March 2013 Volume 10

Tribute to a mentor: Peter Maxwell

Dr. Patrick Dallas
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The last time I sat with Peter Lionel Cuthbert Maxwell was on the 10th of January.  I had dropped in to check on him and to talk him into considering undertaking the review of a CXC textbook for English.  After chatting about the state of the world for around twenty minutes, my Blackberry phone alarm went off, reminding me that I had an appointment scheduled at the dentist’s in half an hour. I told Peter that I would have to leave soon as I had this dental appointment.  With a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, he responded, “And, Maas Patrick, that’s the tooth, and nothing but the tooth, right?”
I fired back: “Getting to the root, you know I canal tell you a lie!”
“Yes,” he continued, “the tooth is that those root canals can be really be a pain in the truth!”

I started with that anecdote because I think it so characterizes my interactions with Peter Maxwell.  He was always so engaging, with his sharp wit always able to deliver the bon mot, and keep me on my toes to avoid slipping on the icy surface of one of his double entendres.

Now let me go back to the real start.  I first met Peter in 1972 when I was a Third Former at Kingston College.  An older cousin of mine had signed me up to sit several subjects in the Jamaica School Certificate (JSC) Examination.  One of those subjects was Civics, and I learnt that there was a teacher – one Mr. Maxwell - giving Civics classes after school on Wednesdays.  So off I went in search of this Mr. Maxwell, and found him just outside the staff room.  He was in full flight obviously admonishing a student who had come to school late.  I was immediately intrigued by Mr. Maxwell’s methodology.  He was scolding without scalding; he was teaching without preaching; maintaining an equanimity delicately balanced on the knife-edge of the refrain “Slackness!”  Satisfied that he had successfully converted this student from his tardy ways, Mr. Maxwell turned to me and enquired how he could be of help to me.  I told him that I wanted to join his Civics class.  He had me repeat this about three times, because – as he explained to me later – “boys at KC did not ask to join Civics class, those who attended are usually corralled into joining”.  Thus began my journey with Peter Maxwell.

Peter Maxwell taught his Civics classes with enthusiasm, passion, joy and no small amount of humour. We were entertained with pithy sayings, such as: “In a democracy it's your vote that counts. In feudalism it's your count that votes”.  At the same time, his patience was legendary—he was always prepared to go over something as many times as was necessary to get everyone in the class to understand.  His use of analogies was unparalleled, and we soon found ourselves rivaling each other to emulate him.  Further, like proselytes to a new faith, we not only reveled in our new found understanding of how government is run and felt our chests swelling with pride as we gained appreciation of our Constitution, anthem and national symbols, but we also morphed into missionaries for the cause: we could not see any reason that Civics should not be in the formal school curriculum.  Importantly, nationalism and nation-building - along with their companions, responsibility and civic duties - took on serious meaning and shape for us from then. Happily, too, after various fits and starts, it now seems that Civics of a sort is threatening to insinuate itself into the curriculum.

Peter Maxwell had a very practical approach to learning.  This also meant a love for exploring, and I could not speak about him without making reference to the travels.  He encouraged us to travel around Jamaica - always reminding us that it was slackness for tourists to come here and know this country better than we do – so he took us on many trips.  With his enthusiasm and joy for imparting knowledge, Peter Maxwell turned every single one of those trips into learning experiences.  His car, then, doubled as a mobile classroom; and through our hiking trips to New Castle and Clydesdale, for example, we were introduced to the idea of classrooms without walls long before it became part of the popular jargon precipitated by the Technology Revolution.  Once we were travelling in St Elizabeth and we stopped in Siloah to ask a boy of about 12 years of age if he had seen Mr. Dallas (my father).  After pointing us in the direction he had last seen Mr. Dallas walking, he enquired of me “Ah yuh fi call him faada?”  Maxwell juxtaposed that against the English “Is he your father?” and used this unusual St. Bess construction to teach us syntax, the lyricism of the Jamaican language and its playfulness. 

Then there were the shaggy dog stories, which were creative fillers that worked to accelerate the passage of time.  A shaggy dog story could take five minutes or five hours to be told.  Maxwell’s shaggy dog stories were usually allegorical, designed to inculcate certain virtues: compassion, integrity, service, humility and fortitude. Truth be told, we did not like all of the stories Peter Maxwell embroidered along those meandering trips, but the principles he passed on were more important: we learnt the values of those virtues, and we learnt to develop a story from a theme or even a single word. Certainly, too, we learnt to focus on the message and to show compassion to the messenger when the tale was disappointing.

The summer of 1973 is of particular significance for a number of us because of Peter Maxwell.  We were recruited into his book club to review material that might be considered appropriate for Literature exams in the nascent CXC.  Importantly, this also represented a shift from an almost exclusively Euro/Anglo-centric diet to an appreciation of the fact that there was much richness to be explored in Caribbean and African literature as well.  So we spent the summer feeding a new-found appetite: reading, reviewing and discussing books featuring mainly Caribbean and African writers.  This is how it went.  We had a week to read one or two books. We met weekly, on the Wednesday, and reported to Mr. Maxwell what we got from the narrative, play or poem. We discussed content and themes, writing styles, imagery, plot, character, substance and appropriateness.  This was a most fantastic and rewarding experience.  Join me now on this nostalgic journey through Caribbean and African Literature.  I must warn you, though, that this is a journey that would have made even Candide and Pangloss (Candide) and Phileas Fogg (Around the World in Eighty Days) dizzy!

This expedition had us spending many Green Days by the River, although some of us preferred the cruise on the Wide Sargasso Sea.  We visited Trinidad and went straight to Miguel Street, where some of us spent all day playing Cricket in the Road.  Not surprisingly, though, there were no takers when we were offered A Year in San Fernando, since it also entailed building A House for Mr. Biswas - too much Crick Crack Monkey business, according to Harry Murray.  It was so difficult for us to accept the idea of there being Lonely Londoners that Clive Mullings and Tony Hylton suggested setting up a telephone Hotline to poll people in A Small Place.  But Maurice Weir disagreed, shouting “Not In the Castle of My Skin!” and Ivor Nugent futuristically reminded them that there was No Telephone to Heaven.  Meanwhile, we also wondered if that school teacher in To Sir with Love had not really been Peter Maxwell, and E.R. Braithwaite, therefore, not Maxwell’s nom de plume.  Eaton, with the huge Afro, was sent to put the question frankly to Maxwell. However, things went awry when, after greeting Maxwell as  “Brother Man”, Franklyn then had the temerity to go Where Angels Fear to Tread  and ask him what the LC initials in his name stood for. Maxwell fumed that Eaton had ventured Beyond a Boundary and that if he continued with the slackness, Things would really Fall Apart and he might find himself becoming a Mine Boy!  Lazarus cheekily suggested that at least that was not as bad as the fate of the Children of Sisyphus.  When Kenneth Reeves claimed he heard Voices Under the Window, Maurice thought it weird, but Donald Johnson, anachronistically, labeled him The Lunatic.  Mr. Maxwell immediately zeroed in on the anachronism theme, cried havoc! and stepped in to stop this burgeoning shaggy dog story of mine from descending into a Duppy Story…  Through every twist and turn, Maxwell steered the course, and we were ready hands on deck striving to do our best.  No wonder The Hills were Joyful Together as they moved to the rhythm of the Song of the Banana Man, sung, with justice, by Courtney Daye-o.

In 1974, we were studying Macbeth and Peter decided the best way to bring the story to life was to act it out and have us all involved in the production of the play.  To begin with, the rehearsals were fun but well mixed with seriousness.  We learned many things in the process: acting, light and sound arrangement, production management and prop design and production.  One evening during rehearsal, in practising my part as young Seward, I encountered Old Seward played by Emanuel “Pincher” Grant and couldn’t stop laughing.  Seriously—I couldn’t stop laughing and poor Maxwell found himself forced to cancel rehearsal that evening.  Peter indicated that he wanted to speak seriously with me, and gave me a lift home that evening.  On the way, he admitted to me that he himself struggled to keep a straight face when he saw the expression on Pincher’s face, for, in trying to look stern, Pincher simply looked confused.  However, he told me sternly that we had a production to do, so I needed to get myself sorted out as the show must go on!  And go on it did!  We had a couple performances which were well received, as Old and Young Seward learned appropriate expression of both senility and youth, seriousness and controlled mirth, professionalism and playfulness—true life lessons indeed.

As Barry Salmon reminded recently, Peter Maxwell was a strong environmentalist before it was in vogue.  He talked to us about the dangers of denuding forests, overfishing and polluting. I still remember travelling to the country and one of the group, who shall remain unnamed, after eating a patty, threw the bag out the window.  When Maxwell realised what had happened he immediately stopped the car.  With the sternest look I can ever recall seeing on his face, Maxwell made the transgressor walk back some 200 yards to retrieve the article.  On resuming our journey, guess what happened? Yes, we had to listen to a shaggy dog story that wove together an intricate message of cleanliness, care for the earth and responsibility.  Something about that careless act had cut Maxwell to the core, and we never forgot it.  Often, too, we were reminded of this quote from Mahatma Gandhi: “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's needs, but not every man's greed”.  This care for the environment went hand in hand with Maxwell’s admonitions to serve others.  So inspired by him we got involved in helping others in various ways.  One of the ways that we did this even while at KC was by writing stories for use in the JAMAL programme.  I remember writing one called the “Corn Thieves,” in which a recurring shaggy dog theme, “honesty wins out,” was prominent.

In Fourth Form, a group of us was showing great interest in collecting information on performances and records in schoolboy sports in Jamaica.  When we went to Mr. Maxwell as a motley crew to ask for his help in pointing us in the right direction for some necessary research, he did more than that.  He organized us into a group called the “Seekers” - because we were seeking after information - and encouraged and guided us to put together a magazine called Sports FactsSports Facts was a compilation that provided a short history of all school boy sports in Jamaica.  We had to do research on all the sports and players and ensure currency and accuracy.   Then we had to learn to type up the information ourselves. We also had to learn to use the Gestetner printing machine to run off the copies. In the end, we did quite a compilation.  We sold Sports Facts in KC and other schools for 10 cents a copy.  After covering our expenses, we used the profits to help fund our regular hiking trips.  In working on that venture, Maxwell taught us much about taking what we love and making a living from it.  His own curiosity for learning became infectious and led us to seek more answers. 

My friend, Donovan Brown - one of the Seekers, who now lives in the UK – in paying tribute to Peter Maxwell, wrote:

Those of us who were part of the Seekers at Kingston College will be able to recognize Peter Maxwell in the words of Albert Schweitzer when he noted:  “…Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us”.  As young men, he channeled our efforts to discover our true selves and our inner strengths and to explore the world around us. He led by enthusiasm, optimism and energy, encouraging us to attain not only knowledge and success, but wisdom and inner peace and to pursue objectives worthy of our talents. His words of encouragement and guidance have remained as inspiration for many of us right into adulthood and have contributed in no small measure to successful professional lives, and even more importantly, to personal fulfillment.

Many of us consider ourselves seekers still, as the thirst for knowledge has not left us and the desire to be enterprising continues to dog us still, some of us more than others.

Many a group of one shape or the other found shape around Peter Maxwell.  One group of which I am a lifetime member is called CHIPP, the acronym being formed from the first letters of our names.  We (four at KC and one at Excelsior) each met Peter Maxwell in different ways and at different times during our high school days in the 1970s.  Five individuals. Amorphous.  Through Peter’s influence, we were forged into a group and encouraged to develop friendship and strong bonds that remain even to today.  The members of CHIPP pursued tertiary education in different countries, we have taken different paths, and even today we live in different places across the globe, yet the bonds remain strong and the ties close. Indeed, my CHIPP colleagues standing with me today have all travelled to share in this celebration.

Starting with that first encounter when I sought to join his Civics class, Peter Maxwell, the polymath, was to become a key shaper of my life.  He became more than a teacher; he was friend, mentor, father figure, counsellor, conversation partner, language consultant, a role model and my key source of inspiration.  Importantly, too, he was all that not only to me, but also to members of my entire family.  It is interesting that one of my sisters, on hearing of his passing, responded with exactly the same words my brother, George, had used earlier to summarize his grief: “Our family has lost a great brother and friend”.

As for me, the news of Peter Maxwell’s passing soon sent me back to Macbeth, and I found myself stuck on: “All is but toys: renown and grace is dead…”  I struggled with the implications of renown and grace (aka Peter Maxwell) being dead.  A beautiful mind, a wonderful human being, lost to this world.  My despair feeding on phantasmagoria, I found myself hearing from a kaleidoscope: puns, paraprosdokians (They begin the evening news with “Good evening” then proceed to tell you why it isn’t!), palindromes (Able was I ere I saw Elba) and other witticisms, such as the man who signed his name by writing “ALL”, then drawing a line under that, and then writing “EGGS” below that.  His name was ALL, EGGS UNDER (Alexander).

As I emerged from my reverie, it became clear to me that renown and grace is not really dead. Because Peter Maxwell lives on in us.  Indeed, he lives on in all he met, for none met him and remained unchanged.

For those of us whose lives have been so influenced by the life of Peter Maxwell, in the midst of our grief we say thanks. As his life inspired us to strive for excellence may our grief at his death awaken us to new values and a deeper appreciation of the lasting legacy he has left us.

Walk good, Peter Maxwell.  Fortis forever!

January 25, 2013

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