March 2013 Volume 10

My Tribute to Peter Maxwell

Frances Coke
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How Shall I Remember Him?
The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness.

If he is indeed wise, he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather, leads you to the threshold of your own mind.
Khalil Gibran

The hours spent in this place will not contain our memories of our friend, Peter; nor will these pages suffice to catalogue his gifts. My words can paint mere images of some of who he was: a lover of learning and all things literary; a radical and activist whose grave, “Look now . . .” prefaced comments that stirred the dullest of dull consciences; a teacher whose “Come here right now young man!” could send the guilty student scurrying to safe ground, only to return, in short order, for his wise counsel; the friend whose “Yes Miss Frances!” greeted me with genuine warmth and interest, no matter how many months or years had passed between our meetings.

When I went to teach at Kingston College, I was a green English graduate from UWI, with nothing to take to my first class except my copious notes, the English department’s annotated copy of Julius Caesar, and my memories of teachers I’d hated or loved during my schizophrenic adolescent years at Alpha.

Upstairs Hardie House, I fell into the hands of three seasoned experts: Jasmin Reid, Muriel Riley, and Beulah Reid; my path was cleared and the tremor inside me subsided. For weeks, I headed downstairs en route to my classes, tiptoeing past the “men’s table,” where, among others, Peter Maxwell and Wally Johnson seemed to be always waging fierce debates whenever they were out of class. Although Wally was sports master then, he was also “adjunct professor” in the English department, and in our planning meetings, he and Peter could be counted on to bring unique, if unsubstantiated, perspectives to our discussions of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Ode on a Grecian Urn, Julius Caesar, Pride and Prejudice, Choice of Poets—everything Cambridge bestowed on us, as we sought to excite the mostly unwilling minds of our charges.
In the following term, I migrated downstairs – eager to sit next to the single-minded intensity and creativity that Peter exuded as he harnessed multiple resources to enrich his classes—crossword puzzles, newspaper articles, stories and poetry written by people like ourselves, contemporary literature like Shane, 39 Steps, and Twelve Angry Men. But I also went downstairs to be near to the energy and excitement with which he tackled everything: whether he was setting off to his next class, or bouncing back into the staff room after successfully rousing his students from their pre-lunch stupor or their post-lunch slumber.

Peter Maxwell was a student-centred teacher long before the term crept into the vocabulary of the experts. But for him, the concept went far beyond methods and activities he introduced to the learning process: for him, learner-centredness was a description of his laser-like focus on each boy; of how he brought everything to bear upon his teaching: heart, soul, mind, and blue Volkswagen. It was manifested in the hours he spent preparing; the special effort he invested in arranging for the newspaper companies to donate unsold newspapers to the school, so we could use them in the classroom. It was palpable in his sensitivity to the special needs of the boys who entered KC in third form after passing the Grade Nine Achievement Test. He railed against the discriminatory attitudes to these boys, advocating relentlessly for special approaches to help them adjust and derive as much as they should from late migration into a traditional high school.

It was the same student-centredness that caused him to take the unpopular line when some would have had students remaining at school beyond the appropriate time, so they could represent the mighty KC in Manning Cup Football, Sunlight Cup Cricket, or Championships. He fully understood the importance of sporting achievements to some boys, but had no patience with some sports enthusiasts who marketed their interest in winning at all cost as a commitment to securing opportunities for athletes to excel and obtain sports scholarships. He was unapologetic in his criticism of colleagues who drove into the school twenty minutes after their classes should have begun; those who continued their lunches and staff room conversations long after students had come to remind them they were scheduled to teach their classes. He was the nemesis of headmasters who vacillated about critical issues, sidestepped difficult decisions, and displayed a tendency to generalize their complaints about irresponsibility among teachers instead of tackling guilty individuals. He abhorred administrative approaches that elevated the importance of paperwork and minutiae above issues that were critical to the learning process or the welfare of students.

When the year I’d undertaken to spend at KC was up, and I contemplated taking a job in an advertising agency, Peter warned me sternly, “That will not satisfy you for long; this is where you should be.” And he was right. I took the job, but I was back in less than a year, remaining at KC for a further nine years. During this time, our friendship was cemented, strengthened with patties and bun and cheese from the canteen, payday Chinese dinner every now and then, and many exciting undertakings and issues that sped us through the years: pageants, choir concerts, plays, (who can forget Stephenson directed by Peter as he played a huge Chanticleer in the drama festival?); there were raging debates, sixth formers on strike against “too much left wing and right back chicken for lunch.” There were the conflicts with successive headmasters whose policies we questioned mightily; the fire at Hardie House, school magazines produced on deadline adrenalin, summer school and class-room painting projects. There was the Schools Challenge Quiz for which he would slip me nuggets of knowledge on my way to the coaching sessions. We grappled with boys who could not be rescued from bad choices, challenging students, exceptional students; ordinary students who could be motivated to achieve extraordinary results. Through it all, Peter was on fire: a driving force, a model teacher for anyone willing to learn, a champion of the disadvantaged.

It wasn’t long before his commitment to giving of himself transcended his involvement at KC. As you have heard and will hear today, he ceaselessly (some would say obstinately) pursued a number of issues that remain critical to the development of students and the progress of a struggling country to which he devoted his life. There was the search for consensus on approaches to teaching English in the context of our own rich Jamaican language; the work of the National Association of Teachers of English, which he served to his death; the advent of CXC and emerging concerns about the methods of evaluating the performance of students. But any list of his lasting contributions must include the cogent and often controversial arguments he presented with unequalled insight and precision in his many letters to the editor; his massive contribution to the production of supplementary teaching material including papers, pamphlets, and finally, local textbooks for use in teaching English; his unremitting battle against the horrifying practice of placing children in lock-ups. On this last subject, his colleague Dr. Peta-Anne Baker, wrote the following in the Gleaner a couple of years ago, as she raised the question, “Who Really cares for our children?”

For five years between 1973 and 1978, Peter wrote a weekly column, 'Our Children Now' in the Jamaica Daily News . The original logo of the column was a drawing of children behind bars.
The headline of the first article published on August 23, 1973, was 'Lock-ups are not Places of Safety'. In that column he wrote: "Children - some offenders, some not - are regularly kept in lock-ups, and have been for years. There is overcrowding, up to 20 boys in one cell ...."

Until the time that article was written, and possibly until his passing, Peter walked around with an overwhelming concern for the plight of Jamaican children, convinced that even if we were not individually cruel to them, we were as a nation, brutal.

His influence on students went far beyond his role as a teacher of English. Before the advent of guidance counselors in schools, we did significant work in career education at KC—mounting career days, disseminating literature to students, giving special talks, holding long conversations with students on the way to and from classes, or long after regular school hours. And I can still see his blue VW chug-chugging through the gates filled with the boys he took, four or five at a time, to visit different work settings such as that of Dr. Owen Minott whom students visited in his medical setting because of their interest in that field. As the circle of his life neared completion, the fruits of his labour came in many forms, not the least of which was the exceptional care he received during his illness, from men who had been those boys in the VW—men whose medical expertise became available to him along with a depth of concern and caring that he would not have otherwise experienced. A boy in that VW became a man who faithfully kept me informed of Peter’s condition, contacting me some months ago, with an urgent plea for me to “talk to Mr. Maxwell,” who was hospitalized and dangerously close to despair.

Despite his exceptional contributions, Peter remained bold and resolute, but totally unassuming—a calming voice in the midst of raging tempers; a stable and committed presence in the lives of a multitude of students at KC, Manchester High School, and Shortwood Teachers’ College.

But I shall remember him most as the person with whom I shared a self-sustaining friendship that did not need the nurturing of shared time and space; a friendship cemented in the hallowed halls of Hardie House. I recall especially, his willingness to share everything that he knew with anyone who cared to listen; his dry sense of humour, his steadfast devotion to every task he undertook; his sincere concern for the welfare of students, his ability to cut through the sophistry of arguments presented against the ideas he so carefully researched and made available to those who could make a difference, but often didn’t bother. I remember him in London when we both took a year off from teaching, to pursue programmes for our own development: how he found his way to my sister’s house on a soggy British evening to get together for a meal (Chinese, of course), and an evening at the theatre. I remember his excitement about Nana Mousskouri’s Plaisir D’amour and the moving songs of Edith Piaf.

Over the past year or so, our e-mail and telephone calls helped ease the pain of losing Wally Johnson and Beulah Reid; strengthened us both as we contemplated the meaning of his own ill-health. There were times when he sounded like the warrior of old, but on Christmas Day last year when I called him and heard his voice for the last time, all that was gone. In its place was the flatness of something that smacked of resignation, the acknowledgement of his pain tinged with the purity of his appreciation for the care and support he was receiving. There was certainty about something he left unnamed. I e-mailed him on the Thursday before last and there was no response; I later heard the news of his passing and I pondered the words of WH Auden’s poem on the death of the famous poet, W B Yeats:


But for him it was his last afternoon as himself
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs.
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.


I shall always remember that day as the one when I penned my last words to my friend.


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