Barbados me come from…
Disclaimer: I was not granted any copyrights to display the video above.
The names in this true story have been changed to protect their identity.
Until the age of eleven, my name was Pamela Baptiste. My parents, aunt, uncle, siblings, cousins, teachers, and friends in the neighborhood called me variations of Pamela (Pam, Pam Pam, Pammie, or Pamla). I answered to all. One day, at St. Ambrose Primary School where students begun their formative education, I was called out of my name. St. Ambrose, as it was known by the locals, was one big room, but was divided into different classes (Infants A to B, and then classes 1 through 4). Each class was run by a different teacher. Infants A and Infants B were separated by the headmistress’s station. The headmistress, Mrs. Goodman sat on a raised dais like a King, or in this case a Queen. She was short and squat. Her voice could make you cry before the strap touched your skin. Her big sturdy wooden desk with a matching high back chair faced class four, where I sat. Class four was the last stage before you sat the eleven plus exam for entrance into high school. Mrs. Goodman was the warden for our school, while the teachers were the police officers. If you think the teachers were too strict, pray you never had to face Mrs. Goodman. Do not be fooled by her name.
As my peers and I prepared for the eleven plus examination, we sat with our backs straight awaiting Miss Smith’s instructions. Miss Smith was tall like a giraffe; and her slender frame, and skin tone lent to that effect as well. If a giraffe could speak, I imagined that it would sound just like her: high and nasal. Her protruding front teeth and thin wire glasses made her more of an intellectual giraffe. All the wooden windows were propped open with big sticks to let the stifling hot air circulate around the room. The children were restless as the leaves of the big golden apple tree in the school yard. The encroaching rays of the sun forced a wedge between Selena’s Pinky and Grace’s Pinky. They were inseparable. I could not figure out what they had in common besides their names and complexion. Both girls, although they had different mothers resembled each other. They had long straight black hair that stayed straight as limp snakes even when it got wet. Some kids believed that they were half sisters, but no one said it to their faces.
Miss Smith stared at the class with her usual stoic expression as she explained the rules: where to write your name, and the date on the examination sheet. She went on to say that if we failed the examination, we would have to remain at St. Ambrose forever! Students were punished for the slightest infractions, such as coming to school late, chewing gum, shouting, talking in class, not being well groomed, or wasting food. Bitsy waited for all those who broke any of these rules. She was thin and wiry, but her sting could leave welts on your tender skin for days. Once as Mrs. Goodman wielded Bitsy on one of my classmates, she snapped in two. Furious Mrs. Goodman threw her in the trash, and asked the child that she was whipping to get another thin limb from a tree in Mrs. Cullinan’s yard next door. Mrs. Cullinan hated children, and any time she caught one of us in her yard she reported us to Mrs. Goodman for a sound thrashing. She never had any children of her own. We heard that Mrs. Cullinan had a hysterectomy early in life, and this caused her disgust of children. Why she lived near a school, I’ll never know. The new limb was dubbed Bitsy II.
Miss Smith walked up and down the center of the aisle. Our class was formed into a big square with rectangular desks and long benches. At the top of the square was an opening for the blackboard and Miss Smith’s desk and chair. I could feel my back beginning to slump, my legs slowly parting from the strain of sitting for long hours on the uncomfortable bench. “Sit up straight! Do you want to go visit Bitsy II?” Jutting out my flat chest, I clasped my hands in my lap. A prayer passed my lips. “Please God; help me to pass the 11+!” As Miss Smith wrote on the blackboard, I cringed at the sound the chalk made. It was as if I could hear the key grinding in the lock. My throat began to clog, and I didn’t know if it was tears from the pain of what I endured or tears from future pain.
“Now don’t go and shame me when you take the test. Make sure you write your proper name on the exam sheet. No nicknames! You must write your first name and surname as it appears on your birth certificate.” I’m sitting there thinking that I’ve never seen that document before. What did it look like? Who in their right mind would use their nickname? Did she believe we were so dumb as to write our nicknames? I slowly wrote Pamela M. Baptiste in lovely script letters. This was going to be my best handwriting yet. (I once placed third in a handwriting contest. I’ve always been so proud of my penmanship.) Miss Smith walked around the room nodding her head at each child’s penmanship and name. As she approached me, she said, “That is not your name!” Surprised I look down at my page confused. Of course it was my name. Miss Smith continued on to the next person, and the next, and the next until she was satisfied with the results. Some students started to laugh, and others spoke loudly asking, “is she stupid?”
“What’s the matter with she?”
“Hahoy, she don’t know she name?”
“Be quiet,” the giraffe demanded!
She moved onto the location of the date on the examination sheet. She gave us an example on the board. “Write the date on the opposite side of your name on top of the page. Remember to spell out the date like this, 30 April 1977.” After writing the date on the board she made the same circuit as the last time. She walked up to the students, and looked at their papers. Nodding and smiling she approached me, and her smile fell flat. It was like a thunderstorm was about to erupt. She grabbed my paper from under my hands and tore it into little pieces. She pointed down at the mess she made and told me to discard the pieces into the receptacle. “That is not your name! Your name is Mary,” she thundered! I would not dignify that claim with a response. Of course I knew my name was Mary. That was what the “M.” stood for in my middle name.
I climbed over the bench and began to walk around to the front of the class. “Where do you think you’re going? I said pick them up,” she yelled! The veins in her neck stood out like fat worms or roots from a gnarled tamarind tree. I paused puzzled by her unreasonable demands. I was going to pick up the pieces of paper, but had decided on a circular route, instead of crawling under my desk. Undecided, I decided it was prudent to crawl under my desk. As my right leg gained purchase over the bench, I felt a punch that rattled every bone in my meager body. I pitched forward landing on top of Cheryl. The domino effect sent one girl into another until the last girl stopped herself from falling onto the floor.
“Look what you did,” yelled Miss Smith! Silence greeted her comment. The entire building was silent. No one laughed, no one giggled; everyone held their collected breath.
“Is there a problem, Miss Smith?” inquired Mrs. Goodman as she reached for Bitsy II.
I scrambled under the desk and picked up every scrap of paper in under five seconds! I was fuming mad at Miss Smith and Mrs. Goodman. Sagging a little Miss Smith replied, “Nothing I can’t handle.” She looked at me with so much hostility that I felt it like another physical blow. It was more hurtful than the punch she delivered from her closed fist. Carol raised her hand slowly so as not to startle Miss Smith. “What,” she responded testily!
“Her name is Pamela,” Carol stated softly. Her brows wrinkled in puzzlement.
“Her name is Mary Pamela Baptiste,” Miss Smith spoke through clenched teeth to Carol, while her gaze remained riveted on me. Saliva evaporated from my mouth. I tried to speak several times, but my voice cracked each time. Finally, I inhaled deeply and tried again.
“My name is Pamela,” I said with conviction!
“Your name is Mary Pamela!”
Mrs. Goodman lumbered off her throne. Bitsy II flickered restlessly at her side. Once, twice, thrice, she disturbed the air and sang a song that everyone was afraid to hear. Mrs. Goodman waved Bitsy II in front of my face. I swallowed nervously, but remained rooted to the floor facing off three opponents: Mrs. Goodman, Bitsy II, and Miss Smith. “Do you want me to call your father,” threatened Mrs. Goodman?
“Call him…” I replied in a whisper. My eyes were glued to the hypnotized movement of Bitsy II. The entire school was silent. Teachers in other classes stopped instructing their classes to openly witness my folly. Students were in awe of me. I heard a whisper to my left, “Say your name is Mary.” I ignored that whisper, and the others that chanted for me to say my name was Mary. Yes, my name is Mary, but that is not what I’m called. Mary was a Saint; I didn’t want to be a Saint. Mary was pure and without sin. Mary always had to be good; she could never be bad. Mary was meek and quiet. I wanted to be Pamela! That was who I am! I was the tomboy who climbed trees. Pamela was the girl who went to the beach without her mother’s permission every day after school. Pamela was outgoing and happy! Pamela loved to laugh and play tricks on people. Who was Mary? I was not Mary!
Mrs. Goodman smiled; it was the first and last time I ever saw that woman smile. “Your name is Mary Pamela Baptiste, but we will continue to call you Pamela.” Miss Smith screwed up her face like she smelt dirty bathwater. She could not oppose the warden. She wanted to; you could see it in her face. She twisted her mouth into a semblance of a smile, and gave a slight bow to Mrs. Goodman. The bell rang, and school was over. Heavy sighs reverberated throughout the school from students and teachers. Benches and chairs scraped against the wooden floor as students grabbed their books, papers and book bags; talking excitedly now that the crisis was over. As I skirted around Mrs. Goodman and Miss Smtih, rage still gripped me, and before I could check myself, my right foot connected with Miss Smith’s toes! “God damn it, Pamela,” she cried on an inhaled breath. Her palm flew out towards my face, and I don’t know if I was expecting it or not, but I ducked at the last minute, and her hand connected with Mrs. Goodman’s shoulder. Mrs. Goodman rocked back on her heels in surprise and turned an angry glare upon Miss Smith. I quickly left the building through the front door. My friend Harriet had picked up my book bag. I never looked back.
In June, 1977, I passed the 11+ examination and went onto High School. I never darkened that door ever again. Two years after I graduated from high school, I saw Miss Smith, as I was rushing to work. She called out to me three times, “Pamela! Pam! Pamela!” I pretended not to hear.