Annual Thanksgiving Service in honour of the 167th Anniversary of the School at St Peter's Church, Eaton Square, Belgravia London SW1W 9AL on Sunday 25th March 2012 at 3:00 p.m. Reminiscences:
Mr Ivor Nelson-Williams (8299)
Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen, Fellow Regentonians.
I am very honoured to have been given the opportunity to tell you about my time at the Grammar School. I have attended many Thanksgiving Services in this church over the years and heard the stories of many model ex-pupils that have taken to the lectern. I now stand at the same lectern not as a model ex-pupil but as an ex-pupil who earned his stripes overcoming a number of personal challenges on the way to becoming a true Regentonian.
I joined the Grammar School in 1977 at Murraytown less than a year after arriving in Sierra Leone from Guyana (South America). Having earlier attended the Tower Hill Municipal School and passed my common entrance exams it was generally accepted that I would attend the Grammar School because it was the alma mater of a number of my cousins. I have no intention of telling you when I left the Grammar School because if I do you will very quickly deduce whether or not I repeated a form, ‘trepeated’ a form or indeed made it to the 5th form. Suffice to say that after a very rocky start, the Grammar School over time grew on me and in the end the school couldn’t get rid of me.
I initially found adjusting to life in Sierra Leone very challenging and my anxiety hit new levels on entering the Grammar School. I remember feeling quite isolated and vulnerable and for many months privately blamed my parents for the predicament I’d found myself in. I couldn’t speak Krio and could barely understand it. I remember on one occasion in my first year a pupil called Ade Jones came ambling towards me and said ‘If you noh talk fine ah go patah you’. Ade wasn’t particularly big but he was stocky, had knock knees and a very intimidating demeanour. He had a reputation for threatening other pupils and had been known on occasion to carry out some of his threats. I remember being absolutely petrified when he threatened me. Needless to say my command of Krio improved dramatically within a matter of days.
I remember my late uncle JB asking me how I was settling into life at the Grammar School and I told him that I wasn’t. He dismissed my sob story asking me whether I was a man or mouse. On reflection I should have said ‘neither’ but I probably wouldn’t have lived to tell the tale.
Whilst I seemed to attract a number of enemies in my early years at the Grammar School, I soon made friends with a number of other pupils many of whom eventually defended me when I ran into trouble in and out of school.
Location of the school
Once I’d settled into the school I realised how perfect its location in Murraytown was. We had a Kiosk (Sisco pub) half way down the hill where you could buy a variety of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. It was also a popular venue for pupils that fancied a discreet cigarette. We had the village in Somerset Street where you could pick up some lunch, drink palm wine (poyoh), again have a smoke and even enjoy some gambling (usually dice). If you fancied something more relaxing you could wander down to the sea nearby for a dip and/or some fresh air. Last but most definitely not the least, the school was a reasonable distance away from the many Girl schools located between Congo Cross and Brookfields. I absolutely loved the location of the school.
Facilities at the school
Whilst the building may not have been particularly appealing cosmetically, it was quite functional. The classrooms were fairly roomy, well ventilated and had adequate lighting.
Desks and chairs were maintained well thanks to Pa Nelson the Janitor cum Snagman. We also had well equipped labs and a host of other facilities. I recall the Chapel being a bit dark at times but have fond memories of singing rousing hymns at assembly and occasionally reading the lesson. I also recall David Nylander being the main organist at the time and very accomplished he was too.
There were numerous sporting activities available for pupils to participate in which included football, cricket, volleyball, hand tennis, table tennis and athletics. We also had a ready made swimming facility in the form of the nearby sea and had a favourite area there that we affectionately called ‘Library’.
The school had a dedicated area within its grounds where pupils could obtain something to eat from a host of food sellers. We called it ‘makeet’. You needed to have a very strong constitution to sample some of the culinary delights on offer. From memory the most popular item on the menu was a bread roll with a couple of slices of fried sweet potato forced into it, followed by a generous amount of oil. I recall seeing said oil tricking down the arms of pupils as they tucked into the much anticipated meal. I initially resisted the oil filled delicacy but in time it became the mainstay of my daily diet at school. Occasionally water coconuts would also be on sale at lunchtime. Not only was coconut a healthier alternative to the oil sponge, but it was quite filling and relatively inexpensive.
On the down side the toilet facilities were a bit of a health hazard. You needed to be suitably inoculated before venturing into the pupil toilets on any of the floors. It seemed as though the cleaners had given up on cleaning any of them.
I was privileged enough to be taught by a host of committed teachers. They may have had different teaching styles and different tolerance levels but they had our interest at heart and genuinely wanted us all to succeed. This is not an exhaustive list but teachers of note are as follows:
Mr Lasite, who taught me History in the first form. I would describe him as being firm but fair. He commanded respect without having to resort to pupil intimidation. Today he remains someone that both present and past pupils look up to.
Mr Clifford Roberts (a.k.a. Sir Robay’) – An inspiring and approachable teacher who took the time to actually listen to pupils.
Mrs Sumner (a.k.a. Mammy Sumner), who taught me English Language and English Literature. She taught in a very matter-of-fact manner but was in my opinion a very effective teacher.
Mr and Mrs Pullin – Both taught me Chemistry and French respectively. They were dedicated to their profession but I never quite got used to Mr Pullin’s exposed legs (he loved his shorts).
Mr Shaw – My Shaw was like Marmite you either liked him or hated him, there was no in-between. Yes he beat the living daylights out of me but rather surprisingly I quite liked him. Generally speaking you were ok with Mr Shaw as long as you didn’t step over the teacher/pupil line.
Mr George (a.k.a. Vaa Vaa George) – Taught me Physics. Time restrictions make it very difficult for me to fully enlighten you about the teaching style of this teacher. This was probably the first teacher globally to put a Maths rule to song for the benefit of pupils. Whilst the song may not have been Grammy material it had the desired effect of reminding pupils that minus was the sign changer. I think the jury is still out on whether or not having this song in my sub conscious mind was of benefit to me when I took my Maths O-level exam. In summing up Mr George I would say that he was quite eccentric but had a heart of gold.
The late Mr Bala taught me Maths. He was one of our more conservative teachers. But as we all know we Grammar School boys can test the patience of a saint. I remember a rare outburst of sheer frustration from Mr Bala following a particularly disruptive lesson when he shouted out to the class ‘You come here empty, you go there empty. What are you doing here hah’? To prove his point many pupils fell about laughing, some in embarrassment certainly and others quite simply because the cutting comment bounced off them.
Mr Bindi – Taught me Biology and struck me as having a very youthful outlook on life. He seemed quite at ease with pupils which made him a good mentor. I have fond memories of this teacher and was saddened to hear that he had passed away a number of years ago.
Last but not least, I’d like to talk about the late, great Mr Lisk (a.k.a. El Condoh). Like many other teachers you could not fault his commitment to his profession and the school. He tried tirelessly to make me numerate with reasonable success. I am not proud of it but many pupils including myself occasionally mocked him because he was a tad eccentric. I remember on one occasion in the third form he spotted Alan Beresford-Cole (who was in a higher form) walking past our classroom door with his shirt hanging over his trousers. Mr Lisk called him back and told him to tuck the offending shirt in. Alan reluctantly obliged but soon failed the attitude test and as a consequence was made to join us for a short while to calm down. To add to Alan’s obvious humiliation, Mr Lisk then uttered loudly ‘Look at his eyes, he smokes grass’. This comment was met by fits of laughter by the class which further added to Alan’s unease and embarrassment. Shortly afterwards he was sent on his merry way but he had the last laugh. As he made a speedy exit from the classroom he yelled out ‘Nah you Daddy dae smoke grass’ which left us howling in laughter. By the time Mr Lisk got to the door Alan was long gone but I’m sure that was not the end of it.
My Personal Battles
I fell victim to intimidation of varying degrees over the years at the Grammar School. I recall ‘Opincall’ being a technique used mainly by vertically challenged pupils to intimidate other pupils. When done properly it struck fear into many pupils. There were a fair number of pupils at the school that had it down to a fine art.
I remember on one occasion in the third form a teacher had to pop back to the staff room mid lesson for something. He asked me to sit on his chair at the front of the class and write down the names of anyone I’d seen talking whilst he was away from the classroom. I’d hardly taken my position at the front of the class when Melvin Odote (a.k.a. Bizzie) hissed and shouted out ‘If you write me name dong, ah go buss you ass’. Many other pupils saw this as their cue to make similar threats to me. With the teacher’s return imminent I felt under pressure to commit the names of some talkers to my sheet of paper so as not to be punished by him for not carrying out his orders. At the same time I knew that this could result in me being beaten up by the pupils whose names were on my list. I was in a quandary and had to think fast and that’s exactly what I did. I unashamedly wrote down the names of some pupils that I felt confident I could handle in a fist fight none of whom were guilty of talking and handed it to the teacher on his return.
The wrongly accused pupils were subsequently taken outside and caned. They returned to class displaying differing emotions; some ignored me whilst others glared at me. There was however one who was particularly incensed by the injustice he had suffered. His surname was Reffel and he was clearly hell-bent on revenge. As he walked past me on the way back to his desk he tapped on mine and said ‘Ah dae buss you ass wae school comoh’. Suddenly my decision to include his name on the talker’s list seemed quite foolhardy and for the very first time, I did not want Cenneh to ring the bell to signify the end of the school day.
Word soon got round the class that a big fight was going to take place after school at the usual open –air venue (located at the back of the Chapel). Some wisecrackers in the form even started distributing makeshift tickets for the event, all of which just added to the dread I was feeling about having to take part in a fight that I was ill prepared for. I did briefly contemplate making a run for it at home time but felt that I’d be in even more trouble if I failed to show up for the fight. Pupils had been given their make-shift tickets and were looking forward to the big event. Not showing up was not an option.
The school day ended and I gingerly made my way to the fight venue. I felt like a condemned man. A number of eager pupils and my opponent were already at the venue when I eventually got there and they were baying for action. I put my book bag down on the side and slowly started taking off my shirt to protect it. Reffel ran out of patience and charged at me. He literally swept me off my feet and I found myself lying on my side on the ground in a neck lock gasping for air. I recall hearing some pupils saying ‘oonah part dem’ whilst other shouted ‘no partin’. Luckily for me the ordeal ended as quickly as it started. Some teachers working late must have heard the commotion and had started making their way to the scene and rather predictably everyone scarpered. I remember sitting on the ground dazed and seeing pupils fleeing in different directions and the victor, Reffel, was nowhere to be seen. Instinctively I too grabbed my book bag and also fled the scene.
Not surprisingly post fight Reffel was officially declared the outright winner of what was a very one-sided fight. Pupils who had missed the fight were given a full account of what had occurred the previous day. I heard pupils saying ‘den eeb am nah gron en prime am’…There were many exaggerated accounts of what had occurred with some pupils suggesting that I had been subjected to a prolonged beating. I even heard some pseudo fight pundits saying ‘den beat am tayyyyyyyyy’ which of course was untrue. Though this was by no means the only altercation I found myself involved in, it was the most memorable.
We had a number of un-official games at our disposal many of which were very popular amongst pupils but sadly involved us inflicting pain on each other. They were what I’d call the 4 Bs, Bite game, Baz game, Betas and Bollogie. The first three activities (if you can call them that) were part of a chain reaction and I’ll explain what I mean by that. You start off having a normal game of football or you may decide to have the added element of bets being placed on either of the two teams to win. This added element is called ‘Bite game’. For the benefit of those present that may not know what Baz game is, it is what happens when ‘normal’ football goes bad and degenerates into an all out war. The ensuing brawl would not only involve strong tackling but on occasion would degenerate further into objects (including discarded sucked out oranges rubbed in dirt) being thrown at each other. This was Betas which completes the chain.
I never took part in Baz game and this was because to do so you needed to have been participating in a normal game of football in the first place and I rarely got picked to do so. It was however a different kettle of fish when it came to Bollogie.
I remember my first introduction to Bollogie, a brutal game which involved any number of players (the Smackers) continuously smacking a co-participant’s (the Smackee’s) hand until another player took their place. But note, as a Smackee your main objective was to become a Smacker at the earliest opportunity or risk ending up with an extremely swollen hand. This objective was achieved by getting a Smacker to miss. There were two types of Bollogie. The first was desk based and the other I will refer to as Suspended Bollogie. The latter type was the more popular because it was less noisy and therefore less likely to attract the attention of teachers.
One fateful day again in the third form the teacher for the scheduled lesson failed to show up. Some of the more diligent pupils used the opportunity to do some quiet reading whilst others decided to have a game of Suspended Bollogie. I remember observing boys standing in a circle giggling and as my curiosity grew I got up and walked across to them for a better look. Everyone in the circle was laughing except the boy in the middle (the Smackee). I observed proceedings for a little while longer before making a decision to join in. All new participants had to sign in as Smackees but I felt reasonably confident that I had the reflexes to very quickly join the ranks of a Smacker. Alas this was not to be. My hand was continually pummelled from all angles by hands of various shapes and sizes for what seemed like an eternity.
I eventually got someone to miss and became a Smacker but by then I’d had enough. I could not enjoy my new status in the game because my hand was visibly swollen and throbbing. In excruciating pain I made a hasty exit from the game and headed to the nearest standpipe to soothe my hand with cold water. Lets just say it took a very long time before I participated in another game of Bollogie.
Inter-Secondary School Athletics Competition
I have fond memories of being at what was the Siaka Stevens Stadium supporting our top athletes participating in the Inter-Secondary school competition. We may not have excelled in all of the events but we were the most vocal and most intimidating supporters in the stadium. We cheered loudly when our athletes won and even louder when they lost. Such was the reputation of Grammar School boys that I remember there being empty stands on either side of ours.
The highlights of this particular competition were the 100 metres dash and the 4 x 100m relay. From memory the 4 x 100 squad at the time consisted of Lancelot Edmondson (a.k.a. Matomah), Pierre Johnson, Arthur Burney-Nicol & Sydney Warne (a.k.a.Wajimmy). This was a very strong team that did the school proud. There was a lot of hype surrounding the 100 metres dash and the outcome showed just how delusional Grammar School spectators were. I clearly remember the result of the race. Walter Benjamin (PO) won the race; Kweku Jan (St Edwards) came second with Wajimmy a close third. This was not the result we were expecting. Notwithstanding the result and with our blinkers firmly on we defiantly chanted ‘Wajimmy beat Walter, Wajimmy beat Walter’ to the bemusement of the other schools.
Such was the draw of the competition that even committed students could not resist breaking school rules just to spend more time at the event. I remember Ranjit Chowdhry, a model pupil, being taken to task during assembly for this transgression. Whilst I cannot recall the exact circumstances, I believe he had been spotted at the Stadium when he should not have been there. He expressed remorse in front of the whole school explaining that he simply wanted to go and support his schoolmates. Given his exemplary record I believe he escaped with just a verbal reprimand but Grammar School boys being what they are would not let it rest. The taunting started soon after. Word soon got round that when challenged Ranjit had said in his defence that ‘I went to batoe the boys’.
Corporal punishment was my bête noire at the Grammar School. Arguably in many cases it was warranted but in other instances it was in my opinion unjustified if not excessive. Some teachers seemed to use caning as a workout and would readily and regularly seize any opportunity to thrash pupils whatever the transgression. It was also used by some as a means of instilling fear in pupils. The recipients of caning, I would say, fell into three categories: The runners, the appealers and the writhers. The runners I believe are self explanatory – they bolted after one lash of the cane, returning much later on to complete, if not restart their punishment. The appealers would try to avoid being caned by challenging the teacher dispensing the punishment. Typically the appealer would plead his case by saying ‘Please Sir I was not there’ or those who were brave enough would argue ‘Ah, I won’t take it’. Of course this was futile and for some it ended up in them receiving a few more strokes of the cane for good measure. Lastly we have the writhers. These poor pupils tended to be the more compliant ones and would readily obey orders to keep their hands on top of a table or other surface and not rub their sore buttocks when being caned. The writhing movement they used to try and ease the pain they were experiencing can be likened to that of a worm squirming on the end of a fishing hook and was quite hilarious to watch. The pain suffered by a caning was compounded by taunts of “e dae dae eh?”
There was nothing more disconcerting than being in a particularly tough exam and seemingly within minutes of starting the paper hearing someone say ‘Paper please’.
For those of us who perhaps were not as well prepared as we could or should have been, this raised our anxiety level up by several notches and fuelled a burning resentment for the smug so and so’s who evidently knew all the answers and were relishing the exam. Admittedly a fair number of those who called for more paper were those who used their time more gainfully and didn’t frequent the usual haunts. For others wanting to give the impression that they too were well prepared, requesting more paper proved to be a futile exercise as they failed miserably in the exam.
There were some years when Penny Day frankly failed to live up to its hype. Yes I do recall being chased by older boys and being struck with twigs and various other objects but this happened to me on a daily basis not just annually. Come Penny Day I was more concerned about soiling my ceremonial gear than of being assaulted. What was apparent was that despite being promoted through the different forms there were some other pupils like me that seemingly never lost the status of being a ‘Fresher‘. Year after year you’d see these so called ‘Freshers’ being chased outside the school by other twig wielding pupils.
Now I do not wish to dismiss the plight of these lifelong ‘Freshers’ but my view is quite simple. If by the second form you are not smart enough to devise a Penny Day escape plan for yourself then frankly you deserve to suffer the consequences. At the Grammar School you learnt the hard way.
My lowest point at the Grammar School was having to recover the body of a fellow pupil who had drowned from the sea at the rear of what was the Yellow Submarine club. Being one of the more competent swimmers who arrived at the scene soon after the tragic incident was reported I volunteered to swim out and recover the body. Whilst this tragic incident did not deter me from having the occasional swim in the sea, it made me more aware of the dangers associated with it. The premature loss of my fellow pupil haunts me to this day. May his soul rest in peace.
My Debt to the Grammar School for making me a Regentonian
I am so pleased to have been given this rare opportunity to publicly express my gratitude to the Grammar School for making me a true Regentonian. Arguably you become a Regentonian the moment you receive official confirmation from the school stating that you’ve been accepted as a pupil. My view however is that to become a seasoned Regentonian you have to have spent a significant amount of time at the school going through a host of character building experiences and of course learning from them. The word Regentonian in my opinion is the perfect mnemonic for some of the qualities the school has instilled in me as a pupil, all of which undoubtedly have played a part in getting me to where I am today. Every letter in the word REGENTONIAN reflects a quality that the Grammar School (and my parents of course) instilled in me. It’s these qualities that make me a seasoned Regentonian:
R - Resolute - To be determined and unwavering whatever the challenges.
E - Enthusiastic – To be passionate about everything I undertake.
G - Generous – To think of the needs of others.
E – Empathetic – To show compassion to others less fortunate than I am.
N – Neat – To take pride in my appearance and my work.
T – True – To hold fast to who I am and what I believe in.
O – Outstanding – To always aim high
N - Noteworthy – To attract the right type of attention to myself through excellence (not misbehaviour)
I – Integrity – To be honest and upright in all that I do.
A – Accountable – To take responsibility for my actions.
N- Noble – To be gracious and respectful in my dealings with others.
In closing Ladies and Gentlemen I must say that it gives me enormous pride to say that I attended the Sierra Leone Grammar School and I hope and pray that it continues to go from strength to strength.
God bless the Grammar School. Thank you.