In the Days When Teachers Were Royalty, There Came a Man…
By Staff Writer
Fifty, maybe even forty years ago, throughout Dominica, few professionals were treated with as much respect and awe as the local school teachers. Whether they were mere pupil teachers (i.e., the first stage of "teacher hood") or headmasters or headmistresses, teachers were revered by society at large. Friendship with a teacher was a good thing, something to be cherished and nursed into a lifelong almost familial relationship.
Among the teachers, headmasters and headmistresses had a special aura. They were typically "strangers," coming to their new school assignments from a different village or town on the island. They arrived at their new – albeit temporary – hometowns either on horseback, riding bicycles, transported by boat, or, on rare occasions, driving a "big old beat-up car." Once they arrived in their new locales, these school administrators set themselves to the tasks at hand: getting to know their neighbors and the local town or village officials; supervising the teachers who taught at the school; taking over teaching responsibilities for the Common Entrance and School Leaving classes; getting to know the students at the school; and enforcing discipline. They also served as scriveners for people executing their wills; advisors to the magistrates who adjudicated cases at the juvenile courts; lectors, cantors and even preachers at local churches; supervisors of local and general elections; and advisors to almost anyone who wanted advice – from the local nurse or police officer, to the village drunk.
For all their efforts, these school administrators received little monetary compensation. Still, they did not complain – neither did they have the need to. The villagers and townspeople took care of their senior teachers. Whenever a farmer butchered a cow, a goat or a sheep, he sent a select piece of meat to the school administrator; when the fishermen came from their fishing trips and got ready to sell the fish they had caught, they would, before blowing their conch shells and selling anything, put a pound or two of fish aside for "Teacher." In mango season, the headmaster or headmistress received the best mangoes; on Sunday mornings, they received the best available watercress and lettuce from various farmers; and at Christmas time, they received the best Christmas cakes, all iced in intricate designs. Yes, in those days, teachers were royalty; and in those days there came into the ranks of Dominican teachers a man named Leo Bernard James.
Mr. James was born to George and Felicia James of Layou, Dominica, on Tuesday, May 1, 1928. The happy parents named their first son Leo Bernard James – "Leo" after his uncle, Leo Riviere, of Marigot. Raised in a strong Roman Catholic home, young Leo had dreams of someday becoming a Roman Catholic priest. But man proposes, God disposes: instead, Mr. James became a school teacher and school administrator, eventually retiring after 42 years as an educator. At the time of his retirement, he was serving as principal of the Isaiah Thomas Junior Secondary School in St. Joseph, Dominica. Along the way, he had furthered his education by pursuing studies at the West Indies Teachers' College in Antigua, West Indies, and the University of Western Ontario, in London, Ontario, Canada. During his 42 years as an educator, he taught and served at public schools in St. Joseph, Colihaut, Dublanc, Calibishie, Morne Jaune and Warner.
Mr. James' former students remember him as a lover of poetry, penmanship, dictation, science and diction. With great drama and flair, he taught his students to recite from memory the verses of Dawn is a Fisherman, Lochinvar, The Inchcape Rock, The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, The Song of the Banana Man, and many other great poems. With great excitement, he taught them about advances in science and technology, and prepared them for the world in which we live today. With mush gusto, he told stories and wove tales that were so tall, his students and children took in every word – hook, line and sinker. He taught his students so well that two weeks after his passing, one of his former students called this writer and gleefully recited from memory several stanzas of some of the poems he had taught her.
A committed educator and avid supporter of public education, Mr. James encouraged his children to obtain the highest level of education available to them, and to themselves follow him in the field of education. They have taken his advice to heart. Thus far, four have entered the field of education: two hold doctoral degrees in education, two have served as school principals, and two are professors at universities in the United States. The other children have excelled in fields beyond education including accounting, banking, social welfare and medical technology. The children will all attest that their father was one of the significant driving forces behind their achievements.
Mr. James was also a man of great faith. Although his early dream of becoming a Roman Catholic priest did not come to fruition, his faith in God and love for the Roman Catholic Church and its teachings remained strong throughout his life. For many years he was an active member of the Co-fraternity of the Most Holy Name of God and Jesus (better known as the Holy Name Society) and also served as a lector at the St. Joseph Parish in Dominica. In his later years, as his health declined, Mr. James spent much time at home reciting the Holy Rosary and watching religious programing on EWTN television. In fact, when he was taken ill in March 2020 and spent 11 days at University Medical Center in Lubbock, Texas, his greatest disappointment was that he was not able to access EWTN from his hospital bed.
Leo Bernard James was better known as "Teacher Leo" or "Sir." He died in Lubbock, Texas, on June 18, 2020. He is survived by his wife of 64 years, Alix (née Alexander), his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, brother, sister, relatives by marriage, numerous nieces and nephews, cousins, friends, former colleagues and former students. A memorial service for Mr. James was held at the Resthaven Abbey in Lubbock, Texas, on Tuesday, June 30, with Rev. Fr. Emiliano Zapata of the St. Elizabeth University Church officiating. Fr. Zapata was ably assisted – through the use of modern technology – by Mr. James' first cousin, Monsignor Eustace Thomas of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Roseau, Dominica. Information regarding Mr. James' burial service will be forthcoming.