“Labour for learning before you grow old
For learning is better than silver or gold
Silver and gold will vanish away
But a good education will never decay”
Those often repeated lines were the motto of West Bayer Isabel Powell, better known as respected teacher Miss Izzy, whose long career had a lasting impact on education in Cayman.
Her story, according to the National Trust for the Cayman Islands, is one that has touched many Caymanians over the course of her 54-year career as a teacher. But, like the silver and gold of her motto, due to an unfortunate twist of fate Miss Izzy’s physical legacy lies in a small heap of rubble at the end of a tiny lane in the heart of West Bay.
The Trust notes that Miss Izzy was the youngest of 11 children, born in 1910 to Lewis and Virginia Powell.
“Her father died when she was only 6 years old and she remembered her mother working hard to support the family and performing chores such as raising chickens and tending cows,” the Trust’s historic programs staff note in an information sheet.
As the years passed, Miss Izzy’s life was notable in its hardship, but also for her perseverance through adversity.
The Trust notes that after the death of her father, Miss Izzy’s older brother took on the role as father and provider, taking the family to Honduras by boat. The children missed Cayman however, and Miss Izzy’s brother, Prentice Powell, earned the money to book passages to bring them all home. Somehow Miss Izzy was able to continue her studies, and after completing her education, she began teaching at the government school in West Bay.
The Trust’s information on Miss Izzy records that after she began teaching, she was soon approached to consider tutoring a few children after school. She subsequently established her own private school on Oct. 1, 1929, and began classes with just three children, Rayburn and Miriam Farrington and Miss Izzy’s niece Florence Tatum, at her mother’s home.
The children initially paid a weekly fee of three pence, later raised to $1, with an extra charge for baby-sitting services.
“By the second week, she had nine students and student registration continued to grow as people began talking about the rapid progress that her students were making,” notes the Trust document.
“As her school’s needs outgrew her mother’s house, Miss Izzy relocated the school to another structure, and circa 1934, she moved the school yet again to the site at the end of Farrington Lane that is now historically referred to as ‘Miss Izzy’s Schoolhouse.’”
Although the date of construction is unknown, the building is believed to have been built circa 1896 as the family home for Henry and Arabella Parsons, who were Miss Izzy’s uncle and aunt. Miss Izzy taught up to 45 students in the schoolhouse with the assistance of her niece, Florence Tatum, accepting all ages of students. The largest class she ever taught was 60, in the small 390-square-foot, three-room wattle and daub structure.
“Eventually when schools became regulated by the government, children were only allowed to attend to the age of 11,” the Trust notes.
The Trust also points out the desks were made using metal frames with a wooden pad used to complete work. A typical day started at 9 a.m. and ended at 2 p.m. and Florence would baby-sit students who stayed beyond that. Children were taught reading, basic mathematics and were trained to write on slates using a handwriting technique called pot-hooks.
Past students include Rudi Evans, former superintendent of police, Tom Jefferson, former financial secretary, and Loxley Banks, former director of Radio Cayman.
“Miss Izzy never married and said she did not think a man would have been too happy with her as she was born sick and struggled with asthma throughout her life,” notes the Trust, adding that she was nonetheless energetic and was a devout Christian who enjoyed ministering to people in their homes, as well as a master thatcher.
The lives of Miss Izzy and Florence were cut short in 1984 when they were struck and killed by a vehicle.
The unused schoolhouse subsequently fell into disrepair, and over time Miss Izzy’s sister Ivy Powell expressed her wish to donate the structure and .11 acre property to the National Trust in memory of her sister, which eventually happened on Feb. 2, 1999.
“The schoolhouse was an excellent example of an original wattle and daub, cabin style home with the classic hip roof built in the distinct tradition of Caribbean Georgian folk architecture,” according to the Trust’s historic programs staff, and the roof was originally covered with wooded shingles, later covered by a newer zinc roof. The site is also of environmental interest due to a number of mature indigenous trees including mahogany, Lignum vitae, seagrapes and guinep.
Time had taken a heavy toll on the property, and the weakened building was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004.
“All that now remains is wooden debris and a mound of metal desks sitting where the foundation would have been,” notes the Trust.
“Nevertheless, the site represents an important era in Cayman’s history and the schoolhouse will always be remembered as a place of scholarly learning.”
For more information on the National Trust’s historic properties, visit www.nationaltrust.org.ky.
The schoolhouse was an excellent example of an original wattle and daub, cabin-style home with the classic hip roof built in the distinct tradition of Caribbean Georgian folk architecture.