88: Stoop to Conquer

88: Stoop to Conquer

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teacher Tales

Stoop to Conquer

Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.

~Robert Frost

Before I present the subject of this story, it is important that I set the tone and share the cultural milieu in which it is set. The Virgin Islands were colonized under seven different nations—(The Netherlands, Denmark, Britain, France, Spain, Malta and the U.S.) from a period beginning in the 1600s until they were purchased by the U.S. from the Danish in 1917. The natives are a mix of African stock brought to the Islands during the slave trade. The African Diasporas is prevalent here in the Virgin Islands and the languages were lost many years ago influenced greatly by the colonial powers occupying the islands at any given time. Today on the now four Virgin Islands (St Croix, St John, St Thomas and Water Island) we also have natives of French, Puerto Rican, Danish, and some German ancestry.

The Virgin Islands dialect is filled with colloquial sayings from Dutch, French, and English Creole origins with what some may call an accent, broken English or a West Indian twang. There are two great books written by Virgin Islanders: one titled What a Pistarckle by Lito Vals, sort of a Creole dictionary, and the other Herbs and Proverbs by Arona Petersen, both out of print. Arona’s book has a lot of useful information on local herbs and their uses as well as it is filled with sayings/proverbs. For example: “Do for do is no Obeah” (Just retribution is to be expected), “Tongue and teeth does fall out” (Good friends quarrel), “Monkey always know what tree to climb” (never a sandbox tree) plus many more, including, “Stoop to conquer but never too low.”

My assignment to my students was to use these two volumes as source material to select a saying—a proverb that resonates with them and then graphically illustrate it as best they could. The intention was to give my students an art assignment that focused on their culture, while at the same time the challenge was that they had to think creatively and problem-solve all within a time frame as if the art work was to go to press.

Wellington did not display any particular impressive art skills and aptitudes while a student of mine in the mid-1980s. He was raised in a low-income district on the narrow backstreets with long row wooden houses and swept dirt yards, architectural elements left from the Danish Colonial days—an area not seen by the many tourists who visit the Island of St Thomas.

Despite a slight stutter speech impediment, Wellington was not a rude or deviant teenager angry at the world for the cards dealt to him. He would do his assignments with the normal hesitancy of most beginning or foundational art students fearful to make mistakes on that clean white sheet of drawing paper. He struggled to come up with an idea as the submission deadline was fast approaching.

Wellington managed to earn a passing grade—a low “B” for his semester final project work, which for that matter was a typical grade for a non-art major. The childlike image he drew was that of a slave worker kneeling at the foot of the slave master stepping on a book. The irony of the image will be revealed later.

Looking back at my grading criteria, I emphasized drawing ability and to a lesser degree the concept or idea. Content did and always will matter, yet we had an art major program and so my task was to discover talent and the ability to carry an idea to its full and best development and reward that with an excellent grade. The next year, Wellington graduated and then joined the army.

Years later, after honorably fulfilling his military obligation, Wellington returned to St Thomas and visited me in my classroom. It was at that time he shared with me the most wonderful story. While in the army Wellington had difficulty following the strict regime of the military and was constantly challenged by his superior officers to the degree of being threatened with physical harassment and worse—incarceration. He said all throughout his military career and ordeals he carried with him in his head that image of the drawing representing his idea of “Stoop to conquer….” He further said that that saying and image saved him from going to the brig on many occasions.

I did not remember the illustration at the time; however he mentioned to me the book in the illustration was his secret weapon to success. Wellington realized from that art assignment exercise that despite all the trials and tribulations that may be heaped upon him he would seek knowledge even if it meant being beaten by a slave master. I was touched by that—to have a former student express to me an actual example in action of the true meaning of the axiom that says a “teacher never knows where his or her influence might begin or end.” It was an “AHAA! I got it” moment for me. “Discretion is the better part of valor” is another way of looking at the proverb Wellington selected—yet to have him remember that classroom art assignment and many years later find it relevant, real and a reliable source of strength for him to persevere is something I will never forget. Who would have thought that a simple art assignment would carry a former student through his army soldiering years long after high school and beyond?

As time went by, Wellington became a public servant/Corrections Officer and from time to time we kept in touch. At those times we would reminisce about the past and how students of today’s generation are so much different from his school days. The irony you see is that Wellington had become sort of a slave master himself, guarding the inmates under his watch. Now, he was in a position to see someone operate under difficult conditions, who may perhaps use the same saying “Stoop to conquer but never too low” as a lesson on how to manage to survive and yet even thrive under difficult circumstances. As we saw each other over the years Wellington would always refer proudly to me to whomever we may meet as his art teacher.

Today my sympathies go out for Wellington, who is suffering from an eye disorder that he is struggling to combat. Although he has retired—“20 Years and Out”—and moved to the mainland to be near better medical treatment, Wellington will always remind me of the type of student we sometimes get at some point in our teaching experiences. As public school teachers we have no choice who comes into our classrooms. We must teach them all, teach the whole child and teach them the lessons of life.

~Edney L. Freeman
2009 Virgin Islands State Teacher of the Year
Comprehensive Academics, grades 9-12

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