Victorian schoolmaster switching
one of his students, I’m reminded of
Teacher Phillips’ Lash. Image courtesy
of The Archivist
My story begins on one of those tropical winter mornings after a night of incessant rains; by morning the day would be clear and sunny. The morning light went by us unperceived, however, and no one in our house remembered to wake us up for school.
For two small school-going kids being late for class, Teacher Phillips’ class, was asking for a pack of trouble. We hadn’t been enrolled in Teacher Phillips’ class too long but we knew that being late was cause for a sound strapping. We hurried along the long stretch of city blocks to school as fast as we could but our rush would turn out to be all in vain.
The minute we arrived we would only be two more kids at the end of the line of pupils that Teacher Phillips had detained at the door. We waited in line nervously as Teach Phillips took his time applying the lashes to the backs of each and every latecomer in front of us.
When it came our turn my little sister Aminta, I must admit, showed her mettle and took her licks like a U.S. Marine and proceeded to walk into class without a whimper after her strapping. Then it was my turn, the shaking leaf. I was more worried about the look on Teach’s face than the dreaded lash he stretched out in his hand. As soon as Teacher Phillips brought down the strap I began writhing and trying to break loose of him.
Making him only more determined I then heard Teacher say in Spanish, “Hold him for me!” Two of the bigger black Spanish boys grabbed me and held me down while Teacher laid some heavy lashes on my body. It goes without saying that I cried all day during class until it was time to go back home.
For the next few days we were diligent about getting to school early but by afternoon we would feel serious hunger pangs. I think Teacher noticed this and called my parents in for a conference. After the teacher’s conference with my parents we suddenly found ourselves out of school again. We never returned to that school or any other school.
Home, as it turned out, would be our prison and our joy as our playmates who were all Spanish speaking would go off to school for most of the day. I continued my education reading in English or Spanish depending on what kind of magazine or newspapers I managed to pull out of the garbage area of our big tenement building.
The English Schools would nevertheless be a place I yearned to be despite the episode with Teacher Phillips. These schools were places where we Black children learned reading and writing and office skills and, furthermore, they taught both children and adults at night. They, in fact, were the first institutions in the Republic of Panama to open their doors for the teaching of English. Even today some of those old English teachers’ names are still remembered.
Although the official Education Ministry and local school authorities have never recognized the efforts and accomplishments of the English School Teachers, they would provide the first education any of the children of any race in the Republic of Panama would ever receive. Since they, as educators, were always viewed as foreigners or as simple English Caribbean ignoramuses, the fact remains that these black men and women made it easier for people, of both Spanish and English descent, to be educated. For these unsung heroes to be overlooked, then, would be a grave injustice since they were available when the powers in the Canal Zone and in Panama officialdom were totally against us as a people getting any education at all.
We shared the same experiences as our young Spanish speaking contemporaries who have always reminded me as a researcher that they too attended the same Westindian English Schools, and that, in fact, these schools were their first experience at attending any school at all in the Republic of Panama.
This story continues.