Nostalgia can be centripetal—you begin with one memory, that leads to another and another, that finally rests on yourself as centre. And you begin to think of how these remembered things have forged you into the person you are.
The loss of Sr Phyllis Wharfe SJC had that impact on me this week. I had thoroughly enjoyed my seven years at St Joseph’s Convent, San Fernando (SJCSF), especially Sixth Form, where staff and Sr Phyllis treated us with a difference, like critically thinking young adults. I still, some 20 years later, proudly wear my school ring on my right hand. It never occurred to me to purchase The UWI ring. My SJC ring was sufficient.
Then I thought of another principal I had lost, in August of last year, Sr Maria Garland SJC. It occurred me that many of us were fortunate to have had 14 years of shaping under the St Joseph of Cluny Sisters. Not just as principals, but as teachers as well. Whether we were actively receptive at the time, can be debated, but the women I have encountered in latter years, have, whether they know it or not, blossomed from these early seeds planted.
The SJC shaping
That academic proficiency was the goal of SJC schools was not a secret. There was a high demand for entry into St Gabriel’s RC while I was there but I want to focus on the points of personhood and personal branding that these schools also moulded. One area was discipline. We were taught from early that you represented your school while in uniform, in and out of premises, a lifetime lesson in deportment. I remember the apparent disbelief when, in discussion with co-workers fairly recently, I mentioned that there were absolutely no fights in St Gabriel’s RC during my years there. Sr Maria was a complete disciplinarian, with the support of staff. Disagreements were handled in the form of muted arguments, tears perhaps, mutual silence for a while, and then a chat. I don’t remember there being shouting matches between pupils.
Posture was another thing emphasised, and emphasised again. During assembly, you stood back straight, no rounded shoulders or slouching. In Form Three, while gathered in the courtyard, awaiting the start of assembly (this was long before the auditorium was built), I was standing, hands clasped behind my back, one knee bent, one hip lower than the other. I heard a low cool voice in my ear “Is your hip broken?”.
I jumped and straightened immediately. Sr Phyllis had seemed to, in a ninja-like manner, just appear. Silence fell across the school, and the ragged lines of the different forms became military almost in appearance as she walked through. Some of us were afraid of Sr Phyllis, at least initially, but you could not help but want to emulate the confident and erect manner of walking, chin up, ready to face anything that emerged in front of you. It was still a very feminine and graceful stride.
There was continuity from St Gabriel’s to SJCSF in the area of discipline: the greeting of teachers as they entered the classroom, or when met on corridors. That was maintained up until Sixth Form: you stood when the teachers entered, and sat, when they told you to. There was for me at least, a soothing effect in the formality and the ritual, and up to today, I still greet whoever I come into contact with, regardless of where I am.
The important lesson, however, underlying the greetings in classrooms and corridors, was the act of seeing the people in front of you and acknowledging their dignity—it was more than polite ritual. This too was noblesse oblige. In St Gabriel’s there was an old couple who had the responsibility of care for the school environment. I cannot remember their names now unfortunately, but at some point, pupils had been rude to them. They complained to Sr Maria and she was livid. At assembly the next day, it was made clear that we were to treat every person with respect, regardless of who they were and what their roles were. When Sr Maria was angry, you listened, and it was a lesson well-learned. There was always an eye to assisting the wider society, hospital visitations, hampers, and money collected for various efforts in both schools. Noblesse oblige was generosity of spirit.
Sr Phyllis also exemplified the seeing. Sr Maria knew me because of older sisters who had attended the school. She once told my mother, “I know all your girls.” In Convent, I flew under the radar. Or so I thought. Again, in Form Three, we were on the same floor as the office, I heard Sr Phyllis’ voice: “Simone, can you go to the staff room and…” I quaked but was also stunned. She had never taught me. How did she know who I was…? Mine was not the only incident like this. Somehow, Sr Phyllis knew every single member of her school body, name and to whom the name belonged.
Who we are as SJC girls
Sr Phyllis tried to shape in us an understanding of not just what good breeding and being well-educated was, but the dignity and joys of being young women. But we were teenaged girls, some fighting to attain womanhood faster than others. In one assembly, she gave us a story of a young woman holding a fragile, glass ball in her hand that she hands over to a young man who smashes it. We thought she was speaking about a too early loss of virginity. It wasn’t; it was the preciousness of self. A lesson that perhaps would have registered much later in life.
Life would have taken us on many a journey, personal and otherwise, but I see the resonance of the St Joseph of Cluny Sisters’ influences in my own SJCSF sisters. It is about making a positive impact, regardless of environment; it is in seeking fairness and justice in situations larger than ourselves; it is about treating others with dignity; and it is about constant learning and faith.