A couple weeks past, as we ran passed each other on our way to/from meetings, the CEO of the charity I’m working with asked what I was doing the next day. I’m trying to be of use, so I said, “whatever you need me to do,” thinking that something new had come up regarding the major events that the whole team was working on. She pondered a moment and then said “come, let’s go to Clarendon tomorrow.” And so we did.

I love a good road trip. I mean I LOVE a road trip. And the chance to see a parish that I might not otherwise get to was definitely too good to pass up no matter what work is stacking up in the office. I also find the CEO quite fascinating, if a little indomitable. She seems to find me entertaining, so an hour in the car so she could give a commencement speech to a class of new Early Childhood Education graduates promised to be an interesting time through a beautiful countryside.

Before I arrived I had hoped to visit every parish in Jamaica. Jamaica is made up of 14 parishes, each of which has its own capital. Kingston is both a parish and the capital of the country, of course, though the city of Kingston is actually  largely in the parish of St. Andrew, which is where I live. For those of you who live in “Victoria” you know what I mean – most of what’s referred to as Victoria is not actually the city itself. Inter-parish transportation is not easy unless you’re going to one of the major tourist areas, and they are mainly clustered on the north end of the island. I suppose if I took people’s encouragement to just rent a car for a weekend I could also see some of places off bus routes, but I’m not quite there yet.

Besides Kingston-St. Andrew, I’ve basically only visited St. Catherine (for both Hellshire and the hash) and St. Anne; since the trip to Clarendon I’ve been to Portmore. Each parish has its own capital, though I’m not sure if those capitals have much administrative power. It would seem sort of silly in a country this size, but then the colonists did like their administrative bureaucracies and much of what the British established along those lines continues. The capital city of Clarendon is May Pen, our ultimate destination, and home to major bauxite operations – Jamalco is the major sponsor of the education program we were there to commemorate.

The ceremony itself was long, surprisingly formal, and charming. The graduates included 90 early childhood educators, and 250 parents who had taken workshops on how to work with their little ones, support their children’s teacher, and get 2-5 year olds to do homework. Yes, Jamaicans take their early education seriously. In between the speeches, which were as predictable as only speeches from a politician, a funder, and a public administrtor can be, there were completely charming moments.

The performances of the afternoon kicked off with an adorable 5 year old girl reciting a long poem with feeling & confidence. I have a hard time imagining a Canadian child of that age doing the same – not just the memorization, but the feeling, the rhythm, and the tone of the delivery were all spot on. Her teacher ran and scooped her up for a big bear hug after the successful delivery. I wish I could remember the poem.

The parents of the children taught by these new graduates had their own message to the grads, beautifully delivered by one of the moms in the form of an acapella rendition of Go Light Your World (honestly, this Kathy Troccoli version does not do justice to that mom singing to a room of 400 well-wishers). As invariably happens at a Jamaican event, those who knew the words soon began singing along. As invariably happens at an event I’m attending, once I heard the first chorus I too began singing along. It was magical.

More speeches – including our CEO Mrs. Wilkins who has a passion for children and for service that comes through her oratories in a way that I bet would challenge her preacher husband. The young mom sitting beside me said “are you with her? Wow.” There was more than one amen. Mrs. Wilkins preaches community and converts the unbeliever.

The education minister was … interesting. He made quite a to-do about the fact that there was only one man in the class of 90 early educators. It concerns him, since the ultimate job of all of those now trained women educators is to be mothers to their own children. He was charming, passionate about education as the solution to many of Jamaica’s problems, and rampantly, openly sexist. Listening to him was an interesting, entertaining, and uncomfortable experience for me.

And finally, the piece de resistance – the entire graduation class of 90 educators from 6 learning centres singing in perfect 4 part-harmony, with 6 soloists, “When You Put Your Heart In It.” I sure would NOT have guessed it was a Kenny Rogers song. Go figure. Again, it sounds better with a 90 voice choir who are celebrating simultaneously reaching a goal together.

I had noticed as soon as we arrived at the community hall where the graduation was taking place that people were dressed to the nines. At a comparable Canadian event people would have paid care and attention for sure, but would be in their best business clothes. These outfits were more along the range from mother-of-the-bride to bridesmaid to night on the town. There was definite pride in the achievement, whether that achievement was a couple weekends spent learning to be a better parent, or 4 months of part-time study while continuing to teach full time. It’s moments like that when I realise the divide – these teachers had worked as hard, had overcome as many barriers, and had as much to celebrate as any university graduate in Canada. Why should they not look their absolute best to commemorate that moment. And if that ‘best’ includes more satin and rhinestones than we lean towards, who is to say that’s not completely appropriate?

We had, of course, left the office later than we’d hoped and so zipped out to Clarendon on the toll highway. Mrs. Wilkins was in less of a hurry to get home though, and so she toured me through May Pen – the capital of Clarendon and where she had both attended school and gotten married. We then took an older highway through Old Harbour – where Mrs. Wilkins has lived for 30+ years, raised her sons, and now pampers 4 gorgeous rottweilers. Finally she toured me through Spanish Town, past the ancient Spanish administrative buildings that still stand in monument to the first colonizers, and to the edge of town where she waited with me until the bus came.

It was a charming day – the kind I hope for more of.