Article by: Dr. Roli Degazon-Johnson
“The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men………”
As the date of March 29th, 2020 drew near, preparation was in high gear, the venue selected, the press and media alerted, invitations dispatched within and beyond the island of Jamaica. The “Old Boys” of Kingston College – as past students are fondly called – had booked airline tickets to fly in for the book launch from the United States, Canada and the Caribbean region. Author Frances Marie Coke, despite appearing outwardly calm, was struggling to keep the butterflies in her stomach at bay despite her extensive experience in public speaking. For on this day, “The Spirit of Clovelly Park”, a six year-long writing odyssey would be launched at the very school of its genesis, Kingston College, Jamaica.
Then just when the excitement was starting to build, the Corona Virus pandemic caught hold of our globe and threw it off its axis. Travel plans were cancelled or put on hold, publicity and media plans stopped, commitments, invitations, venue and the like, de-obligated and the butterflies, sadly calmed. Frances Coke, ever self-contained and stoic despite this major upset, as great for others as for herself, accepted the new reality. Swallowing her disappointment, she penned lines of poetic gratitude to one of her many readers who had expressed love for her new book:
“I basked in the dreams hauled by your words……I let my tears wash them clean…..I polished and shined them and turned them to hope. Thank you.”1
Throughout her life Coke has faced deep disappointment and coped with disaster on more than one occasion. She has experienced the destruction caused by three major fires and been forced to address the consequences and impact on herself and others, head-on. Yet from each disaster she has emerged refined like platinum, with a spiritual density, purity and strength that resonates through her poetry and prose.
“Fire Burns Wood but Tempers Steel”2
The first fire in Frances Coke’s life took place at Kingston College, the very school on which the book, “The Spirit of Clovelly Park” is based. This fire destroyed the main buildings of the school. She describes how on that night, students and supporters of the school flocked to watch the wooden structure as it went up in flames. After the fire, there was a surge of efforts and support from a variety of sources to restore normality and ensure that the students could continue with their studies.
In Coke’s interview with Kreol magazine held in late March 2020, she speaks of the devastating physical and psychological impact that the fire had on so many. Yet she adds that the fire itself led to her decision to study for a postgraduate diploma in Guidance Counselling in the United Kingdom. These studies equipped Coke to return and launch a major initiative in the school to address the psycho-social and career guidance needs of the students.
Years later in 1993 Coke, now Executive Director of the Institute of Management and Production, Jamaica, was in the midst of making a conference presentation in the British Virgin Islands. She received a phone call saying that her home in Kingston, Jamaica had been totally gutted by fire and everything was lost:
“That was devastation at a different level because this was loss of everything that I had. I lost every word I had ever, ever written in that fire. I had a collection of poems written in the blue room in Reading, United Kingdom, and I have no recollection of those poems because they were just burned out of my soul.”
Earlier in 1993, the country home of Coke’s 90-year old grandmother with whom she had spent her early childhood, went up in flames at Galina, St. Mary, a parish in Jamaica. Her grandmother’s life was saved by a passer-by who saw the flames and rushed into the house lifting her outside to safety. The family moved her to Kingston where she passed away a few years later, never again her true self:
“She was a shadow of her old self. So that third fire took my grandmother from me and left me without a part of my soul. Fires are very important symbols in my life.”
The Genesis of her Craft
Frances Coke’s love of stories which would ultimately lead to her own writing, was fostered by her grandmother whom she admits was a great story-teller and “planted the seed”, she recounts:
“I spent my early years in St Mary with my grandmother who was a storyteller and told us stories constantly. I think that may have planted the seed as I spent hours reading old books. It was a really good way to just get away from it all and be in a different world. I wasn’t conscious of being uncomfortable or wanting to escape reality, however. I just loved to get in between the covers of a book.”
In her fourth year of high school at the Alpha Academy in Kingston, Coke had the first indication that she may have had an exceptional gift. Her English teacher organized a short-story competition to motivate students to vie for a prize with the best story they could write. At 14 years of age, Coke emerged the winner.
On Becoming A Teacher
Frances Coke never planned to make teaching her career. She graduated from high school without any idea of what she wanted to do and worked in a bank for a few years before realizing that she was hating every minute of it. It did pay her bills, however. Deciding that her dream job was in broadcasting, public relations and advertising she pursued an English Honours degree at the University of the West Indies, Mona campus in Kingston.
The early chapters of Clovelly Park reveal the challenges and adjustments of the fledgling teacher who planned to stay no longer than one year. Having landed the job of her dreams in a marketing and public relations firm she left her job as English Literature teacher at the school . Despite the fancy office and very good salary, she quit that job after 9 months. Quite simply, she had been bitten by the love-bug of teaching young people:
“There was something about teaching the young boys of Kingston College, interacting with them, learning about their lives and their own challenges, that was unique. They were so mischievous, but at the same time they were challenging and interesting. I felt that something important was happening to me. It turned out to be a special moment that lasted for 10 years!”
Kingston College had a reputation for outstanding performance in its sports programmes alone. In “The Spirit of Clovelly Park”, Coke reveals that this was a misperception of the reality. The school’s students performed creditably in a number of academic spheres, but the general public had stereotyped the students as sportsmen, nothing more, and they were indeed high-performing and enthusiastic about athletics and cricket in particular.
In her book, Coke charts the search and struggle in her early years as a teacher to find ways of motivating the young men to display as much passion for their academic pursuits as they did about sports. Attending for the first time, the Secondary School Boys Championships and seeing the zeal and spirit which went into winning at this event, she began to probe the issues of how being a star athlete could influence a student’s behaviour. In her quest for an answer, she discovered two resources: one was the Jamaica Secondary Schools Challenge Quiz (SCQ) , an annual competition run by the island’s only television station at the time and the other, the “Fortis” spirit.
In 1969 the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation launched the SCQ on its television station as a way of highlighting the academic achievements of students in the island’s high schools. Similar in ways to the University Challenge programme of the British Broadcasting Service (BBC), students between the ages of 16 to 18 years from all the island’s schools were given the opportunity to showcase their academic skills by competing with students from other secondary schools across the island.
“The Brave May Fall But Never Yield”
The Kingston College school motto – “Fortis Cadere Cedere Non Potest” – captures the spirit of ambitious and achievement-oriented young men who whilst never claiming to be born with “silver spoons in their mouths”, demonstrate a drive to succeed, to overcome adversity and to attain great heights, against all odds. The “Fortis” spirit, Coke discovered, fostered among the boys by the school’s leadership and past students, proved an elixir which once tasted was ingrained indelibly in each student’s psyche. It built character, developed focus and released an unbridled energy and drive for achievement in each student.
It was this spirit of inviting competition, embracing challenge, seeking success and lauding achievement with which Frances Coke sought to engage so as to mobilise students to achieve and excel across a range of school subjects such as history and geography as well as current events and world affairs in the SCQ.
Still relatively new to the staff of Kingston College, but steadily developing into a committed teacher, Frances Coke was to use the SCQ to engage her students in pursuing excellence in academic prowess that would equal, if not surpass, their sporting achievements. She adopted the skills of a coach, exploring and finding strategies which would make her team of schoolboys the winning team.
Under Coke’s guidance, Kingston College first won the Challenge in 1974, repeating that honour in 1975, the first school to win two years in succession. Kingston College would then go on to win the championships no less than 11 times over the next 50 years. Today, it is the Jamaican secondary school hailed for winning the SCQ more often than any other secondary school in the 51 years of its existence.
The Birth of the Book
In 2014 when the Schools Challenge Quiz was in its 45th year, Kingston College walked away with the trophy once again. Coke, now retired, was inundated with emails from her former students and the “Quiz Men” as they were now called , were overflowing with excitement and pleasure at the achievement of their alma mater:
“I read their comments and their memories. It sparked for me all the memories that I had put to the back of my mind and heart”.
Having been involved with the SCQ for so many years, recognizing how much the programme had done for her students and for herself, she decided to document the experience for her former students. In so doing she could speak to how and why she developed the passion for teaching and also recount what enabled her to achieve such formidable success with the students of Kingston College and attain the heights of excellence in her profession as an educator and human resource practitioner.
At that moment the idea was born. Frances Coke realized that her own quest could inform and inspire not only students but parents and teachers – both the qualified and those in training – who face even greater challenges in the classroom today than she did in the 1970s:
“So I started to write the story . It wasn’t easy. Sometimes I put it away for long periods of time and wrote other things, but I always kept coming back to it. About two years ago I said, okay, I’m going to finish this and I just sat and wrote and wrote and wrote and it all came tumbling out.”
Without a doubt when the Coronoavirus pandemic has been quelled, “The Spirit of Clovelly Park” will have its launch in Kingston at the place of its birth. Once the airlines resume their flights and the airports re-open, the invitations are issued, the media reminded and even the author’s butterflies re-activated, all will be back on track and go according to plan.
Notwithstanding, no student, present or past, teacher or teacher- trainee, parent or policy maker need wait for that launch, which will be a mere formality. Instead, they have only to open the covers of “The Spirit of Clovelly Park” to understand and appreciate, to empathise and enjoy the quest of one teacher, her school, her students and her journey.
“The Brave May Fall But Never Yield”
Kingston College is an all-male secondary institution established in 1925 by the Anglican Diocese, Jamaica. Located in Clovelly Park, Kingston, the school has earned a reputation over its nearly 100 years of existence for transforming less privileged students into outstanding professionals, many of whom have moved to positions of leadership in business, politics and academia, locally and abroad. Acclaimed for winning the Island’s Annual Boys Championships on more than 30 occasions, the school balances its sports and academic programmes effectively, coming first in the National School’s Challenge Quiz on 11 occasions.
- Poem by Frances Marie Coke (2020)
- Page 258 – Title of chapter in “The Spirit of Clovelly Park” publ. I Universe (2020)