Occasion of this Speech: York Castle High School Past Student Association of New York
Mr Master of Ceremonies, Mr President and members of the Executive, honoured guests, distinguished members of the head-table, ladies and gentlemen, you have afforded my wife and myself a great privilege by allowing us to share this occasion with you. Accept our heartfelt thanks. Speaking personally I must immediately confess that I belong to the ranks of the underprivileged, by virtue of not having attended York Castle High School. You must forgive me for this flaw in my upbringing, since that I did the next best thing, I married a past student of your illustrious school. But my penitence for this lapse goes ever further. My three closest life-long friends – Karl James, Gerald Gallimore, and Rupert Gallimore – are all past students of York Castle and sons of St Ann. Notwithstanding these acts of repentance, you have bestowed on me a signal honour in inviting me to address on this notable occasion.
THE TWO LIVES OF YORK CASTLE
York Castle High School has many distinctions and distinctive attributes but the one that stands out for me is that it is the only Jamaican high school that has been resurrected. Born for the first time in 1878, the school died in 1899. The official cause of death was listed as the lack of financial resources of the Methodist Church at that time. But after 50 years the Methodists found the money and resurrected in school in the 1950s on a different site. You are the products of the resurrected York Castle, but I hope you will never neglect to remember the first York Castle.
In my research on the evolution of high schooling in Jamaica, the records revealed some fascinating facts about the first York Castle. It catered mainly to sons of small farmers and peasants, that is, children of the struggling but ambitious poor. As such its clientele were of a different social status than the clientele of Jamaica College and Munro. However, between 1881 when the Jamaica Scholarship was established and 1899 when the school was closed students of York Castle had won that scholarship more times than all the other high schools combined. Further at that time there was there was the McGilcrist Scholarship awarded to the student who had performed best in the entire Caribbean. York Castle students had won that scholarship on three occasions.
At that time as well, Cambridge ranked the performance of students on a worldwide basis. York Castle students have placed in the top five in the world in several subjects on numerous occasions. From the examination records between 1881 and 1899, there can be no question that York Castle was the best high school in Jamaica.
You may ask the question if it was such a good school why was it closed? Having done some research into this question, let me say that I do not accept the official explanation that a lack finances caused its closure. The lack of finances was the excuse given for the closure the cause laid elsewhere.
Ladies and Gentlemen time does not allow me the opportunity of a detailed exposition of all the factors involved in the closure of the first York Castle. Permit me, however, to say that the closure of the school can be numbered among the setbacks black people and poor people often face when they appear to be succeeding. Specifically it was part of the retrenchment visited upon institutions catering to black males in Jamaica at the turn of the century. Black men were rising above agricultural labour and artisan trades, and they had to be kept in their place. Many of the educational institutions offering them upward social mobility were closed round about that time.
But the establishment of the second York Castle testifies to the fact that while our and institutions people will suffer setbacks and reversals, they will rise again: that the force of our individual and institutional efforts to succeed cannot be stifled forever. That the indomitable spirit of our people and institutions can be contained and constrained, for a time, but it cannot be cancelled.
It is in this context that I wish us to understand our gathering this afternoon to celebrate York Castle in New York. For York Castle in its history and essence has deep symbolic meaning in the strivings and struggles of black people, of poor people and of rural people as they seek to rise about the socioeconomic stations accorded them by the accidents birth. York Castle represents success and setback, retrenchment and renewal and the irrepressible and indomitable spirit of our people.
THE MEANING OF SCHOOL TIES
York Castle in New York invites reflection on its meaning. Some would give the obvious answer. It is the gathering of past students of York Castle High School located in Brown’s Town, Jamaica who are now living in New York. This is but the New York branch of the York Castle Past Students Association. The Past Student Association is formed mainly to render assistance to the School as it continues to operate.
There can be no doubt that this straightforward interpretation of the meaning of York Castle in New York is true. But it is not the whole truth. It is but the surface of the truth, the outer wrapping concealing the deeper meaning and the more profound aspects of the truth.
York Castle in New York is not only about helping the school in Brown’s Town it has meaning of itself in New York. York Castle in New York is an identity. It helps to preserve the integrity of those who are identified with it from being lost in the bruising bustle of a great metropolis. York Castle in New York is also a bond, a source of solidarity connecting some Jamaicans in their new location.
A few years ago in speaking with the then Consul General, he made the remark that past student associations were a significant factor in the organization of the Jamaican community in New York and the United States. They were focal points of the Jamaican community. They were in his view an important means of maintaining contact with Jamaicans. As such the Consulate strived hard to maintain contact with the numerous associations that existed. He asked me if I could offer a sociological explanation of this phenomenon. I did not have an immediate answer but I have reflected on his question and put forward this explanation this afternoon.
Human society worldwide is undergoing fundamental transformations, which are not readily understood but have profound implications for all of us. The essence of this transformation is the shift of society from its traditional mooring in antiquity to new forms consistent with our contemporary situation. The dimensions of the shift can be exaggerated enumerated as follows:
- From social solidarity based on genealogy and kinship to solidarity based notions of citizenship, nationality, school, religion, region or class.
2. Form the kinship collective as the unit of social organization to the individual as the unit of social organization.
3. From rights in people to rights of individuals.
4. From government by right of descent to the government by consent through elections.
5. From the purpose of life being the advancement of the lineage to the purpose of life being individual advancement through material progress.
The implications of this shift are quite profound. On the one hand, we are witnessing the disintegration of blood bonds and kinship as the fundamental units and focal points in society. Increasingly we have seen in history the decline and demise of tribes, clans, lineages, extended families and more recently even the nuclear family. In modern times family ties have loosened considerable and in some cases, they have virtually disappeared. One’s true `brothers and sisters’ are more likely to arise from the ranks of friends than from family.
On the other hand, we are witnessing the rise of new bases of social solidarity in forms related to citizenship, nationality, religion, school, corporation or company, political party, and geographical region. These are the modern bases of community and solidarity.
The fact that groups based on these notions characterise the Jamaican and Caribbean community in New York and the United States testifies to the fact that we are modern people acting consistently with the contemporary context of our times. Caribbean peoples are among the most modern in the world. We are Indians without caste, Chinese without dynasties, Lebanese without militias, Africans without tribes and Europeans without class! We have lost the distinctive that identified and defined us in the Old World societies from which we originated. Loosened from shackles of these historic distinctive that have scared and segregated our ancestors within the Old World, we have been freed to discover the common humanity of mankind.
Yet the uniqueness of Caribbean peoples, our peculiar place in the history of civilization and our pioneering position in social transformations relative to the rest of the world, is a secret even to Caribbean peoples. Overpowered by a past which stressed the inferiority of our adaptations to life in the New World, misguided by the chauvinism of power and wealth in contemporary times, seduced by imported ideologies and insecure in their own identity, Caribbean peoples are still to discover that they are ahead of most of the world in terms of adaptations and adjustments to fundamental factors shaping the nature of society now and in the future.
It is in this context that we need to understand that the school is not only a means to material progress; it is material progress itself. The school is not only a means of bonding; it is a bond in itself. It is a lifelong bond that connects those who shared the same educational space at some particular time. But it is also an institutional bond that binds people on different ages and times who otherwise would most likely share no sense of community and relationship.
York Castle in New York in all likely probability represents an overlap of several modern bonds. Apart from the bond of school which is central, it overlaps with the bond of nationality, as Jamaicans, and most likely with the geographical region – St Ann and Trelawny. These are the likely identities and bonds shared by this group gathered here this evening and that we celebrate.
ESSENCE OF THE SCHOOL BOND
School ties have been interpreted to mean badges of prestige and patronage. That we went to a particular school confers a particular status. Depending on the pecking order of schools in any era past students wear this badge of prestige with varying amounts of pride. Another understanding of school tie is that of preferential treatment, patronage. The maxim here is that one should give one’s `schoolmates’ privileges and preferences.
Mr. Master of Ceremonies, ladies, and gentlemen I wish to submit that this is a misguided notion of what school bonds should be about. They should not form part of a secret society or patronage and corruption. On the contrary, school bonds should be a rallying point at which its members are inspired to uphold and practice the highest and noblest ideals of community. School bonds should be the means and support that enables its adherents to strive for the most virtuous expression of humanity and civilization. School bonds should be a continuing means through which that school contributes to the construction of a moral and righteous society.
NOTHING WITHOUT HARD LABOUR
The motto of York Castle High School is NOTHING WITHOUT HARD LABOUR. This seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom and values which seeks labour as punishment and hard work as silly. One of the myths of the modern world is that you can get something from nothing. The best things are those that come without toil and labour. However, the York Castle motto seems to suggest that we can accomplish nothing of real meaning and importance without hard work. Alternatively, it suggests that we are nothing without toil and labour.
This clash with current wisdom and values stems from the misguided notions of materialistic society concerning work and its meaning. Current wisdom is that work is something you do if you don’t have money. It is the means middle class and the poor use to make a living. In other words, it is the consequence of not being born wealthy. However, the York Castle motto is asserting that toil and hard labour is the principal means of self actualisation. Serious toil and hard labour give success meaning. They are the bases of satisfaction with accomplishments. They are the sources through which we value what we have and who we have become.
Distinguished past students of York Castle, and your guests, gathered here this evening in Manhattan it is my belief that in your celebration as the York Castle Past Student Association of New York you are giving thanks that your alma mater taught you the lesson of the importance of toil and labour. For it is that lesson that has allowed you to journey to this great metropolis of the United States and one of the great financial centres of the world from St Ann and Trelawny in little Jamaica and carve out for yourselves enviable reputations in the various fields in which you are engaged. It for this reason that you continue to support your alma mater so that succeeding generations of students of York Castle will continue to learn the same lesson that you learned so that they too can achieve meaningful and real success in life.
Some of the eternal truths are capture in single phrases and sentences. One of these truths is nothing without hard labour. The simple truth is that merit trumps money in giving meaning to what we achieve in life. God bless you all and God bless York Castle High School.