The funny thing is that had I gotten a better A Level grade for History than I did for English I would probably not be a poet. Everyone, including me, was sure that I would do better in History than English. I liked History, the journey into the past, the dates, the analytical. I got it. My History teacher was sure I would have a distinction and that was the expectation right until the afternoon I walked through the bougainvillea festooned garden path that led to the principal’s office of my high school. The secretary gave me the slip of paper with my grades, smiling. She knew I had done quite well—gotten all my subjects with good grades. But the English grade was the distinction. The History was a solid grade, but it was lower. Now, I regard this as something of a flaw in my character, one that I have come to accept and sometimes to turn into a strength: Things can change my mind. Until I saw the grades I was going to university to study History, and after a year I would transfer into the Law program and work my way towards my dream of great wealth, fame and power as a big time lawyer. My fall back plan was more History. I could teach History in high school or even at university. I had never had a History teacher that I did not like. Mr. Mills was a cool campaigner who opened up history to eleven and twelve year olds in remarkable ways. He spoke as if he had a mouthful of cotton, but he spoke with an easy facility with the material and he would even get passionate as he told stories. He had an afro, he was cool, and he taught history. Mrs. Sobers also taught history. You could sense beneath her petite, smiling veneer, a ramrod of rebellion, resistance and political consciousness. She taught us slavery and took us there. Once, our anger about the slavery system almost stirred a race war in class. This is an exaggeration, but in my imagination, something had shifted in me—people had histories, we came from somewhere and the world that stretched in the past was fascinating and limitless.
English was different. I read books. No one had to push me there. I did the assignments. It came easily to me. English in school was not about discovering something I had not known all along about books and how they could transport. My teachers were good, very good: Mrs. Holmes, a grammarian British woman—short, soft-spoken and one of that generation of English folks who came to the “islands” to find work and usually did in the best high schools. This generation was passing and I was being taught by the last of the lot. My generation would probably be responsible for reminding them of the colonial nature of this arrangement. My generation was breast fed on reggae and rebellion so it was always clear to us that something historical was being enacted in a classroom of black boys led by a white teacher. But she was good. And so as Mrs. Mayne who was tougher and more clearly grounded in Jamaica, having married in Jamaica and made a life here. She taught us Roger Mais’ Brotherman and seemed appropriately unimpressed by our gleeful relishing of the rude passages in the book. In class after class, through the five first years of high school (we start at age eleven in Jamaica), I liked English, did it well, but remained clear that this was not going to be my path.
In sixth form, however, things changed a bit. The A-level English teacher was a very laid back and witty Guyanese transplant, Mr. Bobb-Semple, who saw the whole process of taking lessons for an exam set and marked outside of the island as somewhat amusing and a bit of an adventure. Mostly he convinced us that we had to pass the exams ourselves. He encouraged questions and sought to answer our questions, but when he couldn’t he would bring tools to help us get there. Ours was a small class of about eight students, and he found our efforts at wit--caustic insulting wit that was really about showing off what we could use of literary quotes to insult each other—amusing. I remember mostly his laughter, his look of puzzled disbelief at some of the silliness we did, and beyond that, his careful and generous comments on my papers. He seemed to think I would do well in English. Perhaps he was the only one who knew that I would do as well as I did. He was pleased when I gave him the news, and yet he seems unsurprised by it all. Most of all, he made studying English literature manly and he did so by being casual about it, and by allowing us to control the pace of our studies. I am not even sure he saw himself as a good teacher—his self-deprecating wit would not allow for that kind of pride—but he was a good teacher for that level of study. At that level, the crucial thing was independent thought, self-motivated study, and he managed to get us there.
By the time I arrived at university months after the results, other things made it clear to me that I was going to do English. I picked up a scholarship I did not expect to get and I was now convinced (fickle me) that English was something I was far more interested in. This was a bit of a fiction, but one that became completely true later on. Once I was enrolled as an English major there would be no turning back. The Law thing had always been a face saving ruse and set under the harsh light of my then intensely defining faith, the mammon-centered hubris of the ambition to be a lawyer whittled to dust. I was going to be a servant. I was going to teach English to high school kids. In my first year of university, I was already teaching part time at my alma mater and at another high school. I was teaching English. It was my mission, and that is what I wanted to do.
The unstated sub-story, here, of course, is that one could read my initial embrace of a path towards historical writing and historical study as an act of mild (but significant) rebellion against the prospect of taking the path that my father took in his youth. He studied English. I saw no reason to do the same given my own desire to be myself. So I may have embraced History for that reason. But I also may have been drawn to History because my eldest sister, Gwyneth, the daughter from my father’s first marriage who I met while I was in the last few years of high school, was a History teacher and a history scholar. We had become fast friends and I enjoyed talking history with her. There was something appealing about that world of study especially because of how much it opened up the world of the West Indies, of the Caribbean, of Jamaica. I wanted to study all of that, to look at original documents, to examine the rhetorical devices that led us from experience to historical narratives. All fascinating stuff. But clearly, most of that left when I “realized” I was better at English than at History. This is an absurd conclusion for me to have arrived at. It may well be that I made a small blunder on the history exam. It could have been anything, but in my head I was the English man, now, it had been decided.
Chances are that I would never had turned to poetry were I so focused on History. There was one important role model that would have led me away from that myopic path, Kamau Brathwaite—a History professor who was publishing poetry at an alarming pace. But he did his undergraduate in the UK and exile can make you nostalgic to write. It is silly to propose how things might have been, but I do know that poetry came to me because I was studying poetry and because I was challenged by what the poets I was reading for school were doing. I became a playwright because I was studying plays and I wanted to understand better how these plays would look on stage.
Recently, at the Calabash International Literary Festival in Jamaica for which I am the Programming Director and one of the founders, I saw Mr. Bobb-Semple moving through the crowd. He looked no different, still young, still laid back and still smiling. It occurred to me then, and has come back to me now, that he can safely accept some responsibility for that festival and for what I have become as a writer, for what I have become as a poet. I have written in past blogs about the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and his influence on my work. It is true. Mr. Bobb-Semple taught me Hopkins. Hopkins was the toughest author we studied, and he worked hard at helping us to get it, to be compelled by the work and to write about it. Some shifted in me with Hopkins. It may have been the book of pictures and commentary about Hopkins’ poetry that Mr. Bobb-Semple brought to class, it may have been the illumination of him clarifying “The Windhover” for me, but something did shift in my confidence and it is that shift that made me start writing imitation Hopkins poems, and I can easily trace my path to poetry back to that period.
Hail to good teachers. More power to you, Mr. Bobb-Semple.
Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of the country, citing in a recent interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2007)...