Mt. Alvernia & Beyond

by Evelyn O'Callaghan,
BA University of College Cork, MLit Oxford PhD (UWI), 1978 Rhodes Scholar Recipient and past student of Mt. Alvernia High School


Posted Feb. 2, 2011


Evelyn O'CallaghanI arrived at Mount Alvernia small and late: my family had been travelling overseas, so I missed the start of term. Wearing my strange new uniform of white dress, bow and hat, I found myself standing in front of a first form class of nearly all strangers, and all so much bigger girls. It was terrifying! But there is a place for all types in any family, and Mount Alvernia became a family to most of us. I made friends there who are still friends, teachers who have been profound influences on my life, and what I learned there made me who I am.

Up to third form, I was a pretty good student, and in some terror of being sent to the Headmistress. Then I started to grow and to grow up, and to make new friends, embrace new ideas and try new things. It was a changing time, politically and socially, for Jamaica, and a new rebellious youth culture was stirring worldwide in the late 1960s and early 1970s. By fifth form I was part of a group of girls who met every lunch time and shared patty and cocobread, and with whom I learned about the things that weren't discussed in class! We must have learned the classroom lessons too because we nearly all did decently in our GCE "O" level exams.

I was valedictorian at graduation, but it was not so much a farewell as a transition, because I remained at school to do my GCE "A" levels. However, the sixth form moved to its own building – the former Chetwood Primary School, situated strategically between Mount Alvernia and Cornwall College, where we attended classes with the boys as our cohort was too small to justify hiring advanced level teachers. That was a fabulous time; we had a certain amount of freedom, we shared classes with boys (a novelty) and the teachers treated us more like adults. Community service was important then, and the Sixth Form Association taught classes in adult literacy and helped renovate the almshouse. Romances blossomed and some MAHS/CC marriages still stand as testimony. And then in 1973, after seven years at Mount Alvernia, came the dreaded final exams and it was on to a new chapter for all of us.

Yet I suppose I never really left school, as my entire working life has been in education: first acquiring it and then practicing it. I did my undergraduate degree at University College Cork in Ireland, my father's university. After achieving a first class honours BA in English and Philosophy, I registered for my Masters and began tutoring in Literature. But again, Mount Alvernia decided my future. The Rhodes Scholarship had just been opened up to women and my mother and the Principal of MAHS, Sister Joan Clare Chin Loy, hatched a plan to have me apply. When I made it to the shortlist, they clubbed together to pay my airfare home for the interview. I was honoured to be awarded the scholarship and after three years, completed my MPhil in English at Oxford and returned to Jamaica to teach Literature at the Mona campus of UWI. I am currently Professor of West Indian Literature at the Cave Hill campus in Barbados, still small (compared to most of my students) and often late.

Mount Alvernia started me on my path to where I am now, and I gratefully offer heartfelt congratulations to staff and students on the 85th Anniversary Celebration of the school.


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