For generations in St Vincent and the Grenadines, the Common Entrance Examination was the sole determinant of which primary school children would get a secondary education. In its hay day, only the successful candidates who passed the Common Entrance Examination (CEE) were chosen to attend a secondary school. As there were very few secondary schools, competition was stiff and many primary school children were left without a place in the secondary school system when the new school year began.
The top students in the CEE were automatically selected for the top schools on the island. The top school for boys was the St Vincent and the Grenadines Boys Grammar School. It’s female equivalent was the St Vincent and the Grenadines Girls High School. Both of these schools were—and still are—located in the capital city and adjacent to each other.
The CEE was therefore a life changing event for many children, especially for those who lived in the country side. Once they passed well and were selected for a “town school”, it was a whole new life about to begin. For example, in my own case, my first trip into town on my own was only as a result of passing the CEE well enough to be placed at a secondary school in the town.
I can still vividly recall upon leaving the school premises after school one day during the first week of classes, feeling horrified because I wasn’t seeing the landmarks I had memorized. Luckily, panic gave way to calm as something inside told me to just follow the other students for a while. It turned out the landmarks which I had mentally encoded were on another street farther away from the school.
Forgive my enthusiastic running ahead of myself there. Let me resume the reflection on the topic at hand. Age played a significant role in deciding who would write the Common Entrance Examination. Most of my classmates in Junior 5 (Common Entrance Class, as we called it back then) had two and even three chances to write this exam. Me? I had only one.
So I told myself that I was going to either Form 1 or Senior 1. It was some kind of 1 for me. Now Senior 1 was the next primary school class after Junior 5, occupied by those who either failed the Common Entrance Exam or who were ineligible to write the Common Entrance Exam in the first place.
Besides one’s age, academic ability played a huge role in determining who would end up in the “Common Entrance Class”. As I was usually placing first in my primary school class (and I still have a report from my Junior 4 class to prove it) I was automatically selected to go to the Junior 5A which was the group who would be prepared to write the exam.
And even in this large Common Entrance Class (there were over twenty of us), the teacher split the class into a smaller group 1 and a comparatively larger group 2. Group one was seen as the group with the higher likelihood of passing the CEE. Although students from both groups would eventually write the exam, only six of us in all passed: two boys and four girls.
My best friend and I were the two lucky boys that year. I can still remember that some days before the exam, he must have seen my worried looks, he said to me,”Ashford, don’t worry, If I pass you are going to pass, too.”
That really cheered me up because I knew he was just as bright as I was. (I was always fortunate in school to experience peer power rather than peer pressure).
In my time in primary school the Common Entrance Exam was sat on the first Friday in May. In my year the date was Friday May 1, 1987. As I lived in the rural Marriaqua valley and attended the Evesham Methodist School, I had to journey to the nearby village of Cane End to write the Common Entrance Exam.
And that was another life changer that the CEE facilitated. It was the first time in my life I would be sitting in a classroom with other students from other schools. You can imagine how utterly foreign I felt, never accustomed to being around strangers and suddenly having to write the most important exam of my life in a room with strange classmates and equally strange teachers and invigilators.
I wonder if that made some students over the years freeze with fear and failed the exam?
Anyway, I left home bright and early that morning and walked with my older brother through the London short cut over to Carriere, a neighbouring village, through another shortcut called “Bottom Road” and then on to Cane End.
As early as I was, some of my classmates were already there, and that helped a great deal in calming my fears. That day proved to be a very fun day where socializing was concerned. Not that I made any new friends, but that day I discovered those long hot dog sausages that tasted like heaven to me. I remember buying at least three different ones.
That made me fall in love with that school (it was the Marriaqua Secondary School, now called The St Joseph Convent Marriaqua). I told myself I did want to come to this school and eat hot dogs—if I passed the CEE.
My CEE number was 276. We had four exam papers that day. The first exam began at 9:00 AM and the final exam ended at 2:30 PM.
I think the exam papers were English, Maths, General Paper and Science.
One other thing I must mention about the actual exam day. I had developed the habit of bowing my head and praying before writing an exam (a practice I still follow today). At first, several of my foreign classmates joked and made fun of my silent prayer.
But after a moment I realized the room was very quiet. Thinking that maybe a teacher had entered the room, I opened my eyes, and found much to my surprise that many of the other children had their heads bowed in silent prayer as well.
For some reason that day, the girls from my primary school class ran on ahead of us when we were ready to go home. So I had only the company of my male classmates. It made me sad at first but then I forgot about it as we started to raid and pick mangoes like joke from the many mango trees that we met on our way home. We had taken a longer route home, going through Mesopotamia (also called Mespo), La Croix and then back to Evesham, passing our primary school on the way).
The 1987 Common Entrance Examination results were released on Friday June 19th. I know because up to this day I have a copy of the results which were printed in the sole local newspaper at the time.
I remember on that Friday morning while walking to school a female school mate of mine ran out of her home in a place we called “Tanchin” and said breathlessly to me: “Ashford, you pass! You pass Common Entrance!”
Well that took away all my nerves and fears. She also told me of two other persons from my school who had passed. I never found out how that girl knew I passed but I can only assume that there was an adult in her home who worked with the newspaper or with the ministry of education.
So by the time the teacher got to school with the results, I was no longer afraid about whether or not I had passed. However, that day proved the last day of my primary education because my mother decided it was not productive for me to go back to school after that.
But I can still see in my mind’s eye some of my classmates literally crying because they had failed the exam. I wept inside for them too, because to fail Common Entrance in those days was to fail at getting a secondary school education.
It has been many years since I wrote the Common Entrance Examination. Now this year, 2013, has been the last year the Common Entrance Examination was used. Since the year 2005 every primary school child who wrote the exam was being placed in a secondary school.
It made those of us who had to toil so strenuously feel a bit cheated; however, it is life and it seems many of the present day children do not appreciate this “free ride” to a secondary education. So many of them are unable to read well and still don’t care about how they perform, even though they know they come from poor families.
In our time, we tried hard to make something of ourselves in secondary school because it was clear to us that we had been given an opportunity which many others of our own age never got. But today’s crop of primary school leavers seems content with just cursing F-words, playing with their electronically expensive gadgets and trying to find somebody to have sex with. My, how times and values have changed!
Finally, in June this year, I was saddened when Iheard the obituary of the man who was my head teacher at the Evesham Methodist School. His name was Bernard Williams. I still have his signature on my report card I mentioned earlier.
Last year he actually visited the church I attend (he was a Gideon and had come to promote the distribution of Bibles), and we had a very memorable talk—going back down memory lane. One of the last things he taught us was a simple poem. He just came into the class, wrote it on the blackboard and then left as suddenly and as quietly as he had entered.
The poem read:
“There are four things that come not back—a sped arrow, a spoken word, a past life and a neglected opportunity—H.E. Longfellow”.
I have never forgotten that poem.
But when I heard his obituary I was also pleasantly surprised that it also said “…better known as ‘Master Willie’ ”.
That was his nickname that we were all terrified to call him. But somehow I believed he smiled from heaven because he realized he was more than that nickname.
Interestingly, one of my primary school classmates who now lives in New York, came across my blog a few days after his death. I told my lost-and-found primary school buddy about our head teacher’s death and we quietly reflected on those good old days.
Oh yes, from next year the Common Entrance Examination is to be replaced by an examination called Caribbean Primary Exit Assessment, the CPEA.