July 2020 Volume 16

The Spirit of Clovelly Park

Stephen Vasciannie
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Reprinted from the Jamaica Observer

Frances-Marie Coke, nee Phillips, was in all likelihood in her early twenties when she mounted the Number 22 JOS bus towards North Street, via South Camp Road. Along the way, the bus would have passed her alma mater, the Convent of Mercy Academy “Alpha” on the left, and the historic Sabina Park on the right. The initial journey may also have prompted reminiscences in Miss Phillips' mind about socialising with St George's boys on the “other” side of North Street or about academic pursuits in English at The University of the West Indies, Mona.

What the initial journey would not have done — indeed could not have done— was to prepare Miss Phillips for the next decade of her life spent largely within the walls of Kingston College. By the end of the decade of the 1970s, Frances Coke had made a profound mark on the Kingston College community, influenced the lives of hundreds of boys, and had herself been influenced by the colleagues and students from the purple and white school. Her book about the experience, The Spirit of Clovelly Park, is a critical analysis, and a perceptive celebration, of Kingston College and its place in the Jamaican educational environment. It is not only about Fortis, but it is predominantly, and thoughtfully so.

About Fortis

The Spirit of Clovelly Park, in its general sense, denotes at least three characteristics associated with Kingston College. One concerns confidence: many KC boys exude ebullience, are strongly assertive and are prepared to defend the school's greatness above all others —they are Fortis, with fortissimo. A second characteristic is captured by the phrase “never say die”: many KC boys are instinctively inclined to fight for success with determination and extreme commitment. This is the essence of the school's motto, Fortis Cadere Cedere Non Potest: The Brave May Fall But Never Yield.

And the third characteristic — not as fixed in the public mind as the ebullience and the determination — concerns class and education. Kingston College, from the time of its inception under the guiding hands of Bishop Gibson, Douglas Forrest et al, has worked to engender a community in which social class and financial standing are irrelevancies. All that should matter is your desire for education. In this sense, KC has sought successfully to be a progressive and just institution — no matter where you come from, if you want education and egalitarian treatment, enter the gates of Clovelly and Melbourne parks.

Initiatives

In her book, appropriately subtitled Learning and Teaching at Kingston College, Frances Coke provides a detailed account of the initiatives undertaken, and challenges faced, by what many would regard as a tough, urban school. Understandably, many of the initiatives and challenges were linked to each other. So, for example, in order to motivate fourth formers who evinced no particular interest in Shakespearean blank verse, their teacher formulated methods to bring home the delights of language to reluctant students.

In the early stages, Miss Phillips was on the point of frustration, but she fought back. In her words, she realised: “This teaching business is a war of wits and wills. If I'm going to win or even survive, I have to come up with my own tactics!”

These tactics included patrolling spaces between desks to remove distractions, encouraging an appreciation that sound and rhythm in writing can convey meaning (exemplified by Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky), and perhaps most importantly, by exposing students to the works of Caribbean writers.

Learning

Students responded positively. Coke recalls: “I took our own Jamaican poet Mervyn Morris to the classroom. We read The Day My Father Died, and every boy lowered his eyes in deep thought and then chimed in with their own insights. The poem described something they could relate to, and the poet was a living, breathing Jamaican who looked like someone who might live next door to anyone of us.”

Students also reacted positively to “the power of the whisper”, to the teacher's ability to link essay-writing to topical, controversial issues within the wider society, and to her willingness to consider the personal and social factors that influenced individual and group behaviour. Some of the student responses provoke consideration even today. Thus, for example: “The footballer got into a heated exchange with a classmate about whether uptown people had any right to judge the behaviour of poor people living in shanty towns all over Kingston.”

Syllabus

In the decade of the 1970s, Kingston College had in place an exceptionally strong group of teachers. Some were keen to concentrate on the syllabus to ensure academic success, while others went beyond the syllabus to help in the development of the man. In some cases, this distinction was really a matter of degree, and may also have depended on the perceived needs of particular students or classes. In any case, Phillips (who assumed the surname Coke upon her marriage to an illustrious KC Old Boy, Leighton “Dickie” Coke) was firmly in the camp that went beyond the syllabus as prescribed by Cambridge University for Ordinary and Advanced Level students.

So, beyond the syllabus, Coke concentrated on patterns of behaviour, and together with others, helped to raise up students with self-confidence, determination and a sense of equality — all components of the spirit of Clovelly Park. In this regard, Coke mentions especially the work of her colleagues Ivan “Wally” Johnson, Peter Maxwell and Helen Douglas, key figures in saving KC boys from the pitfalls of social pressure for generations.

Guidance

In the course of placing the spotlight on work by Johnson and others, Coke also outlines with understanding and precision some of the psychological challenges that our students continue to face in Jamaican society. Her discussion is also illuminated by her decision, close to the end of the decade, to pursue postgraduate work in guidance and counselling at the University of Reading, and in her post-Reading experiences as the first female guidance counsellor at KC.

The Quiz

But although Frances-Marie Coke is one of the stars of the KC firmament for her teaching of English and the general paper, for her work as guidance counsellor, and her contributions to the general advancement of the institution, it is her role as the coach of the Kingston College Quiz team that may be the highest point of achievement. Without giving away the full story, Coke was the coach of the first KC Schools' Challenge Quiz Team to take the trophy from the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation in 1974. This success was repeated in 1975, and the stage was set for outstanding KC performances in the 50-odd years of the Schools' Challenge competition.

The Spirit of Clovelly Park carries numerous stories about the quiz experience under the management of Mrs Coke. As a coach, Coke attended to the needs of each team member, engendered friendship, and a competitive spirit among members of the quiz community, and ensured that they recognised lessons about commitment, collaboration and camaraderie that would serve them well throughout their lives. Si monumentum requiris, circumspice: if you seek her monument, look around you (at KC in Schools' Challenge Quiz team).

I openly confess to bias in the presentation of this review, as a KC product of the 1970s who has benefited in many ways from Mrs Coke's guidance. But, I daresay that even those who are cynical about KC overenthusiasm will find much to cherish in this book. It is about a just KC, but it is not just about KC. It is about Jamaica, its past, present and future.

Ambassador Stephen Vasciannie is Professor of International Law at the University of the West Indies. He attended KC between 1971 and 1978.

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