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Recollections of a high school boarder

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Immaculate Conception High School for Girls remains the No 1-ranked high school in Jamaica

Recently, many have asked me to write about myself. Like most of us, my life has been filled with many and varied experiences, and so I have accepted the request and have written of a period when I — like many young students will in the next few weeks — went off in pursuit of further education in foreign lands.

Sixty-six years ago, my parents decided it was time to remove me from the racially segregated life that Bermuda subjected upon the Black population. They wanted me to experience a world where this behaviour was unacceptable and my skin colour was something of which I should be proud.

That summer we sailed to Jamaica, where my father had been born and educated, to select a boarding school

During this visit, a respected Jamaican educator, recommended the Immaculate Conception High School for Girls, which he described as an exceptional boarding school with superior boarding facilities.

The Roman Catholic school, which once was the Constant Springs Hotel, had been purchased by the Sisters of St Francis of Assisi. It was to replace their previous school, which had been destroyed by fire. When it was built in 1888, it was the first building in the West Indies constructed for earthquake resistance, and the first in Jamaica with electricity and indoor plumbing.

At the end of December 1958, immediately after my 16th birthday, I flew alone from Bermuda to Kingston, Jamaica, on a British Airways Stratocruiser, a curious aircraft with two floors connected by stairs. Old photographs show me as a nervous teenager wearing a hat and gloves.

Fortunately for me, one of Bermuda’s most respected musicians, Lance Hayward, was travelling with his group to entertain at the Half Moon Hotel in Montego Bay. Gilbert Rowling, the bass player, assisted me.

At Montego Bay, the band disembarked, leaving me to fly on to Palisadoes Airport, renamed the Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston. I had a window seat and for the first time I noticed sparks spewing from the propeller chamber. I was terrified, but as other passengers sitting by windows seemed unconcerned, I assumed this was normal.

My cousin, who was to be my guardian throughout my time in Jamaica, was there to meet me.

I had never arrived in Jamaica by air and was stunned by the heat and the sheer volume of people. They were a colourful, loud, bustling mass of Black faces looking for family from “foreign”, people looking for luggage, taxi drivers seeking customers, and vendors selling their wares.

Over time, this became a normal sight.

58 Harley Park Road, off Half Way Tree, became my home when I was not in boarding school.

There was a cook and helpers who always referred to me as Miss Cecille. They attended my every need. Making my own bed became a thing of the past. Washing dishes, and setting and clearing the table were no longer required, and so I just arrived at the meal table, sat down and was served. Any attempt to assist was frowned upon, so I quickly fell into this unfamiliar routine, which included changing my clothes for tea in the afternoon.

I was introduced to an entirely new diet: Escovitch fish, ackee and saltfish, boiled green bananas, beef patty, curry goat, jerk chicken and a wide variety of fruits harvested from their garden. I loved it all.

Cecille Snaith-Simmons, right, with a pair of schoolmates

My uniforms had been made in Bermuda by May Taylor-Eve, but there were other necessities that needed to be purchased in Kingston. My cousin sent me shopping with a helper who was given a list of requirements needed for school. I was particularly fond of Delores, who was much older than I, and so when I noticed she was carrying all the shopping bags, I rushed to assist. She was horrified, refused my help and whispered that someone would notice and tell my cousin that I was carrying bags. Although I found this ridiculous, in time I understood. What I did not understand was my cousin insisting I take Epsom salts before going off to school. I had never had this before and was taken totally off-guard. She believed I should begin boarding-school life with a clean digestive system. I never fell into that horrific trap again.

My uniform consisted of a white skirt and blouse, royal blue necktie, brown shoes and socks complemented by a Panama hat commonly called a “Jippi Jappa”. It had a brown hatband with the initials ICHS embroidered in yellow. Sleeveless blouses, shorts and “baby doll” pyjamas were not allowed.

Immaculate was a beautiful three-storey building with well-manicured gardens. On my first day, girls arrived from Jamaica, Haiti and various Spanish-speaking countries. Cheerful nuns in long brown habits with only their faces and hands exposed, welcomed and organised us. In this heat, they must have been dreadfully uncomfortable, but they seemed not to mind, and so I did not question the attire. It was also the day that I began to be addressed at all times as Miss Snaith.

I was considered a foreign student and always assigned a room with four to five other girls. We shared a bathroom. The rooms were large and airy with tiled floors and French doors that opened on to a covered veranda. The Jamaican girls were ten to a room, which was probably classified as a suite in the original hotel. Strangely enough, there was a room within that area where a nun lived — not a good thing when a midnight feast was planned. Non-English-speaking girls were required to speak English at all times, as they were there to learn the English language. When there were no sisters around, this rule was ignored and in an effort to communicate in the room, I quickly learnt Spanish. Sadly, I am no longer as fluent.

At night, we were allowed to close the heavy mahogany bedroom door. Any thoughts of turning on a light were quickly quashed. Tom the gardener patrolled the grounds with the convent’s team of Alsatian dogs and reported the offenders to a sister.

One of the nuns who taught Spanish walked everywhere with two large dogs. I was glad I had taken French at The Berkeley Institute, as I was afraid of dogs and could not picture myself sitting in a classroom with them.

There was a strict routine at Immaculate. At 6am, we were at our bedroom door on our knees for prayer. We stripped our beds, quickly dressed, put on our veils/mantillas, lined up and went down to the Chapel for Mass, which was at that time said in Latin. Mass was followed by breakfast. I hated oatmeal porridge and devised a method to avoid it. I collected dead insects, which I wrapped and kept in my uniform pocket, just in case it was oatmeal day. As soon as the empty porridge pot was returned to the kitchen, I simply added the insect to my bowl. Mind you, I had to remember which nun was on duty the last time I performed this stunt.

Sister Mary Davidica OSF

I was not a Roman Catholic, so I asked Sister Davidica, the principal, if I could be excused from daily Mass. My friends were shocked that I had the temerity to make such a request and even more shocked when Sister Davidica agreed. I felt this would allow me time to luxuriate in my room and descend in time for breakfast. This was not to be as Sister Davidica had other plans — she quickly informed me that during Mass I was to sit in a classroom adjacent to the chapel, study and supervise all the other non-Roman Catholic girls who chose not to attend daily Mass. She also reminded me that we must attend Sunday Mass, regardless of what religion we practised. Sunday church was sacrosanct. As I grew older, I realised how progressive she was.

Beds were remade after breakfast and then we proceeded to assembly wearing our Jippi Jappa hats. One morning, Sister Davidica called out in an unusually elevated voice: “Miss Snaith, we are not in Texas. Please adjust the brim of your hat.”

By 8.30am, we were settled in our classrooms. There were seven periods in the school day, with classes completed by 1.30pm. We had morning recess and, although my parents paid for a sandwich and milk, I preferred the beef patties sold in the schoolyard and gave away my sandwich. Sporting activities were limited during that era, but there was a swimming pool and we played tennis and softball.

We did not clean our rooms or do laundry. In the afternoon, we were assigned bath times. Mine was from 3pm to 3.20pm and the water was usually cold. Teatime ended at 3.30pm and punctuality was expected. Furthermore, I didn’t want to miss the lemonade and cookies.

I joined the Glee Club. Not because I enjoyed singing, but I saw it as an opportunity to see the outside world. We frequently performed at community events, and there I was, singing with the second sopranos. My parents paid for piano lessons, but I can tell you I had very little talent — my teacher deserved a medal for her patience. There was a music building with individual piano practice rooms with specific practice times. I preferred music theory and shockingly passed the Grade 6 Royal College of Music theory examination.

My friend, Sonia, and I heard that piercing our ears would improve our vision! We both wore thick glasses and felt we should avail ourselves of this opportunity. The question was, how to get out of school? We acquired two appointment cards from an eye doctor’s office, filled them out and presented them to Sister Davidica, who approved our leaving the school grounds together.

We had seen an ear-piercing sign on a shack by the roadside and off we went. The lady heated the needle over a fire and, despite the horrible crackling sound of the ear cartilage being pierced, we endured. We left with two bristle-like objects sticking through holes in our ears. We were advised to clean them with white rum and rotate the objects daily. Here’s the problem: we had no white rum and no earrings, but we were two happy girls whose vision never improved. I chose not to tell my parents, but instead wrote my Uncle Howard, who mailed me a pair. While we were awaiting the earrings, we combed our hair over our ears in a style popular at that time, leaving Sister Davidica totally unaware of our adventure.

We were required to write our parents every Friday. The letters had to be left unsealed for Sister Davidica to examine. I quickly learnt to write two letters — the one Sister Davidica would approve and another with my true feelings on boarding-school life. A day student mailed that one.

Midnight feasts were held in the wide corridors between the rooms. It’s not as though we were hungry; we just enjoyed the challenge and excitement. I particularly enjoyed the condensed milk sandwiches. We were always on the lookout for one of the sisters to appear. They wore long, heavily beaded rosaries attached to their waistbands, which made a specific clicking sound as they walked. This was a definite alert. We also had to have a “lookout”, as some sisters held their rosaries and moved silently. A pretty scary sight in a darkened corridor.

There was a period in every year when we had a religious retreat. During this period, we remained absolutely silent. We were to pray, reflect on our lives and read religious literature. I enjoyed these days as I concealed my favourite novels with religious covers and read to my heart’s content until I suddenly realised my transgression. I might have been fooling the nuns, but God was watching my deceitful behaviour.

The Cuban uprising came about during this period. Many of the Cuban girls could not return to their country. Their parents were wealthy and were now required to share their large homes with others and had to work periodically in the fields. They were all stranded in Jamaica and often we were told that people had arrived in the night with children, escaping Cuba. Eventually, many were relocated to relatives and friends in other countries.

Sister Emmanuel drove the convent car, a flashy Chevrolet Impala. She was a tall, heavy-set, no-nonsense woman who sometimes forgot to smile. Despite it all, she was my history teacher and I liked her style. She gave no notes, just strode into class with her brown habit and black veil trailing behind her. She began her lecture by reminding us that we had better get it all down and it better be neat. Years later, I returned to the school with my husband. She was delighted to see me all grown up with a husband, and wanted to know how much my father had paid him to marry me. She added that I was the most difficult girl she had met. I quickly responded that the feeling was mutual, and she roared with laughter.

I graduated from the Immaculate Conception High School for Girls in June 1961 in a grand event that lasted an entire week. My parents, grandmother and godmother were in attendance. There were breakfasts, lunches, teas and Masses, followed by a formal prom in the school’s summerhouse. The music provided by Byron Lee and the Dragonaires remains prominent in my choice of music today. It was a memorable ending to our high school years.

In 1980, I returned to visit my beloved principal, Sister Mary Davidica Order of St Francis. She had always found time for me and understood my challenges as a girl from a different culture, away from home. By then she had retired, having served as a nun for more than 60 years, and was adjusting to the many changes occurring within the Franciscan community.

Several years ago, my husband and I travelled to the Sanctuary of Tindari in Sicily where a Black Madonna stands behind the Altar. I was overcome by the familiarity of the burning incense and the chanting of the nuns. I then read the inscription in front of the Black Madonna, which when translated read “I Am Black But Beautiful”. It was then that I wept for my parents and the nuns who had been so instrumental in the formation of the person I am today.

In this year 2023, Immaculate Conception High School For Girls has been rated the top high school in Jamaica by Educate Jamaica Academic Rankings.

Cecille C. Snaith-Simmons is a retired nurse, historian, writer and author of the Bermuda Cookbook

Cecille C. Snaith-Simmons is a retired nurse, historian, writer and author of The Bermuda Cookbook

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Published August 14, 2023 at 8:00 am (Updated August 13, 2023 at 10:00 pm)

Recollections of a high school boarder

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