More than three years ago a tripartite agreement was signed in Port-of-Spain to set up a chess-in-schools programme in the country.
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Matelot mom attends same school with her children
Michelle Charles was a promising young student at Toco Composite School whose academic achievements regularly made her family proud, until, at age 15, she got pregnant. Just weeks before writing her O-Level examinations, she dropped out of school and married her boyfriend, Perfield Meltz.
In the years that followed, Charles and her husband had five children—Nigel, Chantell, Kristelle, Ruel and Kasel—and her chances of completing her education and achieving her dream of becoming a teacher looked dim as she became weighed down with her responsibilities as wife and mother.
But 11 years after dropping out of school, Charles did the unthinkable and at age 26 she enrolled in the Matelot Community College, put back on a school uniform and began attending classes full-time at the same school where her first son had been placed after sitting the Common Entrance exam.
“One morning, I went to the Matelot Community College where my eldest son Nigel was attending, having passed his Common Entrance examination for that school and told the principal Sister Rosario Hackshaw that I was interested in taking evening classes and wanted to sign up,” she said. Hackshaw told her the school did not have evening classes and instead offered her a place as a full-time student.
She recalled, “At first I had reservations. I wasn’t keen on the idea of going back to a school which had over 100 adolescents. I asked myself how would I work with them as a mother and wife.”
However, after discussing it with her family, Charles decided to take on the challenge. She signed up and was placed in a Form Four class where she began preparing for the CXC exams in seven subjects—Maths, Literature, Social Studies, Human and Social Biology, Principles of Business, Agricultural Science and Spanish. Charles joined a class of 25 students several years her junior.
“Going back to school was tough. Matelot is a small village and people said things which were hurtful and mean when I started. Even my classmates provoked me by throwing words—not in my face, but within earshot to see how I would react. I had become a target in the community I had grew to love. “Honestly, this was the last thing I was expecting. But it was natural human behaviour.”
At first, Charles was bothered by all the taunts. Her son Nigel, who was in Form One, was also being teased. “The female students started to tease Nigel about me. They used to ask him why I not home seeing about his young brothers and sisters which got him upset. Many days I had to talk to Nigel to control his anger because he could not cope. The taunting was pushing him to the edge.” Eventually she managed to pull herself together and focused on her schoolwork.
“I told myself I came here for a purpose and nothing was going to get in my way.” When Charles began placing first in most of her exams, her classmates began to compete with her. “Almost every student would try to beat my score. It created a keen rivalry because nobody wanted to get lower than my grade.” She soon earned the respect and admiration of her classmates and they began to look up to her as a mother figure and role model.
At the end of two years, Charles got six CXC passes. She was valedictorian at the school’s graduation and copped the top two awards for most outstanding and most consistent student. Charles’ success at O-Levels gave her the motivation to press on further with her studies. Encouraged by that success, she said, “I decided to try my hands at A-Levels, which was an even bigger task.”
Thrown in the deep end
Once again, this time in a class with six students, Charles took the lead academically. However, there were challenges on the home front. “I remember coming home one evening tired and Kasel, who was just three years old, asking me for tea. I promised to make the tea but dozed off on the couch. “When I awoke, I saw Kasel on a biscuit tin near the kitchen counter struggling to make the tea. While I felt proud that he was able to help himself, I felt as if I had failed as a mother and started to cry.”
Charles also had to pay special attention to her elder daughter, Chantell, who was dyslexic. “The children made it easy for me because they all helped with the household chores and looked out for one another. It was not easy. There were pressures all around.” At the end of that two-year programme, Charles was once again chosen as valedictorian and named most outstanding and consistent student in the class.
After graduation, Hackshaw offered her a temporary teaching job at the school. “I was given a post-primary class of nine boys to teach. Actually, nobody wanted to teach those boys because they were rebellious and difficult to manage. “Many of the boys lacked self-esteem because they came from troubled, single-parent homes. I was thrown in the deep end.” In a matter of weeks, Charles got the boys to settle down and focus.
“I realised that this was my strong point in teaching—reaching out, listening and being there for the students.” As a means of giving back to her community, Charles began giving evening classes to women who had never been able to attend school. Around that time, she also gave birth to her sixth child, Jeuelle, who is now 15.
Charles applied for a teaching position at the Ministry of Education and was posted at the Grand Riviere Anglican School in 1998. From there, she was transferred to Cumana AC School, then finally settled at St Mary’s Anglican School in Tacarigua. When school re-opens on Tuesday, she will be in charge of a Standard One class.
Last month, Charles returned to Matelot to visit for the first time in many years. “Two female villagers who I had not seen in ages told me that I gave them the inspiration to go back to school after dropping out. For me, this was the best news ever. I realised that going back to school was not in vain and that I had touched at least two lives in my pursuit to better my life and that of my children.”
In 2010, Charles obtained a bachelor’s degree in public-sector management at the University of the West Indies (UWI), St Augustine. The following year, her husband died. Now a grandmother of one, she plans to pursue her master’s in sociology at UWI. “To me the sky is the limit. You can never stop learning.” Four of Charles’ six children are currently attending Costaatt.
“As a mother and teacher, I could not be prouder and happier of my success and how my life has turned out. Had it not been for my family and Sr Hackshaw, who I think was my guiding angel, I don’t know where I would have been today. “Who would have thought that after five pregnancies and dropping out of school I would have gone back to study? If I could do it, anyone can.”
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