In the old Corentyne High School (CHS), the Principal, Mr. J. C. Chandisingh, taught English and sometimes English Literature to the Fifth Forms, and he collected students’ fees. The school being small, there was no need for a secretary. However, when the new school opened in 1960, because of the expansion of the student population, a secretary was indispensable. Miss Bascom, the new secretary, made her appearance almost from Day 1. Conspicuous with her fairly strong-lens spectacles, she was to occupy her desk in the Principal’s office for many years. Quiet, polite, soft-spoken, and seemingly self-effacing, she was always attired in a manner befitting a school secretary, though it was clear that she had an eye for the latest in fashion
No one appeared to know anything much about Miss Bascom beyond the fact that she lived in Alness, or thereabout. No one knew her first name, or asked her what it was. Everyone seemed quite content to call her Miss Bascom, and that was that. Once when I was in the office, she told me that her family name was really Bassatar, and that her last name was somehow a derivative. She then asked me to help her sister with her essays. This was in 1963 when her sister was in the Fifth Form, getting ready to sit the Cambridge Certificate Examinations. After 1963, the school switched to the London Examinations.
Miss Bascom’s input, clerical and otherwise, made for the smooth running of the school. Her responsibilities were many, and despite the daily pressure and the steady demand on her energy and her nerves, she was able at the end of each school day to keep her poise, composure and sanity.
One of her most demanding tasks was to collect students’ fees. It was not simply a matter of accepting the money and issuing a receipt. First, she had to transcribe from the class registers to her formidable ledgers the names of the students of every class. There were as many as twenty classes, each consisting of forty-two students. Then Miss Bascom had to collect the fees from every student, issue a receipt, and make the necessary notation in the ledger, including how much was paid, and how much was outstanding. By the middle of each term she had to compile a list of the students who did not pay up their fees so that they could be rounded up for an audience with the Principal.
One of the other sources of revenue for the school, and for the Principal, I imagine, was from the sale of text books, exercise books with the school’s crest on the cover, and school ribbons for the mandatory Panama hats for girls. Some of the text books were old battle-tested war-horses, such as Priest and Wood’s “Foundations of Geography”, Gould and Whiteley’s “New Latin Course”, Crompton and Loveman’s “French Course for Schools”, and the set books for Religious Knowledge and English Literature. This so-called sales department, located in the Female Teachers’ Lounge/Office that adjoined the Principal’s office, came under Miss Bascom’s purview. Imagine what it was like for her, collecting fees and then pausing to rush into the adjacent room to sell supplies to a student body of over 800 students! Of course, they did not all stampede in simultaneously!
Teachers understandably saw Miss Bascom’s role as the “Paymaster” as the most important. This responsibility required tremendous care and concentration as well as a knowledge of mathematics, elementary accountancy, and the Income Tax Regulations. Teachers’ salaries came from two sources: the government’s monthly contribution and student fees. With this in mind, Miss Bascom had to calculate the amount of money for the check for the monthly withdrawal from Barclay’s Bank. She also had to indicate in what bank note denominations she wanted the cash to as to make the packaging of each teacher’s pay easy. To prepare each teacher’s pay envelope demanded undivided attention, and often an interruption from a student or a teacher might lead to errors. If an error occurred, such as an extra bank note mistakenly put in a teacher’s envelope, it would be discovered only at the end. Then Miss Bascom would have to open each envelope to find the errant note.
A related matter was teachers’ income tax. Acting under the instructions from the Principal, Miss Bascom had to prepare the annual income tax statement for each teacher. This included a teacher’s gross annual income and the amount of tax withheld. Teachers needed such a statement when they filed their income tax returns. It is noteworthy that Miss Bascom’s handwriting was consistently and pleasantly legible, in contrast to the Principal’s hieroglyphics, which were decipherable only by the patient few.
In many ways Miss Bascom rendered invaluable service directly to teachers and students. Cloistered as she was in the inner sanctum of the Principal’s office, she often proved to be a buffer between the Principal and the staff. The Principal habitually kept aloof from the staff, and most teachers avoided him as much as possible. If a teacher, however, had to meet him for a particular reason, say asking for a day off, he would out of prudence first test the waters by approaching Miss Bascom. She always knew the Principal’s mood. Often he would be on the warpath for some trivial reason which only he might consider of major consequence. Even when he was in a good mood, he never acceded to a teacher’s request for a day off without exhausting all possibilities. Was the teacher’s business so urgent? Could it be done outside of school time? Sometimes, instead of facing such a rigid interrogation, a teacher might simply take the day off and be prepared to face the music the next morning.
From time to time, a teacher desiring to study overseas would approach Miss Bascom with a request for a transcript of his grades while he was a CHS student. While I was at CHS, the school never kept any permanent record of a student’s grades from Form I through Form V. But the school always kept on file the official copies of the Cambridge and London Examination results. Out of the goodness of her heart, Miss Bascom, when requested, was always willing to type up a “transcript” with impressive grades pulled from the thin air.
Like most of the other schools, CHS never had any resident nurse on the staff. Of necessity therefore, Miss Bascom would step into the breach and assume the role of a nurse whenever female students required minor medical attention.
Many of us who knew Miss Bascom cannot forget her integrity, selfless service, and genuine loyalty to the school. Never complaining, hardly ever absent, and always ready and available to help anyone, she proved to be as perfect a school secretary as there ever could have been.