Our teacher died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure. The phone call from Maurice was: "I am calling with some sad news: Mrs. Beulah Reid passed away. Funeral announcement will be made soon. Pass the news around." Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.
It was the summer of 2004; of that, we are sure. That would have made it 30 years since our graduation in 1974. And to commemorate this event, the Fortis 69ers – so named because we had entered KC in 1969 – planned a grand reunion for a journey down Nostalgia. Most fitting, though, we also used the occasion to honour several teachers whom we felt had had the most profound impact on our education and development at Kingston College. Interestingly enough, our final list included four teachers of English: Frances Coke, Beryl Urquhart, Peter Maxwell and Beulah Reid. In 1974, Mrs. Beulah Reid, teacher extraordinaire, had been head of the English Department at KC, and thirty years on she must have been very proud to see that of the eight teachers selected, half of that number had come from the department she had led. (After the reunion Mrs Reid sent us a handwritten thank-you note on elegant paper which is now among our prized KC memorabilia).
The telephone call from Maurice prompted the travel back to our 2004 reunion. With the mind's lens focusing on Mrs. Reid, one paused to reflect on a teacher who was a giant in her time; one who made learning enjoyable and kept young men's rapt attention as she explored with them the beauty of the written word. But reflections at these times quickly become ramblings. There was life before KC for Mrs. Reid, wasn't there?
Born in St. Elizabeth on August 3, 1929, Beulah Reid attended Mayfield and Top Hill Elementary Schools in that parish. She decided early that she wanted to become a teacher, and embarked on this career right after elementary school by enrolling at the then Bethlehem Training College in Malvern, St. Elizabeth. During her stint at Bethlehem Training College, she came top of her class for all three years. She then matriculated to the University of the West Indies, which she later attended, graduating in 1965 with a special honours degree in English.
The year 1965 had to have been a good one for Kingston College, for that was the year Beulah Reid joined the staff at KC as a teacher of English, and became a beloved member of the Fortis family. We imagine that her love for poetry and the enthusiasm with which she encouraged its appreciation must have helped to influence the artistry in the play of the famous 1965 KC football team that swept all before them, without ever losing sight of their responsibility as ambassadors to keep the beautiful game beautiful.
Mrs. Reid made teaching her vocation, and her vocation made her its own. The teaching of English gave her much joy; but she never kept joy for herself, she gave it back to us, her students. And we in Form 5A back in 1974; weren't we just lucky to have had her as our O' Level English teacher! And that's exactly where the reflections next hurtled. The telephone call from Maurice still percolating along the corridors of consciousness, one almost overhears oneself saying: "She should have died hereafter. There would have been a time for such a word…"
She was a brilliant teacher who passed on information, concepts and ideas effortlessly, opening our minds to understanding and appreciating the wonders of language and literature. Skilfully, she guided us along our journeys into lands where it appeared no one wrote in simple language. Holding our hands, she helped us to unravel the complexities of poetry, and celebrated with us as interpretation provoked the glide of the victor's smile across our faces. How we admired her ability to get into the minds of those English author. Poets, playwrights, novelists, writers all – Mrs. Reid had their works spread out against the sky like patients etherized upon a table. With the steady hand of the neurosurgeon, she pieced out their intent (and imperfections) with her thoughts, and as the flames of understanding flickered, she would triumphantly claim, "I knew you would get it!"
Under Mrs. Reid's expert guidance, we had much fun with Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Macbeth. Is it because Macbeth was the set play for us at O' Levels that we believe that this must have been Mrs. Reid favourite Shakespeare play? We still recall how she had us in stitches as she did her impression of the three witches. And then, with versatility on display, she elicited our empathy as she discussed Lady Macbeth's state of mind by the time the Lady was musing, "Yet here's a spot" …and then shouting "Out, damned spot! Out, I say!"
She also took us through Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner and John Keats's Eve of St. Agnes. Our English teacher showed great enthusiasm for them all, but we think, for her, Keats had the edge on the others. Yes, St. Agnes' Eve – Ah, bitter chill it was! But wasn't there a period when the night warmed up for Porphyro and Madeleine, even as the latter slept? We can still see Mrs. Reid standing there, excitedly discussing the skill of Keats, as demonstrated in his blending of the spiritual and the erotic in Porphyro's closeted voyeurism. Opiated ourselves by Mrs. Reid's passion and expertise, we followed her keenly, while Keats worked adroitly at rendering the sensual sublime through his rich concoction of self-impressions. Yes, we certainly gained a healthy appreciation for the genius of the one whose name was writ in water. Thank you, Mrs. Reid!
And of course there was Charles Dickens's Great Expectations. The manner in which she taught that great novel made all of us feel that we were walking in Pip's shoes. (Did he even have shoes when the story began?) Like him, too, we fell in love with Estella. The jury, though, is still out on the pathetic Miss Havisham, with the softer half of the class really feeling sorry for her, while the steely half held the view that retribution was working its masterpiece and she was only getting her comeuppance. Even more exciting discussions were led by Mrs. Reid on whether Charles John Huffam Dickens (1812-1870) should have yielded to nineteenth century public sentiments when he changed his original ending of Great Expectations to facilitate a softer landing. And how about Dickens's choice of names to fit characters? (Remember Mr. Pumblechook, Joe Gargery's uncle, an officious bachelor and corn merchant?) Thanks to Mrs. Reid, we still have entire chapters of that epic work of fiction etched in our memory. No wonder a BBC programme aired on Dickens's birthday (February 7th) in commemoration of the two hundredth anniversary of the author's birth - with analyses of some of his seminal works of literature, including Great Expectations – opened such a nostalgic tap.
Mrs. Reid was, in one person, several wonderful persons and role models to us: our teacher, our mother, our guidance counselor and our friend and moral compass; and this was enough to maintain discipline, without any need for resort to severe authoritarianism. She might have been only five feet two inches, but she stood taller and towered above us; she might have been soft-spoken, but she spoke volumes of truth and beauty – one and the same, according to Keats – that carried far and wide; and she might not have been seen as strict or stern, but she certainly commanded respect and held our undivided attention. Indeed, after checking around, consensus still holds that we can only recall a single occasion when Mrs. Reid almost raised her voice. It was the best of times and the worst of times, when one of our classmates - with connections to the astrological archer - decided to test her patience a bit by refusing to settle down when she entered the classroom. We held our collective breaths as Mrs. Reid took a deep breath and lasered a Dickensian Jaggersesque stare on the miscreant. We all expected Mrs. Reid to summon Ate to her side, and in the confines of 5A, with a monarch's voice cry, "Havoc"! and let slip the dogs of war. But instead, with her sober wishes never having learnt to stray, she merely glared at the troubled youth, sighed heavily and with unbelievable equanimity, said to him, "Why don't you just jump through the window?!" Spontaneous laughter erupted and our classmate, having relocated his manners and sense of purpose, apologised and soon settled "…As idle as a painted ship / Upon a painted ocean."
Mrs. Reid retired as a teacher at KC in 1992, after twenty-seven years of excellent and dedicated service. During those 27 years, she helped to mould and shape the lives of several generations of boys into men and professionals, who have gone on to achieve many things in different societies, but all of whom regard Mrs. Reid as their teacher and friend.
Not surprisingly, both of Mrs. Reid's sons, Hugh and Donovan, attended KC. Donovan is a Fortis 69er, even if while at school, and after reading Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, he attached to himself the rather curious sobriquet, Pure and Chase. Hugh, who was a year ahead, and perhaps less inclined to sending strange and misleading messages with his tag, was known to his mother by the less controversial and even less imaginative alias, Tony. As if to parody what's in a name, Hugh and Donovan showed that despite the wide difference in their monikers, they could both be model students. To both gentlemen and Mrs. Reid's other children, we say that the talent your mother shared with us will always be your privilege; it is the foundation on which your lives were built, when along the cool sequester'd vale of life, she kept the noiseless tenor of her way.
In 1965 the quiet, dedicated and immensely talented Beulah Reid came home to KC to teach. She did that easily and without any fuss, and she served us with distinction. With a keen understanding of parenting and how to cultivate the gardens that Voltaire philosophised about (il faut cultiver notre jardin), she did much more than teaching; she sculpted better men, and Kingston College, Jamaica and the entire world are all better for her stint with us. Her gift to us is her legacy of excellence and dedication, and her name will live on in the annals of our beloved alma mater. Fortis forever!
The Thanksgiving Service was held on Saturday, February 18, 2012. The programme stated that Beulah Veronica Reid died in Kingston on February 6, 2012, aged 83. Renown and grace is dead. Most sacrilegious death hath broke ope the Lord's anointed temple, and stole thence the life o' the building! Getting news like this is harder when you're driving. Maurice did not know this. Neither did he know that to our beloved English teacher, Albert Camus was no Stranger. But this clears it up then; it means it must've been the day before yesterday.