“Tremble, shake, shake. I wonder what that new teacher is like? Nothing to worry about he’s a harmless old English sheepdog……. From that first day we have been perfect friends and together we do lots of things like going on hikes, and camping and we climbed the Pitons together and the school has benefited from him.” Paul Sandford, aged 10.
Days after sailing penniless into St.Lucia in December 1975 Chris, the skipper of the ‘Sexy Sue’ charter boat, came aboard the Jyland Schooner. He told me about a teaching vacancy at Tapion, a small private school, where his wife was the headmistress. Unsurprisingly, her name was Sue. They had sailed to the island from the U.K. and, like a lot of trans Atlantic adventurers, decided they preferred living on solid ground and so settled in paradise. Sue gave me the job and a room at the school and I was soon hooked up with some fascinating ex-pats, also living the tropical island dream. During my time at Tapion I was fortunate to go sailing and even flying with some of them, exploring many of the other pristine Caribbean islands.
Through Tapion school I was able to get an official work permit which enabled me to visit my family in England and return without any immigration hassles. I fully committed to living abroad by shipping over my most valued possessions – a homemade stereo system, I’d constructed myself, and my vast collection of vinyl L.P.’s gathered during my years as a rock-n-roll child of the ’60’s. St. Lucia was the start of a brand new lifestyle for me.
I really loved working at Tapion with Sue. She was a subtle renegade, keeping peace with the conservative parents while liberalising the standard private school regime and curriculum. With about 80 kids aged 3-11, and an eclectic group of teachers, the school was really fun and I flourished. I had a really good class of kids with lots of freedom to teach in my own progressive style. They taught me a lot too, and widened my reggae music tastes.
Sue let me teach classes on the beach, under a mango tree and even supported me starting a scout troupe and taking the boys on camping trips between the wild Piton mountains. I later led groups of students and parents on trips to the top of both these majestic peaks which was something few non-natives on the island had ever experienced at that time.
Early in 1976, in the bathroom of Tapion School, Sue produced her first batik print, quickly mastered the art and received many accolades. Realising she preferred artwork to teaching she resigned as headteacher and encouraged me to apply to fill her place. In her eagerness to recruit me she failed to mention the hassles of dealing with some of the more traditionalist parents that sent their precious kids to our little private school. Sue moved to St.Kitts and birthed her Caribelle Batik business. Forty-one years later, now with over 40 staff the business is an icon of the Caribbean. Sue got remarried, returned to the U.K. and had two kids and I hope that she retained some shares in that flourishing batik business.
Under my naive leadership, as an enthusiastic but inexperienced school principal, everything continued pretty much as before. Well, maybe it was bit more progressive and, I was definitely more outspoken about the education philosophy being followed. I had specialised in alternative education practises at teacher training college and received two distinctions. Consequently, my English class included activities like building a huge recycled trash sculpture and writing poetry, while each daily school assembly included original skits and plays written and presented by the students. We spent time on industrial and coastal explorations as well as the more traditional outdoor physical fun activities.
Our staff were united in stimulating the children’s minds to think critically and to give expression through poetry and creative writing. My students and I produced a series of newspapers called the ‘SOUND OF TAPION,’ as well as the one edition of the ‘VIBRATIONS’ magazine, and the kids proudly distributed them to their, sometimes puzzled, parents.
After 43 years I still think fondly of my first teaching experience in the tropics and hope that I left a good impression with my whole class and inspired them to learn and grow. I kept in touch with some of the staff but lost contact with all my students until recently. In 2019 I was fortunate to meet Charles Pinnock who now runs Island Aero, a successful airplane maintenance business, in St. Lucia. This year, on the Isle of Wight, I met up with Paul Sandford, one of my students who remembers Tapion days affectionately. After painful years in an English boarding school and an army career as Captain of a tank regiment in the first Gulf war he is happily married and heads up all kinds of righteous service projects.
Paul connected me with three other ex-students whose parents played significant roles in my departure from Tapion School. I was originally hired by a board of directors who supported my more progressive education style but a clique of parents wanted a far more traditional approach. They believed kids should have more homework and were rather confused when they got woken up early each morning by children excited and happy to go to school. Rumours were created, and shared at coffee mornings, and bored parents launched a campaign to eject the easygoing, hippie headmaster. They recruited an alternative board of directors and in the weeks preceding our Annual General Meeting there was more backroom lobbying than occurs during a typical U.S. Presidential election.
The night of the meeting feelings grew hot and contentious as the votes were counted and tensions rose. A proxy from a parent with three kids at the school – representing three votes – became the deciding factor. The intention of Mr Hackshaw was clear to everyone with his note stating “my votes go with Graham Ellis” but the leader of the dissenting parents invoked Roberts Rules of Order insisting this wording was not adequate for a legal proxy vote because it didn’t name specific board members and was therefore invalid. The end result was 49-51 in favour of the traditionalists and it brought my resignation. There was no way I could work for a board that was overtly hostile to my educational beliefs. Had those proxy votes been counted my life would have taken a completely different path.
I was really sad to leave the kids and I loved living at Tapion School but I guess I should be thankful to Roberts Rules of Order for moving me on to all the future renegade escapades I’ve since experienced and the many amazing people I’ve met along my circuitous journey.
POST SCRIPT: In 2016, in Waimea Hawaii, Dena and I went out to dinner with two new friends she had met. They were from the U.K. but had lived abroad for many years since Robert was a hotel manager. In the mid 1990’s he described how he worked in St. Lucia and surprise, surprise, his children went to Tapion School! We became good friends, have since enjoyed sharing stories from the island as well as many bike rides and hikes. Our connection continues, he moved back to England around the same time as me, became the General Manager of the famous Dorchester Hotel, bought a house in nearby Lewes and has a mum in care just like me. The tentacles of Tapion stretch far and wide.
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