Virtute et labore,
Our motto we sing with pride;
We're loyal to St. Joseph,
With the Lord God as our guide.
St. Joseph's Convent, St. Joseph,
Upon a hill we stay;
To learn to live, to learn to love,
Looking forward to each day.
St. Joseph is our patron,
Obedient, kind, and true.
And we, too, want to live like him;
Let's strive and start anew ...
-- School Theme, St. Joseph's Convent, St. Joseph, Trinidad.
If ever I doubted that memory is a sneaky and capricious child, the fact that I remember the words above, after eighteen years, would confirm it for me. I may have made a mistake or two in the arrangement of each verse, but I am willing to swear that there are not more than three errors in the lyrics.
My native island of Trinidad effectively came under British control in 1797, when it surrendered to a British fleet. In 1802, Spain officially ceded the island, in the Peace of Amiens, at which point the island officially became a Crown colony. In 1888, the island of Tobago, which was separately a colony, but was deeply in debt to Trinidad, was amalgamated into the colony of Trinidad, and the two became the merged entity of "Trinidad and Tobago", as they continue to be even today. British rule continued until 1962, when the islands, under the leadership of Dr. Eric Williams, were granted independence (with the caveat that they continue to be one entity, which has had interesting repercussions over recent years).
With that background, then, it is not surprising that Trinidad's government and educational system mirror the British rather closely. This includes such wonders as the Common Entrance Exam, whereby pre-pubescent children are given a single test at the age of nine or ten which determines their educational and, in many cases, financial futures for the rest of their lives in the island. This, then, is how I came to attend St. Joseph's Convent.
There is this to be said first: there are never enough slots for every child completing Standard Five (the academic equivalent of American grade twelve) to go on to a secondary school. Competition for coveted slots in good secondary schools is fierce, with many children being forced to attend less-prestigious junior secondary schools, and still more not being able to attend even those. The best schools in the island tend to be privately-run religious schools, and the best of those, when I was ten, was St. Joseph's Convent, St. Joseph.
Some time in the weeks leading up to Common Entrance, each child who is preparing to sit the exam must take home to his parents a sheet of paper asking them to designate five choices of schools, in order of preference. Designating these choices does not ensure admission; that is determined by the child's exam scores. But if a school is not designated on the child's list, and the child does not pass for the schools which are on his list, the chances of his attending that non-designated school is very slim. There will simply not be a slot for him, since the schools will pick first from the children who designated the school and whose scores are good enough. I was no exception to this.
I took my paper home, then, and my mother filled it out ... with five top tier schools. She gave me no explanation, and I asked for none. My teacher, however, when he scanned the list the next day, sent another note home, along with the list, asking her to change the list, or to come see him. She went to see him, with me in tow. The list was submitted unchanged.
I firmly believe that children cannot suffer from ulcers. Were they susceptible, I should surely have had one by the time the exam came around. And then the interminable waiting. And waiting. And waiting. And then, finally, the news -- accepted! To St. Joseph's Convent, St. Joseph. To Fatima Girl's RC. To St. Joseph's Convent, Port of Spain. In fact, to every school on the list.
September saw me off to school, halfway across the island. My memories of the school, at this point, break down into episodes; flashes of wow, fountain pens! (A love I harbour yet.) And of Mass, though I was not Catholic, and Religious Studies, under the watchful eyes of the nuns. Of learning to tell the beads of the rosary (hail, Mary, full of grace, blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus ... ) Of my first brush with a computer, the brand new Apple II! ... and, of course, of the theme. I wore that motto, virtute et labore, every school day for a year, on a little blue and silver pin at my throat. Around me, other girls played and studied and fought, each dressed exactly as I was, most with the same aims and dreams that I had.
I did not know how remarkable was the place, until I had left its walls, nor how indelible the mark it would leave, until the first few notes brought it all rushing back.