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Reflections and commentary by Wil Pluck (a bonafied member of the teaching staff)
(Burnham was non-racial and it was his last contribution…in the interest of providing ‘free education’ to Guyanese of all ethnicities…from nursery to university).
This convened discussion forum that seeks to honour the enduring memory of the nation’s ‘founding father,’ and first Executive President, is a very commendable initiative and a fitting gesture of tribute to President Burnham – the ‘founding father’ of President’s College – the “School of Excellence” that began in 1985. I was among the first batch of teachers selected to proudly serve as a founding member of staff.
The Conceived ‘Vision’ of the President’s College:
The essential aim and projected focus of the college was conceived with the thought of preparing a ‘special cadre’ of students who would have been groomed with the focus of becoming a citizen with the inclination, willingness and desire to serve their country with humility and a deep sense of national pride. The level of indiscipline, arrogance and expressed acts of racial hatred and the prevalence of money-grabbing obsession… involving state funds are, certainly, at variance with the noble concept in which the aspirations of the President’s College had been conceived.
Among the beneficiaries of the ‘free education’ and boarding that were provided by the then Forbes Burnham government who may, likely, not have been able to afford such in the same measure. There were students drawn from families of mixed racial/ethnic diversity; religious persuasions; socio-economic diversity; different family backgrounds and domestic training too! There were those who were more well-groomed than others. Whatever conceived prejudice – racial or otherwise – teachers were expected to demonstrate their best conduct that confirmed the noble aspirations of the institution in its transcending role as a ‘model institution’ – charged to lift the level of all other academic institutions in the country.
After ‘special training,’ P. C. Teachers came ‘face-to-face’ with President Burnham:
It was an awesome undertaking, as was conceived and laid out to us, teachers during daily training sessions by Dr. Oswald Kendall – the then Chief Education Officer/first Principal (by a later decision). The very message was later reinforced by the President at an ‘extraordinary meeting’ that was hosted at Congress Place, in the Sophia section of Georgetown, after we had completed our one year ‘special’ teacher training that involved classroom lectures; curriculum structuring by teachers for their respective subject areas (under expert guidance), case studies and interactive sessions at Kuru-Kuru College, Turkeyen and a trip to Cuba.
Our final ‘field assignment’ involved visits to some of the city schools, to teach a lesson at the primary level. This was to ascertain the likely smooth transformation of such students to what was intended to be a new, different and ‘extended curriculum’ for students at a boarding school. This came after months of planning for the newly built President’s College at Golden Grove on the East Coast of Demerara.
His charge to us, the “earmarked teachers,” proved…our ‘rude awakening’ – a ‘new dawn’ into the unknown – as we were frozen!
On the long-anticipated date for the President’s address to us teachers, as usual…with his ‘iron will,’ he was keen, sharp – ‘stone-faced’ and impassioned. At first, through his dark-tinted and classy eyeglasses, he glared at each of us in a mysterious silence that stirred secret emotions within, with an air of psychological unease among us in our temporary and ‘privileged, V. I. P., front-row seats’. He then spoke and gave us the ‘final charge’ in which he laid bare, the terms of teaching, with new conditions and duties that were expected of us in our extended role as ‘model teachers’.
According to him:
“no more eight-hours…full-length sleeping…”;
“…you were not ‘ “earmarked”, ‘ you were only ‘hallmarked!
“Your continued presence and relevance there would depend on your performance…”, he emphasized, as he corrected his then Minister of Education – Malcolm Parrís – whose task, as the assigned moderator, was to present the ‘select group’ of teachers, in whose service the government was committed to offer more enviably attractive salaries.
On a ‘lighter note,’ he then alluded to an anecdotal reference to a supposed teacher who had called him to ask… as to how she could get on the list to teach at the President’s College? In a misleading answer…in turn, he said that he told her that she could apply, as normal through the Ministry of Education and state her school of preference – the President’s College – what a coded humour for a silent audience of impeccable teachers with the ‘best foot’ forward…while gripped with mixed emotions!
As the session ended, every teacher was left frozen! Among us, if there were some who, hither to, had felt, somewhat, elitist and, perhaps, like a ‘larger-than-life icon,’ that was no more, for the new undertaking at hand, seemed rigidly daunting. That was, truly a moment of, our ‘rude awakening’. Interestingly, it came not from our newly assigned Principal (Mr. Oswald Kendall), instead – it was President Burnham himself!
From whence we came – then…to actualise his ‘visions of a utopia.’
As a result, it sparked off weeks of debate among ourselves, for some of us became apprehensive. An original math teacher – drawn from Queen’s College – eventually asked to be withdrawn from the group. As for me, I had moderate trepidation, for I was drawn from an historic and prestigious St. Rose’s High where I had already given a ‘good account’ of my service that had earned me “Best Teacher of The Year” award; obtained national prominence from my students’ performance (gold and Supreme gold medals) on world competitions. Many others, with their years of classroom experiences and students’ yearly success at regional/overseas exams, had made us ‘battle-tested’.
There we were, at the threshold of a ‘new dawn’ in the history of a projected 21st. century initiative in education in Guyana. The year was 1985, but it was Forbes Burnham’s ‘early vision’ – an ‘advanced calling.’ For those of us, teachers who showed the necessary courage continue, knew that before us laid the great promise of our nation’s future and in whose hands rest, the fate and great hope of the young – a new task at hand; a new dawn beckoning…as was conceived by a nation’s leader with a transcending ‘vision of a projected utopia’. This was his ‘final call’ on us to help present his ‘last, free offering’ in education before he met his final defeat by his own mortality.
Dorm life at the college – the classy & highfalutin to the ‘bare-footed’
Dorm life at the college was the ‘great equaliser.’ Among this first batch, were students from rural and urban up-bringing; the bare-footed and the affluent. Perhaps, most prominent among them all was Nadata Amina Green (the young daughter of the then Prime Minister – Mr. Hamilton Green). She was always noticeably polite, humble and respectful – a perfect example of a child whose refined morals and calm personality transcend the folly of stubborn arrogance…usually associated with a highfalutin social and domestic lifestyle. Renee Ann Durga (…an Amerindian mixed girl) from the Essequibo region, was also sufficiently calm and humble too…and still remains with such an admirable disposition.
Then there were the likes of a Nigel Dharamlall, from the West Berbice region, whose repeated professional misconduct sink to the lowest ‘common factor’ – female disrespect; the use offensive and filthy utterances and antics, even in parliament (in many respects, such would likely border on vulgar and racial excesses – the guttery. (none of which was ever taught to any student at the ‘Burnham College’). As a product of such a prestigious institution, his actions represent, the likes of which, the ‘founder leader’ would have been most disappointed’ and so moved to exact his wrath in unrestrained fury.
The striking dichotomy of the bizarre polarity of comparative conduct in reference, can only serve to betray the lofty ideals and cherished expectations from all beneficiaries of the ‘free education’ that was uniquely provided at the college by the Forbes Burnham government.
On a more morally wholesome and refreshing note – a former classmate and product of the sarcastically dubbed, ‘Burnham College’ – Mahendra Carpen (now a M.D.), who hails from Albion Front on the Corentyne coast – also with a socially refined personality – represents one of the best offerings and, certainly, symbolizes a ‘pride-of-place’ among President Burnham’s great hope. The truth here stands on its own evidence. This fulfills the ultimate purpose of this collection of paragraphs on ‘reflections on President’s College’ as a contribution to honour his memory and to also celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth.
Wil-a Pluck…February 23rd, 2023. (A former, ‘1st batch’ teacher, of the President’s College in Guyana).