Tessa comes of age as the advent of Independence on a small British Caribbean island disturbs the status quo and establishes a new class and race hierarchy in a country that historically was a polyglot nation. As East Indians living in straitened circumstances in a city in which the social mores are now dictated by the white, mixed race, and well-to-do Blacks, Chinese, Syrians, and Portuguese, the family is under siege as they struggle with financial hardship and discrimination when they are forced to move from their beautiful home in Port of Spain to a much smaller house in the impoverished suburb of San Juan de la PIna. The family’s social life is centred around the Catholic Church and their extended family, and they have their own prejudices as Tessa discovers when the restrictions placed on them by being Catholic hampers her family’s ability to improve their circumstances. Winning entrance into the most prestigious Convent School in the Port of Spain is Tessa’s only hope to get the education she needs to climb out of poverty and break free of the racism that seeks to define and restrict her life.
In her second year at Convent of the Sacred Heart, Tessa and Angela Spence became close friends. Angela was from Meadowbrook. She had white skin, but her hair was “pressed” or straightened with a hot comb. Tessa and Angela were often at the back of the room having fun, paying little attention to the teacher at the front, but they were always careful not to be found out. Tessa would often stop off in the pirate taxi, which plied The Main Road between San Juan de la Pina and Meadowbrook, to visit Angela’s house after school. She would then return home before it was dark.
Tessa had made the mistake of asking Angela about the Venezuelan boy she had seen in the group of boys and girls with Angela. Tessa thought he was cute. His name was Roberto Cadiz. They were all at a bingo being held at Our Lady of Lourdes College. Bingo was something new to the island and this was a big social event. Everyone was dressed in their finest. Once Angela realized that Tessa had her eye on Roberto, she kept whispering “Roberto, Roberto” in Tessa’s ear whenever she could. Tessa got tired of it and wished she hadn’t said anything to Angela.
Even when they were in the chapel, where they prayed the Litany of the Saints and they had to respond, “Have mercy on us,” Angela would tease her with the words, “Have mercy on Roberto.” Tessa was embarrassed and feared that one of the nuns would hear. The chapel was a place where it was impossible to suppress giggles or laughter whenever it came upon you. It was as though the quiet and solemnity created a tension that could only be relieved by giggling or laughing. One day Angela had a laughing fit she could not control, and, soon, the nun behind her did not hesitate to give her several sharp stinging slaps on her shoulders. Tessa knew that Angela carried things much too far, but found her great fun.
Tessa would never forget one particular day in Sister Monica’s class. She and Angela were exchanging notes and giggling over the map of the United States while Sister Monica was pointing out the rivers, the different states, and the physical layout of the country. Tessa and Angela were vying with each other to see who could find the most names of places and titles in the western movies they had seen. They giggled when one of them found Rio Grande, Red River, and Oregon Trail, and the other pointed out the Mississippi River, Dakota, Fargo, Montana, Minnesota, California. It was exciting to see all these names on a real map.
Sister Monica, the geography teacher, was one of the nicest nuns in the school. She never reported or scolded them. Shortly after this particular lesson, Sister Monica was suddenly transferred to a school on a smaller Caribbean island. She had not been there long when news of a tragedy that had befallen her came back. They were horrified to discover that she had been decapitated. It was a backlash against the whites when independence from Britain was in the air. The students who had loved her grieved for her and for the hate and the racial tension that were being unleashed in the name of Independence.
At the end of the year, Tessa was not promoted with her classmates. When her report card came, she cried bitterly. Sylvia was standing with her on the street outside their house when the mailman handed her the envelope.
“How could they do this to me?” she sobbed as she read what was in it. Sylvia took the report card from her and read it.
“What?” she exclaimed. “You failed English? You who always telling us the teachers read out your essays and stories to the rest of the class, and you always having the right answer in English class when nobody else have it? What is going on? There must be a mistake.”
But there was no mistake. Tessa had passed every subject but English, which had been her forte for as long as she could remember. She had always been the best essay writer in her class, even in elementary school. At the age of ten, when she had discovered she could understand the novels of Zane Grey, she was ecstatic that she could read adult books with no trouble. Her male cousins and her brother swapped these western pocket books they bought from the second-hand store. There were no children’s books available, but there were lots of Zane Greys around—The Riders of the Purple Sage, Last of the Plainsmen, The Light of Western Stars, The Lost Wagon Train, West of the Pecos—all exciting and romantic adventures of the Wild West. After that, she went on to read the Victorian novels her mother and aunts read: The Rosary, The Woman in White, East Lynne, Ramona, A Death in the Family, The Way of All Flesh. The City Council had recently opened a branch of the public library in San Juan de la Pina, and Tessa and Sylvia borrowed one novel a week, all that they were allowed, and read them voraciously. They moved on from the Abbey Girls series to read Elizabeth Gouge, A.J. Cronin, Taylor Caldwell, and other popular writers of the time. Once they discovered a writer they liked, they sought out the rest of his or hers books and methodically went through the shelf. All this reading had given Tessa a wide vocabulary and a taste for writing. To lose her year by failing English? The unfairnesss was heart-rending.
Tessa thought hard and long about why she was being punished. Was it because she had been labelled an idler by fooling around with Angela for most of the year? Sister Aloysius had threatened that she, and not their regular teacher, would mark the English papers for their final exams that year. Sister Aloysius had been enraged when it had been reported by the teachers from St. Francis boys’ school across the way that the girls in Tessa’s class had been directing mirrors in the midday sun into the boys’ classroom, which was across from theirs.
“This whole class is a bundle of trouble,” Sister Aloysius had ranted. “Your behaviour has been extremely wild and unacceptable. To think that you would have nothing better to do than this, is disgraceful. You will have to be severely punished. For this and for your many other sins, I will be the one to decide who will pass and who will fail this year. I will make it my business to mark your English exam papers at the end of the year.”
Tessa had not given this threat a second thought. Wasn’t she always at the head of her class in English? It was the other subjects she had to worry about. The school never gave out prizes. Her sister and brother always had a prize-giving day at their school. The only time a prize was offered at the Sacred Heart Convent was in commemoration of some important anniversary the Pope was celebrating. Tessa had won the prize for writing the best essay on the Pope, his duties as head of the Roman Catholic Church, his life in the Vatican, and his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo. When she found out that Sister Aloysius had failed her in English while she had passed everything else, she realized something was terribly wrong. She then remembered when she had been summoned to Sister Aloysius’s office and what had transpired between them.