Reminiscences of a Grammar School Boy, by Lindsay Benjamin
(based on a speech at the SLGS OBA UK Thanksgiving Service in London on 27th March 2011)
I am both proud and humble to be part of these 166th anniversary celebrations, 166 and all that! Today is unique for three reasons. First, it is 10 years for SLGS OBA UK here at St Peters Church. Secondly I did reminiscences before, 23 years ago, to a smaller audience. In all my 54 years, this is the biggest public speech I have made. The only survivors I can recall from 1988 are Johannes Fowler, Israel Parper and Dejean McEwen. I volunteered to do them again because at the monthly meeting in January we were getting desperate. Thirdly, it is the first Thanksgiving since the deaths of Mr Tunu Fraser, Rev. Prince Nicol, and Mr David Fraser. Mr David Fraser gave the Reminiscences here 13 years ago in 1998. One of his teachers walked with a wobble, so they called him “Ducks waist”. Grammar School boys remain the same across the generations. Once he came to talk to us in morning assembly, as a distinguished Old Boy. He said the six years he spent at the Grammar School were the happiest in his life. Amen.
I entered the Grammar School because my parents insisted on SLGS. Traditional Sierra Leonean parents in those days were somewhat autocratic. There was no discussion! When I got there, I spent seven years at Murray Town, September 1967 to July 1974, from Form 1 to Upper 6.
Overall, the Class that started in 1967 was a docile generation, compared to both those that went before us and came after us. We were reasonably obedient. None of us were expelled, or even suspended, or had to have our parents summoned to meet the Principal, or caned in front of morning assembly. When we were in Form 1, we even managed to avoid the notorious intimidation of vulnerable freshers on Penny Day. In return, when we were the big boys, we did not intimidate the new freshers. Being docile, my generation did not play the game that older boys played called PUT, where boys gather round in a circle, and one puts his hand into the ring, and the others try to hit it, until someone missed and then he had to put his hand into the ring. Ladies and gentlemen, this is a game for the brave – or for fools, and I think it faded out after my generation.
My generation at the Grammar School had the rare privilege of 3 Principals. From 1967 to 1970 Rev Ottolorin Palmer, commonly called Otto, to me seemed an avuncular figure. He would exhort us to behave better, “I would not condone you…”. He smoked cigarettes, and he would pant heavily after exertion, so whenever he caned a pupil, it seemed that the beating hurt him more than it hurt the pupil.
Reverend Herera Bankole Davies, commonly called Bankie, was much underrated and I am glad that years ago I asked for his name to be included among the list of Principals in our service sheet. He was a quiet man and people often made fun of him behind his back. But he did hold the school together for the one year he acted at Principal, 1970 to 1971. He was a good pianist and would often play the piano for morning assembly. Like most middle-aged people he needed reading glasses, and without them he would strain to read something on the sheet of paper held far away down at knee level when he was reading out notices to Assembly.
My last three years from 1971 to 1974 saw the first three years of Rev. Victor Hastings-Spaine. He arrived from Collegiate with great energy (ragin), ready to sort the school out, issuing various edicts and commandments. When he arrived, his wife who had been a Maths teacher, left for (I think) the Technical Institute, so the two of them were never at the Grammar School together. Earlier, while he was at Collegiate and his wife was at the Grammar School, we noticed that as soon as he returned from study leave abroad, his wife became pregnant. In morning assembly he would also urge us to behave better, “You do the right thing not because you will be punished if you do not do it. You do the right thing because it IS the right thing to do”. “I know that some of you boys smoke. If I see you smoking a cigarette round town in the evenings, I will not expel you for that. But when you begin to smoke - the other thing…”
Teachers in my early school: In Form 1, the Biology teacher Pa Forster said “Matter is anything that has weight and occupies space”. Nearly 40 years later, I cannot think of a better description of the physical world around us.
Pa Sawyerr taught us music. We would recite the biographies of classical musicians word for word, and then he would award us 99%, not 100%. In an octave of music, the gaps are not all the same. They are tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone. That impressed us, because we were young boys of 11, 12, 13, and at that stage of our physical development, we had only semitones! Moving swiftly on… When he applied the cane, he liked to apply the Bible. The errant boy would bend over the desk, with his fingers on the light switch. Pa Sawyerr would say, “Let there be light”, and as the boy switched the light on, the cane would descend on his tender parts. Pa Sawyerr would then say, “And there was light”. If you did not synchronise the timing correctly, that stroke would not count.
Reverend Coker taught Bible Knowledge. He had a sing-song voice “Don’t forge-et” We would reply “We won’t forge-et”, and then he started saying “Don’t forget”. He wore his trousers high, almost up to his armpits. He was always watching us so we called him Secret Agent 202. He was a kind man when we would misbehave or not do well in tests, he would be sad rather than angry. “You boys have disappointed me”. He seemed to have an unofficial pastoral role within the school. But when required, he could apply the cane effectively. Instead of giving six, or twelve, he would give three, and nine.
In the sixth form our form master was the Sri Lankan Mr Karunakaran who taught Maths. Talking about the oscillating movement of a body, he said “Consider the upward motion…” and we listened in rapt attention, then took notes. In Statistics, we discussed the merits of the binomial distribution and the Poisson distribution for a probability p of 0.25. Mr Karunakaran said “You use the Poisson distribution when p is small and n is large. Is p small? No. Binomial!” with a sweeping gesture. Sometimes he gave us free extra lessons on Saturday mornings.
Throughout my school career, my twin brother Kenneth and I were in the same class. This caused some confusion with people who did not know us well. Darrell Thompson was two years ahead of us ahead of us. Every time I met him, he would say, “You nar good Benjie or bad Benjie?” At school Kenneth was more outgoing than I. He liked to tease a Physics teacher, Mr Newman-Smart. Kenneth would go up to him, and say, all bright and cheerful, “Good afternoon MISTER Smart”. Mr Smart would mutter “Get lost, Benjamin”.
Teasing – for your sanity, you should be of average appearance. You should not be too tall or too short, too muscular or too skinny, and your skin colour should not be as black as tar, or as yellow as a pumpkin. One boy in the year behind me was tall. Now, in Krio, long can mean either a long period of time horizontally, or tall vertically. So they said he was as long as an early morning piss. Even now, we still greet him with the word “Morning”! I don’t know why they picked on him, because his own class both his brother and Bumi During were taller than him. And my class there was Kenneth and I, our cousin Ronald Benjamin, and Adeyemi Johnson. So he was at best only the seventh tallest but for some reason they picked on him.
My twin brother and I were also teased. Being tall, and wearing glasses, we were conspicuous. We were said to be not very good looking (we still are not, which is one reason why we are both still bachelors). So they likened us to a character in a comic strip. They also likened us to a certain kind of animal. Once we were talking in class, and the late Vernon Nylander said, “Please sir, they think they are in the zoo”.
Our good friend, Adeyemi Johnson, was as tall but also wide. He lived close to Kenneth and me, so he would often visit us on the way home from school. My mother said about him “He is big”. We likened him to a muscular character in our English Literature textbook. In a Chemistry class the teacher talked about bulky groups of molecules, and soon as we heard “bulky groups” we cried out, almost with one voice “Adeyemi!” We would say, “Adeyemi een body big. Gravity en air resistance plenty pan am”. “As Adeyemi pass nar de door, de light go out” Once he got fed up with the teasing and said, “Ah don ready for oonah nar dis class”. In the sixth form we had an intake of boys from St Edwards to study science. Edmund Thornton brought with him a nickname form St Edwards of “Okorogie”. He was one the so-called “trenkman” in the class. One day he decided to wear sunglasses to school. I clearly remember, that even before he sat down in morning assembly, the jokes had started. They tormented him all day, and he issued threats and warnings, but he never wore those sunglasses again.
Being docile, my generation had relatively few canings. I say relatively, because every boy received at least one, except Adeyemi Johnson, who was a goody two shoes, which is why he became Head Prefect in our final year. But in Form 3, the pupils had behaved so badly, even by Grammar School standards, that the whole school was lined up and everybody from Form 5 downwards received two strokes each. We just lined up and took it, like vaccinations. The most notorious master for caning was Mr Cyril Rogers-Wright, commonly called Rogie. Kofi Palmer was one year ahead of me, and I still recall his utter dismay at the beginning of his Form 3 year, when he discovered who his new Form Master was. Even being the Principal’s son did not spare him. He went round like a zombie, repeating “Rogie nar we Form Master”. His fears were fully justified. Rogie said “My class is going to be the best class in the whole school”. During that term, every time I walked – quickly – past the open door of Form 3, Rogie was caning someone. They looked thoroughly miserable. They were literally beaten into submission. Years later when he was in Upper 6, Kofi came into the Lower 6 class. He said, “Rogie did flag we for dat one term. You nor get textbook, six; you nor get exercise book, twelve; you late, six; you absent, twelve”. I don’t know if he had time to teach them anything, but my God he licked them into shape. In our class there was one boy who would always cry when caned. We considered what would happen if he came up against Mr Rogers-Wright. We said, “Pa Sawyerr gi you two, you cry; Ogunade gi you two, you cry; Adjasco gi you two, you cry; Rogie go gi you half”.
As young boys in Forms 1 and 2, we soon learnt that we had relatively little to fear from the full grown MEN in Form 6. MEN like Cyrus Macfoy, Emile Jones and Isaac Greywoode. These full-grown MEN rightly considered it beneath their dignity to terrorise small boys like us. So as long as you stepped out of their way and looked respectful, they left you alone. No, the ones to watch out for were the raray boys in Forms 3 and 4. Now, to describe some of these boys as savages would be too strong – but only just too strong. Boys like Charlie Peace, Musa Cole, Maitland Cole and John Malamah Thomas. Listen to those hums of recognition, the memories are still vivid. The nickname Charlie Peace says it all, his name was James Johnson but there was a good reason why he had the moniker of a notorious criminal in a comic strip. Musa Cole looked like no human being I have ever seen, before or since. Of muscular and wild appearance, the one time I remember him smiling, his teeth seemed to point in several different directions. Whether through old age or through fighting, I did not dare to ask, in case I lost some of my own! Maitland Cole had an air of quiet menace. Once I insulted him, and although by then I was almost as tall as him, he was a lot stronger. He said quietly, “Ah feel for disfigure some part pan you”. All I could do was beg for mercy. John Malamah-Thomas ran a one-man extortion racket. Well-meaning parents would send their sons to school with packed lunches. But when they reached school, half the lunch was disappearing down the throat of Malamah! Once he came into our class. When the teacher asked him a question, he replied, “I’m black and I’m proud”. So we had organised discipline in the classroom, and random attack outside the classroom. You could prepare for, and largely avoid, the organised discipline, but there was no way to avoid the random attack. To incur the wrath of a bigger and stronger boy you did not have to do anything. You did not even have to say anything. You just had to - be there, and sooner or later someone would take a dislike to you. So when the governments have a counter-terrorism policy, for example against Osama Bin-Laden and the Al-Qaeda network, they are chasing the wrong target. All you need to do is to attend the Grammar School in the 1960s and 70s. Then you learn about terrorism.
Among our classmates, there are two main characters. From Form 1 to 3 Clarence Nelson-Williams was described as “Very playful and boisterous”. But in Forms 4 to Form 6, the prize for the outstanding personality of my schooldays goes to Dennis King. A boy who was at the centre of nearly every incident, giving and receiving abuse in equal measure. He had a hot temper and three times he broke his right hand in fights. The first time, he had a fierce altercation with Maligie Mansaray. He stood there saying, “If you near me, Ah go kill you”. Then he aimed a blow which if it had connected, would definitely have sent Maligie to hospital. But it did not. Maligie ducked, Dennis’ right hand hit the blackboard, and the whole classroom shook. The next day he came to school with his hand in plaster. The third time, in Form 6 he came into the classroom to read something he did not like on the blackboard and aimed a swing at my brother Kenneth. Kenneth managed to stick up his elbow, Dennis’ hand connected with it, and again the next day he came to school with his hand in plaster. On the board was written “The new champ is a (animal reference)”. On another occasion he lashed out and hit Henry Carter on the head. Borboh, Carter een head make “Koong” and had to be restrained from taking savage revenge. When Dennis had a quarrel with David Carew who was quite small, Carew picked up a stick and said, “You nak me with han, me nak you with tik, so we go equal”.
I liked sport, but I was not very good. My growth spurt from 13 to 15 left me uncoordinated. My favourite athletic event was the high jump. Often young boys would be so enthralled by the balletic grace, that as the jumper took off, they would lift one leg in sympathy. The older boys would laugh “Look, dem de colay”. I confess, I was one of them. Charlie Peace was a good exponent of the Western Roll. Isaac Greywoode used the straddle; he was a very elegant jumper, with a silent movement. We would say “Spirit pass”. But one time he knocked the bar off, landed heavily, and was on all fours spitting sand out of his mouth. We laughed (quietly), “Greywoode eat san san”. In 1973, the Grammar School and St Edwards both had very strong athletic teams, spearheaded by the sprinters Sheku Boima and Sebleh Smith. There was fierce competition at the inter-school sports, and it came down to the final event, the Senior Boys 4 x 100 m relay. Frederick Johnston and Samuel Wellington had us clearly in the lead at the halfway point. But in the final two legs, somehow Michael Kallay and Sebleh Smith managed to overtake us. We went home in stunned disbelief. In all my life, not even when Newcastle United were relegated several times, was I as disappointed as I was on Saturday 3rd March 1973. So Ibrahim Dumbuya, your boys beat us that day, but that is part of life, coping with disappointment. Several boys had come from St Edwards to the Grammar School to do 6th Form. Of those, only Edmund Thornton and Henry Carter were staunch in their support for St Edwards, even when Grammar School was leading in the earlier rounds, the rest wavered. That is another lesson, to stay constant in adversity. In my last year I managed to get myself onto the school’s second – or third – relay team, and this motley crew would compete against other teams. I did not have proper sprinting kit. Henry Carter mocked me, saying “Lindsay nor de were draws en spikes or, nar khaki trousees en crepe”. Ow for do.
My twin brother and I both like listening to deep Bass voices. In my third year the choir had four notable ones - Solomon Johnson, Solomon Cole, Emile Jones and Donald Walters.
I remember the way we used to laugh. One teacher said “One boy wrote one pages of nonsense”. We all heard, but nobody said anything for a second or two. Then Clarence Nelson-Williams, one of the most boisterous boys in the class, burst out with “One Pages!” and the class erupted into the loudest laughter I heard in my seven years at the Grammar School. The second loudest laughter was when we were in Form 6. We were now big men, and Vernon Nylander thought we were now above the petty routine of paying daily for our refreshments in the market. He suggested to one of main caterers, Omo, that he would set up an account and pay her periodically rather than daily. Omo told him, “Before Ah open account with you, Ah go open account with de dog dem”. The third loudest laughter was when Mr Spaine was criticising at Assembly a young boy called Findlay for some misdemeanour. Findlay was barely taller than the chair he was sitting on. Mr Spaine said, “Look at him, he has only just left his mother’s breasts. A fourth instance was in the sixth form. Someone made a grammatical mistake and we laughed. My twin brother Kenneth said “Nor to all man for laugh o, some man den de laugh way nor suppose for laugh”. Henry Carter realised the subtlety of Kenny’s dig and said “Hint know een master”.
But we did study as well as laugh. Preparing for our Maths exam in Form 5, we practised the Sine formula, Cosine formula and Pythagoras theorem, because one of them always came up in the exam. In Form 6 we studied hard, none more so than Adeyemi. He lost weight. We were concerned. Ronnie sat behind him, put his hands on his shoulders, and said in a very brotherly way, “Adeyemi, take tem, nor to so. You body jes de go down”.
In Form Upper 6 the Head Prefect Adeyemi Johnson and my twin brother Kenneth held the school banner at the annual parade of schools at the Brookfields Stadium. I felt proud of Kenny. He should have been Head Boy but it was decided to merge the Head Boy role and Senior Prefect role into the single one of Head Prefect.
All the time my generation was at the Grammar school in Murray Town, there was no bridge across to Aberdeen. You know the Krio proverb, “Wait, wait wait, Aberdeen nor get bridge”. We had a different version at the Grammar School. It was “Wait, wait, wait, Botoo de cold”. Later, when I was a strong young man of 24, I discovered how true this was. That is another reason why I never got married. To go through that several times a week? No, thanks.
I used to walk fast. Okorogie said, “Lindsay dat de waka fast go school oh, dis morning ee pass me lek breeze”. In the sixth form I played the piano in morning assembly. Once I was delayed in getting the hymn books and I had to march through assembly at top speed after the service had already started. Kenny later said that I walked as if I had fire under my balls.
I was generally obedient, but there were two instances of me following my mates in breaking the school rules. In Form 4, a group of us decided to play truant from lessons and go swimming down at the bay. I suspect that we were just following generations of our predecessors. The teachers must have known who the culprits were because we would return with white streaks on our dark legs from dried salt water. The bay we swam in was a semicircle shape, with a cluster of rocks in the middle. One day we decided to swim round the rocks, well out of our depth. One boy was rather weak in physique. About a quarter of the way round he cried out “Ah don begin tire o”. As we reached the halfway mark, at the deepest point, we heard these desperate gasps, “Ah don tire, Ah don tire”. Four of us each grabbed a limb and dragged him to safety. The last day we swam was the last day of term and the tide was really high.
In Form Lower 6 we took to gambling. It was a simple game of pure chance with three rounds of cards, no skill involved. My favourite position was just before the Kadi on my left who dealt the cards. So whenever I won, I used my left hand to take the money. If the cards were favourable after the first round I would fold my arms. If they remained favourable after the second round I would hold my left hand on left ear, ready to strike if the third round was also favourable. To this day I can still reach out with my left hand better than with my right. Overall, I broke even. My cousin Ronnie was one of the winners, and he has gone on to do very well in life. Once he crowed, “Some man dem people don struggle through January, de driest mont of the year, for gi dem money, so when dem reach school, dem nor go de beg. Dem know say dem nor get luck so, dem de take dem people money play gamble, we just de win dem. Yesterday leone, today leone”. Once, just when I had won, our form master Mr Karunakaran appeared in the doorway and the cards disappeared like lightening. Even Mr Lasite started talking about card playing with cents.
But in Form 5 after swimming, and in Upper 6 after gambling, we just stopped, without discussion, some instinct made us concentrate on our O and A Levels respectively
I spent Forms 1 and 2 on the bottom floor, Forms 3 and 4 on the middle floor, then three years on the Top Floor, when we could look down with lofty disdain on the junior boys. By Upper 6 Kenneth and I, Ronald and Adeyemi were taller than our fathers and taller than Mr Spaine the Principal. When Polycarp Fashole-Luke gave the Reminiscences in 1997, he said we looked like giants. To us, the youngsters seemed as small and as numerous as ants, so I don’t remember most of them. Magnus Cole was one of these small boys, I was his form prefect. Magnus was so young and innocent in those days, and so respectful towards me. Alas, all that has changed.
You pick up a lot of things at school that you do not get at home – cro-cro, facing cloth, Apollo. We had two epidemics of Apollo, in Form 3, and in Form Lower 6. Being docile, most of my generation escaped.
So this is brief summary of my seven years at the Grammar School. Most of us could talk for hours about our beloved school. The bonds of friendship are still strong. 20 years later, in August 1994, it was a real pleasure to Kenny and I that Ronnie Benjamin, Adeyemi Johnson, Dennis King, Henry Carter and Israel Wyse came to attend our mother’s memorial service. From 1967 to 1974, the docile generation, was indeed a good time to be a Grammar School boy. More importantly, it was a very good time to be a Sierra Leonean.