Happy Birthday Ms. Roberts.
Mrs. Gertrude Roberts was transferred to La Plaine School from Grand Fond School as the Headmistress in the fall of 1970. Prior to her arrival in La Plaine, few students were successful in the annual island-wide Common Entrance High School Exams.
The new principal’s plan from the very start was to change that dismal and shameful statistic.
She had already had huge successes in her native Delices and in the highland community of Grand Fond from where her late police inspector husband hailed, and where most of their six children were born.
Mrs. Roberts’ teaching career began at the Delices Government School in 1950. Seven years later (1957) she was promoted to Principal. She holds teaching certificates from the Leeward Islands Teachers college in Antigua (1959) and the University of New Castle Upon Tyne (1970).
In 1973, she received the Meritorious Award from the government for her outstanding achievements in the modern concepts of Community Oriented Approach to Primary Education in Dominica. After retiring from education, she joined the United Workers Party (UWP) in 1990 as the representative from the Grand Fond, Riviere Cyrique/Morne Jaune constituency. From 1995 to 2000 she served as the Minister for Community Development and Women Affairs., working tirelessly on rural development programs and issues affecting the poor, gender equity, women’s rights and empowerment.
I remember visiting her in her office in 1998 while on vacation.
She made a dental appointment to see me the next time she visited her children in New York State. While visiting the states, her short and busy holiday schedule did not allow her to honor the dental appointment.
Of course, if I had the opportunity to render dental services to her, the charge would be on the office. She had already paid ‘her entire bill’ in advance back at La Plaine School a few decades earlier.
In the 60s, early 70s and before, La Plaine like many other rural outposts, were neglected by the central government. Official attitudes and policies towards these rural districts began to change slowly when Premier Leblanc began cutting roads deep into the interior. Rural schools with aggressive and assertive principals like Mrs. Roberts began getting more resources and attention.
Five years prior to Mrs. Roberts’ arrival in La Plaine, motorable roads reached the village. Kids were often absent from school with little or no accountability from most parents or teachers.
The main objectives of her initial plan were to change the apathetic school culture, get positive results, curb absenteeism and get kids excited about learning.
Her benchmarks for success were simple. At the top of her agenda was to increase the number of kids who won scholarships, bursaries and entrances in the Common High School exams.
Other benchmarks were proficient reading, attentive listening and proper (English) speaking and writing (including penmanship) skills. She had zero tolerance for the old age excuse of rural parents that kids had to stay away from school because they (parents) needed extra help in the fields with the crops and at home tending to the little ones and/or elders.
She employed a volunteer prefect monitoring and reporting system for the kids who spoke too much Patois after school. If one was found guilty of speaking patois in public after school, some form of light punishment and or public admonishment awaited them the next morning during assembly.
She felt that for many kids from the community, their first language was the Patois dialect. Many could not speak and express themselves properly in English.
She often said that Patois is good and will help with our French subjects when we get to high school in Roseau. These were very high and confusing expectations for most kids from a mountain rural village.
Most of the kids did not like or understand this policy and thought that she was just making life difficult for us.
Our way of life was being questioned and challenged and it was no longer business as usual. We did not have a choice but to follow Mrs. Roberts’ rules. It was a new day at La Plaine because a new ‘school sheriff’ had arrived and was fully in charge.
The vast number of country kids did not make it to high school or did not fare so well. It was certainly not for lack of trying. This was the late 60s and early 70s where one was either from ‘country’ or ‘town’. There were few seats for ‘enfant maleway betasion’.
Those who made it to the four high schools in Roseau were the very best and brightest, the politically connected and the (now severely relegated) petty bourgeois and estate land owning classes. With the ascendancy of the internet, greater and more accessible communication, migration, the break-up of the large estates, the realities of that period are almost all but gone.
But the lack of educational opportunity was also about a question of very limited infrastructure and lack of resources. Dominica was then a small agrarian-based impoverished colony in the chokehold of the norms, practices and mores of upper-crust British society and the mercantile system.
Unlike today, secondary educational opportunity was a privilege instead of a right. Consequently, our island nation is a place in serious transition with the final chapters yet to be written.
Mrs. Roberts was short on resources and motivated teachers. She accepted full responsibility for giving us the most rigorous education curriculum and ensuring that we learn. We were not only answerable to our parents, but also to her.
She very often invited a group of us over to her house to read late into the night. We used gas lamps and candles due to the absence of electricity in the southeast. During holidays she would have some Saturday afternoon classes for those of us she thought had potential.
Mrs. Roberts believed we could learn, compete and excel like any other children from the politically connected Roseau schools.
In 1971, a new school was built by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). The agency’s mission is in supporting sustainable development, reduce poverty and provide humanitarian assistance in order to promote a more secure, equitable and prosperous world. CIDA’s mission held very true for us in La Plaine back in 1970.
We now had a state of the art modern building with sewage facility and pipe-borne water. These amenities were absent from the one very large room school which was built by the La Plaine Catholic church in the late 30s and was in gross disrepair. This development gave Mrs. Roberts ‘the surge’ to further rally her young charges to march on forward.
In less than two years at La Plaine, Mrs. Roberts quickly succeeded in changing the attitudes and mindsets of not only her young charges but that of parents and the entire community.
Her plan was having a profound effect on most of us and we were hungry for knowledge and more knowledge. Almost every day she would read works from the likes of Shakespeare, Longfellow, George Bernard Shaw, Socrates, Aristotle, Claude Mc Kay, Jan Carew, Hemingway and others. We checked out and read many books every from the white library van which traveled Roseau every two weeks.
In 1971, we partnered with a school in Don Mills Ontario, a small town just outside of Toronto. The Canadian supervisor who was in charge of building the new school made contact with the Canadian school for Mrs. Roberts when he returned home to Ontario.
Four of our students went to Canada as exchange students with the trips being paid and sponsored by parents and students of that school. Four of their students came to visit us in La Plaine that same year.
We adopted the name of our sister school and called ourselves La Plaine Karine School after Karine School in Don Mills . Everyone had a pen pal from Don Mills. We had gone international and we were ‘fired up.’ We had found purpose and confidence and nothing or no one could stop us but only ourselves. We now saw ourselves in the mountains as part of Dominica and success also belonged to us.
There was more than an education renaissance occurring in our rural outpost. Today in my historical view and analysis of that period, I describe that time as a quiet and sustainable educational revolution occurred along the southeastern rolling hills and river valleys along the rugged Atlantic coast.
There was a deep and very optimistic sense of urgency among us about the future. Our visionary and committed principal was preparing us for leadership and the world far beyond the small banana plots of La Plaine.
Mrs. Roberts encouraged us to start a Credit Union at our school where each week anyone could save as little as five (5) cents. More than three decades later, this experience still resonates with me in the handling of my financial affairs.
We had vegetable gardens in the schoolyard and we sold some of the harvest at the La Plaine Agricultural depot. I think of those days fondly today as I am involved in a grant-funded School Yard Conservation Site program at my daughter’s school that focuses on using outdoor green spaces as learning environments.
The project incorporates innovative landscape design techniques on the school grounds to help create habitat for wildlife, increase the landscaping with native plants, highlight water conservation, retain and filter storm water runoff.
The environmental benefits of this project are to beautify the school grounds and provide an outdoor learning opportunity that promotes student learning.
As I was writing the narrative and objectives of the Greener Schoolyard Conservation Sites and Cleaner Water grant, I laughed and realized that I had achieved these objectives a long time ago back at La Plaine School with our school gardens.
Mrs. Roberts started a Boy Scout troop to instill greater discipline and confidence in the boys. We acquired a deep sense of self and patriotism. Later in high school, I joined the Dominica Cadet Corps achieving the modest rank of Corporal. These two organizations not only nurtured me but provided the discipline to succeed in the overall game of life.
One of my classmates who now reside in Boston wrote a poem. Mrs. Roberts subsequently framed a handwritten copy and hung it in the school’s administrative office.
Derek’s poem was entitled “Me and My Way Ward Boy”, and it went like this: Come go with me Boy; In my bag are library Books, In your bag are fishing Hooks.
The Headmistress often referred to the poem to motivate and deter us from skipping school and sliding down the wrong path away from school and education. The reality was that any one of us could have easily become a wayward boy. Such was life in the mountains for ‘Enfant Malaway’.
The landmark political, policy and historical development of free high school education should not be taken lightly and for granted. Our country will be much better off as a result of this major public policy initiative in the not too distant future.
Mrs. Roberts’ legacy and profound impact on me more than four decades later are simple: Education is not only about transformation and transcendence of individuals, but also of societies, their collective and integrative systems.
She will always be remembered, respected and revered as an academic pioneer, sustainable development leader, and most outstanding educator. She will always be my role model and I will be eternally grateful to her.
Today Principal Roberts is celebrating her 90th birthday and has returned to her mountain village of Grand Fond. Please join me in wishing her a heartfelt Happy Birthday!