At back-to-school-time, Brac educator looks back on changes

This photo of class at Creek Primary in 1957 shows, standing from left, pupil teacher Mexi-Ann Tibbetts-Grant, pupil teacher Mary Lou Hayes and head teacher Wilber Wilberforce Ruddock.

As part of an ongoing project to document the Brac’s early days, Saskia Edwards of the Cayman Brac Heritage Committee recently sat down with educator Mexi-Ann Grant. Ms. Grant reminisced and reflected on various changes that have occurred within the education system over the years. The original interview referenced below will be included in a special memory bank being created for the Sister Islands.

Mexi-Ann Grant, nee Tibbetts, was born in Cayman Brac on Oct. 30, 1942. Having held the positions of pupil teacher, classroom teacher, deputy principal, principal and, finally, education officer for the Sister Islands, Ms. Grant has experienced and witnessed many changes during her 40 years of service in education on Cayman Brac.

In earlier times, it was common for parents to send their children to be cared for by other members of the community before they were old enough to attend elementary school, an informal schooling system which became the foundation of learning for many.

“Those days, you didn’t start school until you were seven. So there were some ladies who would take children into their homes, care for them and teach them. I guess it was like what we call day care or preschool now. I went to three different ones. Ms. ‘Loma’ Green, as we called her, was one of the ladies. Another one I went to was Ms. Ida McLean and my last private teacher was Ms. Alma Scott.”

In 1950, Ms. Grant started attending Creek Primary.

“By the time I was ready to start school, I was advanced and started Standard 2,” she recalls, explaining the era’s grade rankings, Standards 1 through 6.

Ms. Grant also noted that the Creek Primary School at the time was located where the police station is today.

The school year started in January and ended in December, with breaks for Easter, summer and Christmas. Girls wore navy blue skirts and white blouses, and the boys wore white shirts with khaki pants.

“Devotions was the first thing we did in the morning. Then you would take [the] roll, and you had to say ‘Present, Ma’am’ or ‘Sir.’”

Brac educator Mexi-Ann Grant
Brac educator Mexi-Ann Grant

Numerous subjects such as math, science and social studies would be taught. Although material resources were scarce, the students and teachers did their best with what they had.

“There were no textbooks, but we had to buy reading books. Not everyone had, as some parents couldn’t afford them, and [books often] had to be passed down to siblings or cousins.”

She also recalled how, during the cooler months, it was exciting for the children to watch waves crash ashore by the school.

“I remember when a Northwester would come, and the sea would come up under the school floor, because the building was up on stilts then. That’s also where we would eat lunch, under there.”

With no designated lunch room, students often brought their water and meals from home and ate and drank under the building, or under shady trees.

During breaks, she said she and her classmates would play “jacks and a game called rounders, which was something like baseball. We even had a cricket pitch in front of the school yard, and would play cricket there.

“And I remember when it was mango season, and we had our round mangoes, we would go by the old barcadere and eat them. We would make boats out of the skin and pelt them with rocks to sink them.”

Some of the teachers who taught Ms. Grant and greatly shaped her educational experience included Genevieve Bodden, Islay Conolly, Carlyn Hislop and Asley South.

“We had a school inspector, Mr. Arthur Hunter. Sometimes he would come and take over and teach,” she recalled.

In 1951, the school relocated to its current spot on Student Drive.

“There was one main hall – there were no partitions,” said Ms. Grant. “Sometimes we had to do our classes outside. It was so noisy the teachers would take us outside and teach us under the trees. The platform or stage area in the back was where the teacher and principal would sit down.”

Students were given responsibilities, including janitorial duties.

“The upper division was on duty to clean the building – there were no janitors. The older students had duties like tidying the desks, and sweeping out the hall,” said Ms. Grant.

“Back then, Creek School had green tiles and we had to take [a piece of] coconut husk, put polish on it and clean the floor.”

Something else that she fondly recalls was a speaking activity that the older students would take part in.

“On Fridays, we had what we called hat debates. You would write down topics on scrap paper, put them in a hat and take turns pulling them out. Whatever you pulled out you had to talk about. I remember there was one child whose topic was ‘describe Cayman Brac 50 years from now.’ The student thought about it and said he imagined that there would be roads and homes on the bluff. At the time, the idea seemed so farfetched to us that we laughed at him.”

Pupil teachers Mary Lou Hayes, Mexi-AnnTibbetts-Grant, and Levonne Tibbetts-Ryan.
Pupil teachers Mary Lou Hayes, Mexi-AnnTibbetts-Grant, and Levonne Tibbetts-Ryan.

Ms. Grant said that once students reached Standard 5 or 6, parents had to pay the teacher to keep the children after school to prepare for exams.

“You took your exams in July and got your results in October,” she said.

“I remember our history books came two to three weeks before our [final] exam. Our teacher would excuse us from our normal work so we could go and prepare for these exams. I’ll never forget us sitting under an almond tree, reading to each other [and] taking turns trying to explain it. We more or less had to teach ourselves. It was a miracle that we passed. After you took your exams and you passed, [the] government would give [some] students a scholarship to go to Jamaica to train to be a teacher.”

Ms. Grant was one of the students who was afforded the chance to travel to Jamaica to seek higher education. Before her departure, at age 14, she was first employed as a pupil teacher, given the title along with one of her fellow classmates but with a unique condition.

“They only had money to pay one person, but since both Levonne Tibbetts-Ryan and I had passed our exams, they said they would give each one a job but we would have to share the salary. The wages were 12 pounds a month so each of us got 6 pounds.”

Ms. Grant remembers helping students with their reading, sitting under a lime tree behind the school building. Two years later, she went to the West Indies College in Jamaica and upon returning taught at West End Primary School.

In the 1960s, a Jamaica Local School Exam Centre opened at West End Primary School, which was a big change that impacted education.

“After you finished Standard 6 you went there. They employed Teacher Mr. Llewellyn from Jamaica to teach [there]. He also taught commercial courses like shorthand, typing and bookkeeping. Mr. Spencer Bodden would drive children there and then pick them up again. This went on until the high school was built, at which point the Jamaica exams were abolished and Cambridge and CXC exams were given.”

Following her marriage to the late Captain Geddes Grant in 1960, and the birth of their first child, she put her career on hold to raise her family. When her youngest became of school age, she was encouraged to return to teaching. She obtained an associate degree from the College of Preceptors, London, and an elementary education degree from the University of Tampa in 1984, after which she returned to teaching at Creek Primary, eventually becoming the education officer for the Sister Islands.

During her time as education officer, she initiated the merger of Creek and Spot Bay Primary Schools, as along with others she felt this was a better use of resources.

Her outstanding services to education earned her the Cayman Islands Certificate and Badge of Honour award.

In her retirement, Ms. Grant still visits the primary schools and volunteers to read to children.

Along with traveling overseas to visit loved ones, she also enjoys gardening, crocheting, socializing with family, friends, and visiting.

When asked what she believes is in store for the future of education in the Sister Islands, she commented: “I believe there is great potential, and it is a great future for education.”