Words by Jesse Serwer
Photos by Martei Korley
Louise Bennett-Coverley is the mother of modern Jamaica.
Bennett-Coverley, known to generations of Jamaicans as Miss Lou, was a poet, radio and TV host, thespian and scholar. Collectively, her writing, radio monologues (“Miss Lou’s Views”), TV talent showcase (Ring Ding, which aired from 1970 to 1982) and promotion of so-called Pantomime, a distinctly Jamaican form of theater, has greatly influenced the way Jamaica has looked at its patois (or Creole) language, and indigenous folk culture. Aspects of Jamaican life which were once shunned and discouraged by government, schools and other institutions have become things to be embraced and celebrated, thanks in large part to Miss Lou.
Bennett-Coverley, who passed away in 2006 at age 86, spent a significant portion of her life in Gordon Town, near Kingston’s eastern fringes. Not long after her passing, Gordon Town All-Age School, the main educational institution in the area, was closed for reconstruction. When the school reopened in 2008, it was rechristened the Louise Bennett-Coverley All-Ages School. It’s a fitting name, as Miss Lou not only hails from the area, but also represents the essence of what it is to be Jamaican. What with the motherly presence she projected in life, there could not be a more fitting person to name a school after.
“When a school is named after someone in Jamaica, the legacy is played up a bit more than in the States. Jamaica is a younger state and the national heroes, for that reason, have more of an individual presence,” Martei says. “If you’re talking about George William Gordon, he’s not more modern than Harriet Tubman but somehow he has become somewhat contemporary by being painted on murals across Jamaica. It’s not a ‘Jamaican History Month thing, it’s a mural that’s there every day.”
The Louise Bennett-Coverley School school is nestled in a narrow valley in the top of Gordon Town, on the way to Mavis Bank. The school is reached by walking down a steep hill, which makes it feel like it’s own little fortress or island. “It’s almost like you’re going into a different world. This is supposed to be a poor country school but it is a bright place,” Martei says. “There are mangoes in the yard, and it looks better than most elementary schools I’ve seen in other countries. I went into a first grade classroom, where they were doing language arts. The students were very disciplined. The school had a calm environment with all of the shady trees and beautiful colors. There were little corners for kids to meet up and form groups and chat. The groups seemed kind of fluid, and flowed across the grades. After sitting in on a class, I decided to take some portraits of the children in the schoolyard…”
These were first-grade students receiving an English lesson. They were polite and acknowledged my presence but were very focused on the task. Jamaican students in the lower grades are disciplined and have a lot of respect for their teachers.
As you can see, the classroom is very bright and inviting. The school seemed like a warm place — as in fuzzy warm, not warm temperature. Because it is nestled in a valley among shady trees, it has a cool, relaxing feeling that’s different from a school that’s on one piece of flat land where the dust can blow around. You get a very different feeling here.
I can’t remember his name but this kid is from Standpipe, in Kingston. He is going to school two towns away, in area that is more like the country.
A group of 2nd graders posing in their school T-shirts.
These two boys were making ridiculous badman poses for the camera, while their friend laughed at them. I actually asked them not to pose.
A student enjoys a snack during recess.
He’s about to try and play a prank on one of the girls in that group, but he’s already being found out by the other girls. It is all in good-natured fun — There is no mean spirit.
He was one of the smallest kids and had a magnetic factor. He’s sweating from running around the yard, and here he poses up for a classic flick with some of his ‘fans’ in the background.
These three girls were best friends, and they were all eating this icey that turned their tongues blue. They posed both like this, and individually, and in groups of two. I ended up going with the group shot with all of them because they were kind of inseparable.
When I’m looking at them, it is like I’m looking at grown people. Who am I looking at? A teacher and an administrator in the making, who knows. They just look so official.
The school has these split levels which make it very dynamic. There’s forces of environment where you adjust to the conditions, and you change your outlook every time you are on a different elevation. I think that is one of the things that helps make Jamaica a dynamic place. Nothing in Jamaica is really flat.
Here’s a day’s worth of unswept mango leaves. I thought it was beautiful how it left a little golden carpet.