Last night, Respice Finem, an amazing documentary directed by Bermudians Lucinda Spurling, Karli Powell and Kara Smith was shown as part of the Bermuda International Film Festival. The film chronicled the struggle to open The Berkeley Institute, and the subsequent centre for black excellence that it became, producing most of the Bermuda’s black leaders and professionals.
I remember when it came time to choose my high school, and I was torn between Warwick Academy or The Berkeley Institute. My grades were high enough for either. (My 8/9 stanine score an actual disappointment as I just KNEW I was getting a perfect 9/9. #robbed)
Of my three older sisters, two had gone to Warwick Academy, as had my mama. My mama was in fact one of the three black students that first integrated Warwick Academy. My grandmother and sister Roslyn had attended The Berkeley. In the end, I placed this school as my first choice, and was excited to be part of the rich legacy, although never fully appreciating it. Never. I would utter the school motto “Respice Finem – Keep the End in View” several times a day by rote like every single other student alongside and before me, but *shrugs* did it really mean anything to me?
As my son was finishing up primary school, I transferred him to Warwick Academy, paying almost $100,000 over the seven years he was there.
Last night, I cried throughout the film, from the opening credits, to the tenacity of the founders, the anecdotes about principals, (Ms. Gabisi, now Simmons was mine), Green House vs that OTHER house, visits by Langston Hughes and Stevie Wonder (what??!!) and the stories of the students who did such incredible things. I have known Michelle Khaldun and Arlene Brock for many, many years, and did not know about the sit-in and protest they spearheaded to demand a black studies class at the school, causing sports day to be cancelled for the only time in Berkeley’s history.
I was reminded of amazing stories I knew, and irritated because of the many I didn’t. Why didn’t I? Why don’t we?
Overwhelmingly, there was a sense of pride in the theatre as we joined in to sing the school song, shouted about our houses, and laughed at the old stories and styles. There was also, for me, a new understanding about what Berkeley was – a school that black children attended (and yes had remarkable success). And what it wasn’t – a school created for black children.
And, thus there was a feeling of ‘what could have been?’
When it was decided in the 90’s by the Minister of Education (who was in the class of '63, incredibly the very class that produced this documentary) that the school system would be restructured, and Berkeley would cease to exist as a senior school, decisions had to be made.
Should the school become private, returning to its original fee-paying structure?
Instead, students and alumni marched and petitioned for Berkeley to become the second high school, alongside the new Cedarbridge Academy. Warwick Academy chose to return to operate as a private school.
And so, the Berkeley of yesteryear no longer exists. All public school students attend middle school, and all students are funneled to one of the two schools, regardless of their academic performance. The strong century-long practice of selecting only the best students, demanding excellence, reminding them of their role in the country as black students, and training them rigorously for the future is all but gone.
I was on the tail end of it, experiencing it only in small doses, as the school transitioned to this new system. And although I did still feel something, some connection to the rich history, I did not have the same level of pride and honour of those who attended decades before me.
My graduating year 1997 was the 100th year of the Berkeley, which opened in 1897. It was the last year that Berkeley accepted students under the old system.
The film had me feeling… torn.
So many Berkeleyites, including me and many featured in the film, sent their own children to private schools. Should Berkeley have gone private, raising funds through alumni and the community to subsidise any student that qualified to attend and was unable to afford it?
Should they not have just accepted their role, fully, as a school for black students, versus working to be ‘for all’ – even hiring white teachers in an attempt to attract white students? Why are we ALWAYS fighting to be part of their world? And is the diversity of the student population now such a major benefit that it outweighs the reality of what we were, and potential of what we could have been?
Would it still be considered ‘elitist’ or ‘divisive’ to select the best black students and work with them to be incredible?
I am not at Berkeley regularly, maybe two or three times a year to give speeches, not as often as when I was more involved with college and career counseling. But last week, I arranged a history lecture by a visiting American professor by reaching out to a fellow class of ‘97 alum, now a history teacher there.
In this class, during this 90 minute lecture, the vast majority of the students sat tall, engaged, asked questions, and eloquently shared their experiences, ‘It was immersive, to say the least’, said one yellow-shirted young black man, his sweater adorned with high honours and prefect pins.
I’m still unsure how I feel about it all. Last night was incredible. And sad. Inspiring. And frustrating. My Berkeleyite sister and I sat for hours after talking about it.
How we, growing up very poor, decided to pay oodles of money to educate our own children, now having no money nor assets of our own, although we have worked hard our whole lives.
How our children do not seem to appreciate it and are not stepping fully into their roles.
How we don’t know why the alumni association of Berkeley isn’t stronger. Where is it?
How we maybe let down our school.
Bravo to the directors and producers of this film. To elicit such strong emotion is likely the goal of every filmmaker. I look forward to seeing it again and again.
and of course