciated and I was convinced she was the only person on the planet who understood what the names meant.

Luckily, Beatrice who was smart enough to listen to her parents’ advice and to pass all of her “A” levels with distinctions continued her studies at UWI whereas I went on to play football for the Collector General’s football team where I scored nine goals and tied Bumpy Edwards for the most goals in the Civil Service League. I also learned how to play dominoes and how to drink.

After a year of hiding, however, I finally had to face Dennis. He was opening a new play and I wanted to see it. Dog was brilliant. It dissected Jamaican life and showed the mean, narrow prejudices that fuel our class and race warfare.

As the audience filed toward the exit, I went against the flow. Dennis was talking to one of the actors. “Great show, Dennis.” I choked out the words. He turned, looked at me and said, “Where have you been, man? How have you been? Are you all right?”

All I could say was, “Yes.”
Next, The End of the Beginning

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