The year I graduated from the University of Guyana with a bachelor’s degree in geography, I volunteered to teach at the North West Secondary School in Mabaruma – the government administrative center in the region, near Guyana’s border with Venezuela.
The concrete school building stood on a ridge, overlooking the hospital and guest house. Large blackboards separated the classrooms. Seven teachers attended to a hundred students (11 to 18 years). The majority of students were indigenous Amerindians; the remainder Afro- and Indo-Guyanese. They came by corial (canoe) and on foot from the surrounding villages in the Barima-Waini River system.
On my first morning during assembly in front of the school building, I looked out beyond the township towards the forest-covered hills of mottled green. I was in unfamiliar territory. Later, standing in front of my class, I looked at their attentive faces, eager to learn, and knew that I had made the right decision to teach in Mabaruma.
Two months after my arrival, our Headmaster gathered the teaching staff together for a special meeting. That day my fate changed. Leaving Mabaruma the next day to take up a new post on the coast, he announced that I was to take over as Acting Headmistress until a new head was appointed by the Ministry of Education.
I objected. “The science teacher (a missionary worker ten years older than my 25 years) is the best qualified and the most experienced among us.”
“She’s a foreigner; she can’t hold the post.”
“What about the agriculture teacher? The students like and respect him.”
The agriculture teacher shook his head. “You’re the best person for the job.”
The science teacher, together with the other teachers, remained silent.
My credentials – best geography graduate; recipient of the Chancellor’s Medal as second-best graduate – had impressed the Headmaster. But there are times when experience tops academic achievements.
The next day, with the secretary’s help, I took over the school’s administrative functions. I became the spokesperson for liaising with the government Education Officer, government personnel in the region who used the school for their meetings, and the Ministry of Education in the capital.
Following our first teachers’ meeting when the science teacher verbally attacked me, my life in the small and remote community became hell on earth. The newly-appointed Education Officer added wood to the fire with his sexual advances. When complaints to the Ministry about his conduct yielded no results, I requested a transfer to a school in Georgetown. The Ministry denied my request. I was trapped. With all schools owned and controlled by the government, my only option was to leave the teaching profession.
At the end of the school year, I left Mabaruma for Georgetown on my last flight on a twenty-seat Cessna aircraft.
Failure as a headmistress hung like an ugly bat in my closet. Years later, on separate occasions, I met the agriculture teacher and a parent (a government worker) of two of my former students in Mabaruma. The agriculture teacher told me that the two art students I had prepared for the London General Certificate of Examination (Ordinary Level) had passed the exam, thanks to my excellent preparation. It was their second attempt at the art exam. The parent thanked me for the joy I had given his eleven-year-old daughter who died from leukemia the year after I left.
Sometimes in life, it is only with time that we can better evaluate our successes and failures.