Opinion

My Berkeley School days

  • Vernon Jackson
  • Berkeley Institute, with pupils and staff outside, in 1987
  • Berkeley chess club

In acknowledging the Berkeley Institute’s 120th anniversary, The Royal Gazette reprints an essay written by the late columnist VERNON JACKSON for the Mid-Ocean News on December 31, 1992

The year 1919 loomed as an important milestone in my life, and why shouldn’t it? That was the year when I entered the Berkeley Institute. In those days that followed the end of the First World War, the practice was for schools to open as soon as possible after New Year’s Day for the start of the first term of the year; so it followed that on a date very early in January 1919, I entered Berkeley Institute’s lone building for the first time. I was 11, and I suppose I felt like boasting because most of the new students were 12 or older; but I had no right to boast because I was right on the threshold of 12, which meant that I had no age advantage over any of the others.

I was not a bright student, but I liked school, and I had friends there. It was fun. I met George A. DaCosta for the first time, although I had seen him many times walking to and from school. He was Berkeley’s first headmaster, a genial, scholarly gentleman from Jamaica who everyone agreed was a very good teacher.

I knew that he was also very much at home in a church pulpit because he served as a lay preacher at the St Augustine Mission of the Anglican Church. Mr DaCosta proved that he was a well-trained teacher because he almost single-handedly prepared students for the annual Cambridge preliminary, junior and senior exams.

He did have an assistant, but almost every day she developed a headache and retired to the caretaker’s cottage to rest and recover while her classes probably went untaught.

I know that I was not alone in the belief that she did not like teaching. By 1921-22, Mr DaCosta had obtained the services of Millicent I. Neverson, who was excellent in English, French and history, and Ernest M. Theobalds, whose special subjects were maths, algebra and Latin, some of the hardest subjects anyone can think of, but with his help I managed to pass them.

That first year at the Berkeley was not too difficult. I enjoyed it. One day after school, probably in October as the summer was waning, I joined some boys for a swim at Ducking Stool.

After the swim I walked alone over Langton Hill on my way home to Brooklyn. About 100 yards north of Government Gate, on the eastern wall of the cutting, I used my scout knife to carve my initials. The rock was hard, but I worked at it until near dark.

Today, more than 73 years later, those six-inch initials “V.J.” are still there as a reminder that at 12 years of age I was determined to make my mark somewhere, somehow, even if only in Bermuda limestone!

At Berkeley, my admission to the life of the school was marked by an initiation that took place without notice or warning of any kind: one day about a week after my arrival, just as we went out for morning recess, I was grabbed by some of the bigger boys, and together with the other new boys I was shoved into a small space, a cubby hole, perhaps under the stairway.

It was pitch dark in there and we initiates didn’t know what to expect. As we started shouting protests, we were unceremoniously poked and prodded by someone who had previously hidden in there for the purpose.

This rough treatment continued until I shouted, “Oh, my eye!” The stick or whatever it was, had poked me in the left eye that had already suffered some damage in a previous accident.

This unexpected, unplanned turn of events brought the initiation to a sudden stop. My eye quickly turned black and blue, and attracted the attention of Mr DaCosta, who soon learnt about the initiation, which was definitely not on the curriculum, and he immediately ordered: “No more initiations!”

I was a war casualty.

For the rest of the day I sat at my desk holding a wet cloth over my eye, thereby escaping classes for that afternoon.

About that time boxing was gaining in popularity, so in due course some boys got the bright idea that we should put on a boxing show.

Very much against Mr DaCosta’s better judgment, it was held on a Friday afternoon in the lower hall of the building.

The historic event was watched by every student in the school, and the ring was in the centre of the large room; it was marked by a rope around four pillars that supported the upper floor.

I fought in one of the preliminary events, and my opponent was my friend David Tucker, who held me to a draw.

The main event was between two seniors, Harvey Robinson and Millard Cann. It was going full guns when Harvey threw his head back to avoid a blow but unfortunately his head struck one of the ring corner posts, and he was knocked out cold.

Here again was a dramatic and unexpected turn of events that caused Mr DaCosta to order: “No more boxing matches at Berkeley!”

After graduating in 1924, Harvey became the second recipient of the Bermuda Technical Education Scholarship that carried him to England where he obtained a medical degree, and during the Second World War he attained the rank of Major in the Royal Army Medical Corps (British Army).

Millard earned a degree in dentistry in the United States and served Bermuda well as a practitioner for many years.

Every boy dreamt of owning a pedal cycle, and I was no exception.

One day during our lunch break, David Tucker challenged me to a cycle race. The course was from the bottom of Berkeley Hill to Cox’s Hill, to Serpentine and Cemetery roads and back to the starting point.

But here again the unexpected happened.

As we raced furiously for the finish line with David well ahead, a small boy ran across the road, and it was my misfortune to hit him.

My handlebar struck his head and down he went with me on top of him. He was unconscious. He had a nasty bump on his head. He was a student of St Alban’s School at St John’s Road, not far from Berkeley. I have forgotten his name, but he lived at Mount Hill.

We stopped a carriage and took the boy home to his mother. He was kept in bed for a few days. I went to see him until he was well enough to return to school.

I took him his homework so he could keep up with his lessons, but I was one very frightened boy for several days.

One afternoon as we were on our way home from school, I wanted to impress a girl who was walking with other girls. She was on the outside, and she was carrying an armful of books.

I dashed by her on my bike but she took no notice of me, so I tried again, but this time she moved slightly, throwing me off my timing.

The result was that my handlebar struck her arm and all her books and papers were on the ground.

Naturally, she was as mad as a hornet, and I wished the ground would open up and swallow me. She was Louise Stuart who, with her younger sister, Marie, died at a very early age in about 1927.

I suppose I was the romantic, with ideas borne of stories I had read. It was my idea to form a “Secret Society” at Berkeley. There were only three of us in it. We were “The Secret Three”: David Tucker, LeRoy Kennedy and myself.

We even had pins made abroad that we wore in our lapels. And what was our big secret? Just that we were secret, that was all!

Years later, after David had become a successful lawyer, he threw it all away, went abroad and disappeared. I never knew what happened to him after that. LeRoy was a wizard at maths and algebra, and I pictured him becoming a maths professor, but it was not to be. Without the opportunity to study abroad, he languished here at home, never achieving anything spectacular.

And as for me, I got as far as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where I floundered and finally failed miserably. To use the words of a popular slogan: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” I really believe “The Secret Three” could have done better than that.

After the arrival of our new teacher, Mr Theobalds, he started the Berkeley Cadet Corps. All the boys were members. We had route marches and drills. We had a fife and drum band but no uniforms while I was there.?Of course, Mr Theobalds was the captain in charge. In my last year I served as sergeant and I was also a school prefect.

One Friday afternoon, we were out on a route march, but the usual orderly proceedings were being upset by one of Mr DaCosta’s sons. He was always fun-loving and mischievous, but on this occasion he was downright disruptive, disobedient and annoying.

I spoke to him several times, but he was determined to have his way. Finally I lost my temper and slapped him. Well, I was first reprimanded by Mr Theobalds. Mr DaCosta was informed and I was subjected to a severe lecture and demotion in the Corps. I was a heavy loser.

On the whole, Mr DaCosta was cool, calm and tolerant.

There was never any suggestion of using the cane or other physical punishment. He didn’t believe in it, and he didn’t like it. He gave the students rules of conduct, and he expected those rules to be obeyed.

He trusted us and the response was excellent, I thought.

There was always harmony and good decorum in the school and on the playing field. Those students had been well trained and disciplined at home.

Before Berkeley, my first teacher, Miss Edith Crawford, was a real disciplinarian, well known for her leather strap, but it was never used indiscriminately, and she was held in high regard.

I thought she was a wonderful lady and a fine teacher.

The story at Saltus (at that time) was a bit different when Mr Cox, the headmaster, was known for his extensive use of the cane for every minor infraction of the rules.

My hat is off to the boys who weathered the storm. I guess I was lucky to be at Berkeley.

In those early days, Berkeley and Saltus athletic teams never met on the playing field; it was just not done at that time — we had not progressed that far.

But we were rivals; scholastically, that is.

Students who had prepared for Cambridge exams sat for them at the end of the year and when the results arrived from England in the spring and were published in The Royal Gazette, there was jubilation at Berkeley if and when we scored better than Saltus; needless to say, we kept a very careful eye on their progress.

Those were good days at Berkeley, so my recollections and my memories are good ones. They have to include my old friend Louisa Gardiner (the late Mrs Joseph Richards).

Louisa was a kind and gentle person whose intellect was bright and sharp, but what really endeared her to me was the fact that her schoolwork was always prepared, and with the time she had to spare, she spent that time helping other students.

I was one she helped, not just once but many times.

She had such a clear grasp of all her subjects; it seemed miraculous to me. No wonder she became headmistress at Sandys Secondary School and served there for many years.

There was a spirit of camaraderie at Berkeley that gave one a good feeling of trust and of being among friends.

Every year we brought out parents and friends when we presented one of Shakespeare’s plays. One year I played Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice.

Whenever George Simpson, the Inspector of Schools, showed up on one of his unannounced visits, there was always a feeling of trepidation; more so than when we had to sit for exams.

His appearance and manner were very unprepossessing.

I well remember one day in 1923. That day dawned bright and cheerful. We were all in good spirits, but not for long; at least not for the students at the Berkeley Institute.

An alarming, disquieting report was circulating: one of the girls was pregnant! It wasn’t just a rumour. She was named, and what’s more, Mr DaCosta had sent her home in disgrace.

Shock waves went through the school that day and for some time thereafter.

Nothing so shocking had ever happened before. We were dismayed. The good name of the school had been tarnished and dipped in the mud. I have no way of knowing how the poor girl felt, but she certainly hit Berkeley “for a six”. But, of course, that was 70 long years ago.

Mr DaCosta died in August 1934, just two months after retiring from the Berkeley. When I attended his funeral and looked at the black marble tablet that adorns his grave, I thought of his long years of service to others.

He was brought here from his home in Jamaica by the African Methodist Episcopal Churches of Bermuda to head the Bermuda Collegiate Institute that opened on King Street in 1892 — the first school to provide higher education for coloured children in Bermuda.

That was 100 years ago.

My father won his Senior Cambridge Certificate under him in 1896, and my uncle Arnott (my role model) was also taught by him. I thought of the hundreds of other Bermudians who passed through his hands and learnt the lessons of life, as well as the book subjects he taught.

When we celebrated “DaCosta Day” at Berkeley in 1979 and I spoke about the effect he had on my life, perhaps you can understand why I became emotional.

There was a sudden rush of feeling that I could neither stem nor control. He was that kind of man.

So perhaps you can also understand why I look on the Berkeley Institute as “my school”. It is a part of me, just as I am a part of it, and just as my great-grandfather was a part of its founding when he, along with two of his sons, were members of a group of far-sighted men who in 1879 formed the Berkeley Educational Society that, through adversity and struggle, finally saw the school (the Berkeley Institute) open on September 6, 1897.

The Berkeley Institute is a great school with a great and glorious heritage. It has a monumentally important mission. Long may it play its part in this community.

There is a saying: “The past has a way of stepping on the heels of the present.”

In this case, I hope the past will keep stepping — and stepping hard, as long as it continues to push Berkeley forward into the future so that it improves as it grows.

Vernon Jackson, who enjoyed career success as a policeman, businessman and writer, died in 1996 at the age of 89