by Jean de Boissiere
When Ferdinand de Lesseps retreated from the swamps of Panama among his engineers was a young French Creole who was a wizard at Mathematics.
This young Martiniquan, Raoul Boulanger, looked at a splendid future when he had joined de Lesseps who was then planning to repeat his triumph over Suez at Panama. He had emerged from his studies at the Sorbonne covered with honours. His tutors had begged the young Boulanger and his father to abandon the idea of engineering and let the scholar continue his work in pure science.
But the father had already formed connections with de Lesseps and saw success for his son only in terms of money. The salary offered at Panama would make anyone rich who worked on the canal for the duration of its construction. All Raoul could hope for in the musty corridors of a university was honour. And that kind of honour did not stand very high in the scale of human values with the late 19th century businessmen of the West Indies.
Panama was very different from his native Martinique with its cool towering mountains swept with the Atlantic tradewinds. Here it was dull swamps infested with fever and crocodiles. All enthusiasm and faith he had arrived with soon disappeared in the fight against disease.
For relief from the dreadful monotony he and his fellow engineers turned to the hectic pleasures of the Panamanian cabarets. Here he met a dusky brown girl called Carilla by everyone because her laughter had the clear simple tones of a bell. Night after night he forgot de Lesseps’ canal and the terrifying loneliness in her gay company.
Then he fell a victim to the fever that was strewing corpses from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Carilla left her cabaret to nurse him. For weeks she looked after him with the care that will defeat a disease where the finest doctor has failed.
As he convalesced, he grew very attached to her. Before he left the hospital he married her because of the gratitude he felt for her for having saved his life, fully aware that he could never take her among his own people to Martinique, who possessed all the negrophobia of the white peoples of that time. He planned on staying on in Panama when the canal was finished.
Circumstances however, worked against the project as a whole. Boulanger went to Trinidad. On his arrival here he sought a job in his profession, and found that all the engineering being done in the place was the construction of roads. He was told by the administration here that they had all the qualified English engineers they had use for.
He decided to go back to France. But he had not enough money to do so. To make it he began giving lessons to college boys in the evening. He had such a success with his pupils, that within six months every ambitious father in the island wanted Boulanger to take his son as a pupil. Unable to have them all in the evenings, he opened a full-time school.
There was a rush of boys from the Roman Catholic College to come to his school. To offset this there began a whispering campaign against him. It was said that his pretty wife corrupted the morals of the boys, and that he taught them atheism.
Boulanger paid no attention to the tales and depended on his high standard of teaching mathematics to bring him pupils. Apparently, that was the proper technique for dealing with the ‘mauvais langue’. If you ignored it, the public did likewise; if you engaged it, you set a thousand more in motion instantly.
He gave up all idea of going to France and settled permanently in Trinidad. Pupils came to him all over the Caribbean from Venezuela, Columbia and every West Indian island. Boulanger's school became the West Indian prelude to the European education of any young man who was going there to take a profession.
From the spacious courtyard all the boys streamed into the old Spanish building. On the two sides of the hall were the classrooms. The desks looked as if they had been salvaged from a fire. By comparison, the old bentwood chairs looked new. When they were all seated, the aging Frenchman came into the classroom. Slightly hunched, with a greasy flannel suit hanging on the thin frame of his body, he shuffled in with his two feet pointing at right angles.
As he lifted his head to greet them with a "Bonjour!" the deep blue eyes shot forth shafts of an intense light. When he began the day's works by asking them for their homework ,a light cynical look played over his face.
"Carlos, where is that equation I gave you to do?" he demanded of an indolent Venezuelan pupil whose father was the dictator of an area larger than Great Britain. He had been sent here to study morals rather than mathematics. But was incapable of either.
"I did it but I cannot find it." Carlos lied.
"Did you?" Boulanger hissed as he always did when in a French rage. "Well you are a thief who steals the rotten money your brigand father gives me to pretend that you will learn anything, Blockhead! Canaille!"
With a shrug of contempt he turned to the next boy. Their work collected, he gave them a few minutes of conversation while he prepared the day's lesson.
'The preen-ceeple--" he began in his halting English when suddenly he stopped. Over the tops of his glass he was glaring at a fat boy of 14 in an open-collared sport shirt.
' Lou—ees," he hissed. "What do you mean by coming into my classroom with all your fat lee-tle breasts showing like that, huh? Go home and put on your brassieres before you put all the boys in my class in a grand chaleur." Louis, mortified, went into the hall and buttoned his shirt collar.
Episodes like that made the boys more attentive than ever.
Next to mathematics, Boulanger's favourite subject was philosophy. With the philosophy he handed out pure 19th century atheism to the pupils, and made an agnostic out of many a good son of a devout Roman Catholic.
One day in the midst of talk on Voltaire he began one of his usual tirades about the superstitions of the very religious people of Trinidad.
"The poor fools, they believe that by wearing holes in their stockings, kneeling before plaster images they will cure all their ills. Idiots - if they used their pennies to buy food instead of candles, they would not meet with hell so quickly!"
"The dam foo-"
At this point there was a knock at the door. "Entrez!" called Mr. Boulanger with a snap. The door opened and a humble black-robed priest entered the room.
"Good morning, Father. What can I do for you?" Boulanger asked sheepishly.
“A list, Mr. Boulanger. To help with the building of the new wing of the Cathedral." the priest said supplicantly. "We hope you will put something."
"But certainly, Father," the educator said, delving his hand in his pocket and extracting two dollars.
Before Boulanger had time to return to Voltaire after the priest had departed, one of pupils took a swift opportunity to take advantage of the difficult position he had the old Frenchman in.
"But Mr. Boulanger,” he launched off, "just a few minutes ago, you were telling us what fools people were to give priests money, and the first one that walks into your school, you give him two dollars."
"You imbecile!" screamed the annoyed man. "It is to keep ignorant savages like you from chopping off my head that I pay that blackmailer to keep you in the ignorance you were born."
With this delivered, he turned to Voltaire with added vigour.
When the prescribed school hours were over, Boulanger would sit in his court yard with his brightest pupils grouped around him. While his mulatto grandchildren crawled and bawled at his feet, he would talk, and the most gifted educator in Trinidad never lacked for pupils who sat enthralled while he spoke of history, mathematics and philosophy in the brilliant clear sentences that would be impressed upon them profoundly.
As the years went on, he taught generation after generation. At 80, his capacity for teaching was as great as it had been when he first arrived in Trinidad nearly 50 years before. But while the soul of the school; his teaching remained at its high level: its body declined.
His school was the most famous in the West Indies, and he always had more pupils than he could house. He placed more importance on a pupil who could learn well than one who could pay well. This kind of economic pressure drove him from bad to worse. At the age of 80, he was teaching in a four-room shack that housed his pupils, his numerous descendants and himself.
And when Raoul Boulanger, who had given the whole Caribbean some of its finest doctors, engineers and teachers, died, 20- odd children and grandchildren of every hue and shade were all that followed the mortal remains of the finest educator of the West Indies to their resting place.”
José Dessources, most likely subject of this essay was one of the great educators of a bygone time. In his wake came Randolf Allan Young, Mr. de Four and E. Blizzard, to name a few who maintained the high tradition of teaching as a calling in Trinidad and Tobago.