AATEIM Highlights from Launch: Keynote Speaker Vladimir
The Alumni Association of the Tertiary Educational Institutions on the Morne (AIM) hosted its’ official launch on the 13th February 2022.
One of the Important highlights coming out was the featuring of the keynote speaker by Mr. Kendel Hippolyte best known,
- Drum-maker, who uses idiomatic Caribbean language to explore the indigenous local culture in a political context.
- In 2000, awarded the St. Lucia Medal of Merit (Gold) for Contribution to the Arts.
Introduction of Key Note Speaker Vladimir Lucien by Kendel Hippolyte
Vladimir Lucien, of course, has different sides to him, and depending on which sides you focus on, you can create quite different pictures of him. I won’t presume to go into his private life, both because I don’t know it and because he may be an espionage agent for one or more countries and there may be other agents in the audience now who are hoping to glean information that they can use against him.
So I will instead take a brief glance at the public Vladimir. And the Vladimir that the public is most aware of is the writer, the poet, and essayist. There’s no pressing need to go into the details of his external arc as a writer – his astonishing win of the Bocas Prize in 2014, his reflections in non-poetic writings on other writers and social issues. What I most want to draw attention to is the thread that runs through his writing of the value of community. Some of his most compelling poems focus on persons who are seen, first and last, as members of a community, persons who have recognizable social roles and validity. His critiques have as their implicit reference and moral standard a vision of a more whole, more harmonious society. Literature for him, as far as one can judge from his writing, is not primarily a road of personal ambition. It’s a supple instrument to keep holding up this vision of community and to help work towards it.
So it’s not surprising that he’s agreed to talk with this grouping which is, in essence, devoted to extending the community of the community college beyond the brief two or three years that each person spends here. For me, I look forward warmly to Vladimir contributing to a conversation that is becoming all the more necessary as trends in our society threaten to pull it further and further away from the community.
Vladimir Lucien Keynote Address: Micro-Climates of Sentiment & Expectation Dedicated to Solomon Agyemang
I was told by someone, maybe someone skilled in that area, that the weather and environmental conditions on the Morne are in part due to the existence of something called a microclimate. What this means is that the Morne possesses certain environmental conditions semi-independent and distinct from the places that surround it, that is it occupies its own special and particular place in the environment say of Castries, Cul-de-Sac, and other surrounding places which may be more similar to each other in their environmental conditions. In addition to this, the Morne is further distinguished from these places by the barracks that constitute the majority of the school buildings of the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College, along with a few extra barracks that involuntarily adorn the school compound, like those old buildings preceding the Grace Augustin Building, or even the old French war cemetery near where we used to be called the Tech center when I attended as a student. There are other things that seem to set the place apart, like the huge cannonball tree near the entrance of the school, the Inniskilling monument, the existence of graves on campus: like that of now both of our Nobel Laureates.
We may take the existence of such facts as mere happenstance, of no real significance, as just a matter of where this institution happened to end up — the decision of a government minister, etc. Be that as it may, the fact that it ended up there would not have left it untouched by the various characteristics of where it is, and it has been here for long enough. But the spot for this institution was also chosen. Before it was chosen to be the site of the island’s chief tertiary institution, it was chosen by an army as an ideal spot to conduct their activities of defense of “their” territory. Now imagine this entire history of the place: its natural and social history, imagine all of this history being absorbed into the place, and if you cannot do that, look right in front of you to see the ample evidence left of times past. The point is such things cannot be taken for granted. Would you be more willing to build your house upon a spot where previous houses have burned down repeatedly, whether mysteriously or explainable, or where a family that generation after generation produced exemplars in their field, lived? In Suriname, a cousin of mine told me that before a house is built on the new property, someone would trudge along the perimeter of the proposed building site, with a calabash of water, and they — without being part of any particular religion — pour water onto the ground, seeking to appease any negatively disposed energies accumulated or present in the area, showing their respect for the long history that this seemingly “normal” piece of land holds, and the respect for it as a living entity. Even though it does not resemble a human being, even though it does not speak back in the way that we speak, even if it seems like merely something dusty beneath our feet.
Why am I saying all of this? I am saying it because it begins there: respect for things generally, according to them, even though we are destined to use or make use of them, the same respect we accord a human being. This may be why some of us were told to ask some plants for permission before picking their leaves. It is not a matter of “but the thing cannot even talk” or “but that is just a plant”. Is it just a plant or is it healing that you come to it for? So what part of it makes you use the word “just” dismissively toward it? Doesn’t it grow? Can it not one day suddenly stop producing these healing leaves? So these opening paragraphs are not just to appease, but to also pay respect to and draw our attention to the environment we speak of, in a particular way, to focus our attention on our reality in a particular way. And having done that, you may join me on the journey of what I am saying here today.
Institutions are no different. They are just like these environments with their histories, even though the institution is what we may call “invisible.” But they are not invisible; nothing is invisible really if we are willing to truly see things not from the reference point of arrogant “human beings” but at more profound levels. Where is an institution visible? Sir Arthur Lewis Community College was not always called by that name, nor was it always located on the Morne (though I think the Morne is a fitting place for it.) But all of us who attended it in its various iterations may have similar things to say about it, even if there isn’t a visible and physical spot that we could point to and say “this” is the institution. Those who attended it in Castries, may point in one direction, those who attended on the Morne will point in another, and even still, those who attended it when part was located in the George Charles Secondary School may point to yet another, and those who attended in Vieux Fort may say another. But we can see through feeling as well. We can speak, informed by how and what we feel, of the character of the institution. And in that way, we may have some similar things to say about it that will transcend any single physical or temporal existence, something that will last for generations. And the feeling that would inform that is the knowledge within us of what our experience was, an experience that stayed with us — a way in which the institution remains a piece of us. (For that is where true institutions reside and never leave: within people) And this is what forms an alumnus: an alumnus is a constantly growing pool of people within which lies the special feeling, knowledge (and feeling-knowledge), and therefore power that this institution has imbued them with, a source of power that they knowingly or unknowingly return to at various points in their lives, to assist them in various aspects of their lives. And these alumni, because the essence of it is stored within people and the knowledge they have gained through experience, does not end with the living, but includes those who have departed, for they too have contributed to that pool of experiential knowledge (not just intellectual) that many people continue to draw from. Just as we draw on lessons our parents gave us, which they gained through experience — the best kind of knowledge.
So as an institution, Sir Arthur Lewis is its own microclimate, its own prominent building existing within those who have come to experience it in whichever of its iterations, a microclimate that comes to form part of the character of those who carry the environment of the place with them. And all who carry that hidden mark of a Sir Arthur Lewis Community College experience within them, are its alumni, its descendants. And if we say that the institution is not visible, but is a living source of power within us, then there is nothing stopping those who have left us physically from continuing to contribute to it. They may not contribute “new things” being unliving, but they contribute what we may call the force of legacy, the knowledge that alumni contain knowing that they walked through the same halls as someone whose seemingly finished, observable life was one of excellence. “If I walked where such and such person walked then what is stopping me from becoming like them and even more.” What an incredible source of power!
So all of us here, are marked internally, and carry within us something given to us, planted within us at both known and unknown levels. And it is a living thing like everything is a living thing, and a living thing with its own special character, its own microclimate, that constitutes a resource we shall use for the rest of our lives, and shall be of use to our grand and great-grandchildren, and will live even if the name Sir Arthur Lewis Community College were to vanish from the face of the earth. And it will never.
Now I can speak to what my relationship with this entity has been. And I have had an experience of it at two levels: that of being a student and that of being a member of staff. Both of these are significant. When I attended Sir Arthur as a student when my former schoolmates and I came here, it was common for people, when writing or scratching on a desk or wall — the usual graffiti comprising one’s name and the years of attendance — to not include the year they would complete studies. It was a kind of joke but it was also very serious. The idea was that we were not sure that we were guaranteed to make it to the second year. So lofty were the expectations of our performance, and we were not sure we could measure up. Also, it was a time when you would get kicked out if you didn’t measure up. So the idea was that we were guaranteed only our first year here and that we could possibly be denied the Kingdom of Heaven of the Second Year. Some of us made it, some of us didn’t. But this had personal resonance for me in a way that I could only account for now. If anyone is to look back at my school records, from secondary school to my first year at Sir Arthur, they could judge by that that I was quite content with mediocrity. Those who knew me a bit better, would at best, say, that I had some potential but… When I got to SALCC in September of 2004, I had spent the better part of five years shirking the expectation of excellence that surrounded me on all sides. My family had been one of the venerable people of great intellectual substance, they and others around me could tell there was something there and had doggedly maintained those expectations of excellence through my joking and fooling around. During that time, I sort of leaned on the fact that I knew that I could do anything within myself but never had the courage nor the fortitude to do what it takes to make that potential manifest. Many people can rely on such a fact: “I know I am smart, even though Bs and Cs.” In fact, I would say that this is 99% of all people, if not 100% because we are all born with the capability to do just about anything, no matter how our apparent limitations, the creative source of our origin which lives within us, holds out that possibility of infinite potential within us, just like I say we hold SALCC — our experience — within us.
When I arrived at SALCC, I secretly mocked my teachers’ droning voices. In one class, I remember that it was so difficult for me to stay awake, that upon being asked by the teacher to stay up or leave, I humbly admitted to her that I couldn’t stay awake and therefore I should leave. One summer I was called in, with my mother, to Mrs. Modeste’s office — note it was summer! — about some excuses, I had submitted to the class monitor to account for my absence from a very early class in OTW. In front of such self-respecting women as my mother and Mrs. Modeste, I had to explain to them the special syndrome I had called “Intense Fatigue” which I had detailed in my excuses to that class monitor. My mother was not impressed. Mrs. Modeste perhaps had long ceased to be. When my friend, who is now the MP for Gros Islet, Kenson Casimir was running for Student Council president, I opted to help his campaign by making humorous additions to the posters of his rival, a job that earned me the right to fall asleep in the student council’s air-conditioned office from time to time, though this right was not given to me by Kenson.
All of us, at various points in our lives, find ourselves very funny, find our nonchalance very funny. We even find some self-righteousness in dismissing challenges that come to us, because they seem to be about other people when they are really opportunities for us to show our determination to be excellent, to be more than our visible limitations suggest. We say “we’re only human” as a way to let ourselves off the hook, sometimes, as a fact we could lean on while the world passes us by. Human is only one aspect of what we are, perhaps the most “visible”. But what about such invisible and bottomless things like the potential we possess inside, that are not reconcilable with the idea of humans but touch instead on the divine? Well, it may have been divine, it may have been from the power of the institution within us that I got the help I needed.
In spite of all my excuses, my laissez-faire par excellence, I couldn’t help but see that for whatever reason, there were people around me who still believed in me, and who still were waiting to see me draw more from that bottomless source, and less from the shallow bucket of excuses and smugness I had carried around willingly with me as a way of explaining why I couldn’t be more than I currently was. Rather than becoming my own special microclimate, like my institution, I was content to be part of the general taken-for-granted climate of pure sunshine and permissible laziness. But Mrs. Modeste, Mrs. Jane King Hippolyte, Mr. Kendel Hippolyte, Mrs. Lisa Dublin, Mrs. Pearline Gilkes, Mr. Royston Emmanuel, were like these battlement walls that continued to stand guard on the Morne long after the war ceased to be part of the St. Lucian reality. Like the walls of OTW, or the VAR building, they stood in a plain-faced expectation of great height during my war with my deepest potential, waiting almost knowingly for it to end. I cannot say how much this meant to the complete 180 turnarounds that would take place in so many aspects of my life at the end of my first year at SALCC, at the end of which I had hit rock bottom.
But even after hitting rock bottom, it was like I woke up from being unconscious, and saw all of these people, all of that legacy, and the very air of Sir Arthur around me, standing like walls that took it for granted that I was meant to do something more. And they seemed to do this from both something they saw in me, but also something they knew to be a universal fact about everyone — for like the walls of the school, they had seen the likes of such before. The expectation remained, and was strong, and tremendously empowering. That summer, I asked my mother to drop a subject I never should have been doing anyway, Management of Business, vowing that I would get As in every single one of the remaining subjects. I am not sure where such confidence to make such a promise came from, but it brought together two things I had not brought together for years in my own life: the knowledge of my limitless potential and the commitment to work, and it is those walls that surrounded me, insisting that I actualize my own microclimate, my own special quality, that allowed me to do so. Just sheer expectation of excellence. A barely B and mostly C student at Sir Arthur, with a couple of CXC 4s, I graduated from SALCC with an A in General Paper, an A in Sociology and an A in Literature, and received the Jacques Compton Award for Literature. It was at SALCC in the second year as well that I began taking myself seriously as a poet: a career that would take me to places I never knew I’d see, or certainly not that early in my life: India, South Africa, Germany, Amsterdam, Canada, the US, etc. It was in my second year of SALCC that I was the first-ever young arranger (at 16) to be the musical arranger in a national Panorama. My academic career thereafter continued in that vein, and so did my career as a poet, and outside of these visible means, my attitude remains one that is galvanized by my awareness of these strong walls of expectation implanted in me by my experience at SALCC. These are not merely the expectations of particular people, but like this institution took over the war barracks of the British, I took over those walls and now look to myself and refuse to accept the mediocrity I had so willingly accepted for so many years and in so many facets of my life. I would like the rest of my life to be like my second year at SALCC, which now I can not only write down into my unfinished proverbial desk-scratching, but I would not put 2006 as the end date. In fact, within me, I carry the markings: Vladimir Lucien, SALCC 2004 hyphen. And that’s it. There is no end. Only newer and brighter beginnings and frontiers.
The last thing I will say is briefly about my experience as a teacher here from 2013-2019 which I think says something else about excellence. Well, mostly it is about my last few years here especially. During some of that time, after I had come from a stint at UWI Jamaica as Writer in Residence, I was approached by the Vice Principal Dr. Merle St. Claire Auguste to help create something that would stimulate intellectual curiosity and conversation on campus, and generally to enliven that kind of energy on the campus. The result of that was what was called “Up/Rising: The Illumination Lecture series” in which members of faculty especially, as well as members of the St. Lucian intelligentsia were invited to lecture on a topic of their choice from their areas of expertise. We curated carefully our choice of candidates trying to strike a balance in various ways. On the team (and I must mention their names): was the VP, of course, Ms.Dora Henry, Mrs. Nathalie Jolie-Fanis, Mr. Royston Emmanuel, Mr. Garvin McDonald. I should have prefaced this by saying that I never wanted to be a teacher. Growing up in St. Lucia at the time I did, it was not something presented as prestigious. Teaching at SALCC to some degree was, but teaching was always ranked, in the mouths of others, much lower than law, accounting, etc. So I taught, always setting my eyes on what I saw as bigger, better careers later on. Anyway, in working with this team of persons, what I saw in them will affect me for the rest of my life, and now constitutes part of those strong walls of expectation that I hold within me, that SALCC in various ways has given me. What I saw in them was a level of commitment that I had never seen before, in whatever task it is they were assigned or volunteered to do. A level of commitment that invariably resulted in excellence, often both in execution as well as in their mere character. So I, who considered myself in transit while teaching, to another career, saw in my colleagues something I had forgotten: the ROAD to the dream, and the tires or the soles on the feet of that intention: commitment. I can safely say that in everywhere I’ve been, I have never been around a group of people who impressed me and whose commitment touched me as much as the illuminations team. And though it was usually myself or Nathalie who got up on the podium to speak at the beginning of each lecture, the true makings of excellence resided at Royston’s and Garvin’s tech-station, at Dora’s desk and notepads, in Nathalie Fanis’ years of demonstrated and good-natured commitment to this institution. And we did this — they did this consistently, no matter how trickling the audience, no matter what mistakes were made in the previous lecture, no matter what resources we needed and didn’t have. What you are, and what all who are associated with this institution are, are makers of not so many human beings, but makers of something that pushes the envelope on our definitions of ourselves, toward what our limitations truly are: they are nonexistent. In as much as SALCC has provided walls of assurance and expectation, these walls have always encouraged those within them to transcend them, to break them down.
In my last two years here as a lecturer, I also had a very enviable friend group with whom I had coffee every morning, who set very high expectations for what kind of coffee was allowed in the office, in a loving microclimate of mutual commitment that helped each of us in the most unassuming ways, to carry on and face the various challenges that came our way in work and in life, friends whom I hold dearly still. This institution has given to me and many others walls of protection of high expectation, and open spaces of constantly expanding possibility. And for that, as alumni, for those unseen and seen ways in which we have been empowered, we must demonstrate the commitment and the good character to nourish this source of power in the world that we secretly carry no matter where we are. This gift that keeps on giving.
I Thank you.