Volume No. 1 Issue No. 97 - Monday April 02, 2007|
St Mary's Academy - The Tale of a Storied Educational Institution
By Thomson Fontaine
Over the years, hundreds of Dominica’s best and brightest have passed through the hallowed halls of the St. Mary’s Academy (SMA).
To us, young, brash and uninitiated SMA stood for Smartest Men Alive and we behaved like we believed it. Seventy five years of a storied history and the school marches on. Among the ranks of its past students are two former prime ministers, Dominica’s ambassador to the United Nations, leading trade union leaders, countless medical doctors, accountants, scientists, leading sports figures and other upstanding citizens.
Today, about 430 young men are enjoying a privileged, largely free education. To me, what was special about SMA was that it was free. Any suggestion of school fees and given my parents very limited means would have resulted in me been unable to secure a secondary education. I’m sure the same can be said for countless young men who have gone through the doors of the school over its 75 years of existence.
I was one of the fortunate. After passing the common entrance exams, and without the hassle of school fees, I only had to focus on finding somewhere to stay in Roseau. In exchange for weekly fresh produce, a kindly lady, Ma Fafee with a one bedroom house in Pottersville, took me in along with my three sisters and brother. God bless her soul. Now I could go to school, and learn well.
I entered SMA at a great time. Brother Egbert Germain had returned to take up the helm at the school after the previous white principal was forced to leave in the wake of the Black Power upheaval of the early 1970s.
The Rastafarian movement was gaining momentum and former SMA students Roy Mason and Desmond Trotter had been implicated in the killing of a white Russian tourist. Charges against Mason were dropped but Trotter went on to serve several years in prison for the killing before been pardoned by the Charles administration.
In September 1975, I along with about sixty other students stepped right into Brother Germain’s “Year of the Tiger”. Brother Germain dealt a strict yet fair hand. I credit his disciplined approach to turning the SMA into a standard of learning and accomplishments for his students.
Years later, I have vivid memories of the foot and a half long and about 3 inches thick leather belt meeting my outstretched hands. This thing hurt. But, I along with the other kids soon learnt that we were in school for a purpose, not to fool around or waste our country’s precious resources.
And so it was, despite the occasional ‘caning’ school was a glorious escape. I learned to play basketball, run track, improve my skills in cricket and football, and flourished academically. In my first year, I sat next to a lively kid called Jones Murphy. At the time I did not know it but Jones was a genius. I recall taking my first science test, at that time taught by Mr. Rupert Sorhaindo. Jones poked me in the side and whispered to me, “copy, copy”.
Of course, I did no such thing because I had observed Jones’ inability to sit still, never seeming to pay attention to what the teachers were saying, always drawing and poking me in the ribs to look at some of his latest penciled drawings. When the results came back he scored 100, I scored 65.
Today, Jones is a former astrophysicist who gave up studying the mystery of black holes for a lucrative career on Wall Street, mastering the derivative market and handling some of the biggest accounts for the fortune 100 companies in the US.
In 2001 he made the front pages of the New York Times after being the whistle blower at the Williams Company, one of the largest energy companies in the US. Jones ‘outed’ their practice of colluding with other companies to drive up electricity prices.
I harbor wonderful memories of excellent teachers, Hodge Oliver in Spanish and geography, Rupert Sorhaindo in science, Heather Elwin Toulon in geography, Mademoiselle Sevarin and Brother Germain in french, Cuthbert Elwin, Giftus John, Rommel Lawrence in english, Brother Coughlin in math, Dave Cottingham and his famous reenactment of Russia’s Rasputin in history.
Towards the end of my high school career, Henry Volney in history, Augustus Lebruin in geography, Sylvester “Sweater” Henry in accounting, Julian Eloi in commerce, Jerome Barzey in accounting, and Jones Murphy Sr in math.
In 1975, I entered the SMA as a shy, stammering ten year old. A mere five years later, I left a fully confident and self assured 15 year old, certain of my place in the world. Three years later I returned to teach and train another generation of kids, who like me had a thirst for knowledge and an understanding of the world beyond Dominica’s rugged and beautiful coastline.
I spent three years at the school and taught in every form except second. Teaching math, history, principles of business, accounting, and commerce. The vast majority of the kids I taught have since migrated to greater and better things.
Today some are doctors, lawyers, accountants, one is a magistrate in London, another is caring for oil rigs in the China sea. Everyone proud to have worn the gold and yellow crest stitched with its ‘ora et labora’.
Later in life I would encounter Sherman Sevarin, who like me attended the Academy and then went on to teach there for a few years. Dr. Sevarin, an accomplished physicist and materials scientist who would go on to play a major role in transforming the early generation of the Intel computer chip. He later sold his company to Dow Chemicals.
Years later, I sit back and think about the scores of young men like myself coming from the various villages around Dominica with no guarantees on life but a commitment from a core group of teachers and school administrators to give us the best chance in life. I credit my academic and other successes in life to those five foundation building years at the academy.
Seventy-five years on, the storied tradition continues. Today Dominica’s future is receiving a free and quality education. Now they require our help. Those of us that has gone on to ‘conquer the world’, to make something of our lives. This is an opportunity to give back, to say thank you, and to give a small token towards a debt that can never be repaid.
It is a debt of gratitude to a country that saw the importance of investing in education; of making it possible for the students of the rich and that of the ‘malaway’ to be educated at no cost to either.
A debt to the visionary principals like Brother Germain and the hard working and committed teachers who at great personal sacrifice gave us their all, believed in us, and gave us the tools to make something of our lives.
Let us guarantee that the cycle continues. Let us as former students and friends of the academy contribute to this famous and wonderful Alma Mater.
See Special Appeal in Support of SMA