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Life of A Jamaican Child in the 70s and 80s

Can I just add that I was the one that asked about what Jamaican children did back in the days - games they played, what was a typical packed lunch, the school system etc. in and around the late 70s/ early 80s. Are you able to find this information

RESPONSE: by Sheree-Anita Shearer


Thank you for stopping by and for your question.

Just like you, I’ve always been curious about what life was like in the 70s and 80s when my mother was a child. Luckily for us both, my mother and grandmother have always enjoyed sharing their past experiences with me and I’ve always enjoyed listening.

Morning routine

Can you imagine getting up early in the morning to polish (shine) the wooden floor with a coconut brush, carrying water from the nearby pond for domestic uses, feeding chickens/pigs, or chores like that before heading off to school? I learned that was pretty much a normal morning routine for primary school children in the rural areas of Jamaica in the 70s and 80s. Children would wake up very early in the mornings, most times at 5 am, to complete the chores they had to do before it was time to get ready for school. The chores would be split among the children in the house with the boys seeing to outdoor tasks like feeding the animals, going to the farm to collect the milk and eggs from father, and taking it back home in time for breakfast to be made. The girls would carry out the more domestic tasks of cleaning the house, doing the dishes and helping with breakfast, or making the packed lunches that each child would take to school. A typical Jamaican breakfast would consist of eggs, fried plantains, chocolate tea (made with the milk from the farm and chocolate freshly made from the cocoa plant).

How did they get to school?

After breakfast, you would get ready and start your journey to school which for my mother was a three-mile walk. There would be a large group made up of siblings, cousins and neighbours doing this journey together. The journey to school made for a little playtime and coming up with elaborate stories and sharing them with the group just to pass the time of the long trip you were making. Sometimes this would cause the group to be a little behind and they would hear the school’s bell ringing with sometimes ½ a mile left in the journey. This was now a race against the clock to ensure that they would get there before school began and avoid a sound spanking so the rest of the journey was done as a sprint.

What did they do in school?

The children would be received by their respective teachers at the gate and lead into the morning's devotion. Here they would sing choruses, read scriptures from the Bible and pray before repeating the National Pledge and singing the National Anthem. The Principal would then address the entire school before sending everyone off to their respective classes. The basic subjects done were mathematics, language and reading for every student. Students in higher grades would do more advanced levels of those subjects as well as sciences, social studies and general knowledge which would cover current or historical information such as ministers in government and who the governor-general was. On Fridays, since the attendance would go from 30 students per class to about 10, students would be able to explore other subjects such as art, music or home economics for the girls and agriculture for the boys. The girls would learn the basics of sewing and baking while the boys would learn about planting crops and caring for animals.

What did they have for lunch?

Lunch very similar to now would be every child’s favourite period. This is where you would get to eat and play until school resumed for the afternoon portion of classes. Some students would eat at the canteen which would offer bulgur and curried chicken, cabbage and corned beef with rice and dumpling among many other food items. There would also be particular days when a particular item would be available at the canteen such as soup days. For those who brought packed lunches to school, it could be anything from a bread and egg sandwich or fried dumplings and eggs to gungo peas soup or some kind of meat or vegetable stew with ground provisions or ‘hard food’ such as yams, potatoes, dasheens with dumplings. Along with lunch children would have either water, lemonade, or some kind of homemade drink made from fruits. Some children opted for sky juice (syrup and/or lemon juice poured over shaved ice in a small bag) that could be bought for JMD $1.00 from the lady who sold at the school’s gate.

What games did they play?

After eating, it would be time for games. Children would play marbles, cricket, jump rope (known locally as skipping), gigs (spin top), police and thief, mama lashy, and dandy shandy. Police and thief is a game played mainly by the boys, where one set would be the police and the others set, the ‘thieves’ would try and avoid getting caught. This elaborate game of tag could take the boys all over the school property and through the gullies that ran behind the school premises and one game could take many days to be complete. There was even a prison cell to house the thieves who were arrested. The girls would play ‘mama lashy’ which would see one child acting as a mother to multiple children and they would carry out family-like activities together. For a game of dandy shandy you would need a minimum of three players, two of which would be the throwers and the other would be the dodger. In the game, two players would throw a ball, usually made of a juice box stuffed with paper or balled-up stockings, and the dodger would try to avoid getting hit by the ball. If they got hit they were out. There is no limit to the number of dodgers allowed in a game and many children would play to make the game even more fun.

Lunch break ended with a return thanks prayer after which each student would be expected to repeat the multiplication (times) tables in unison and the principal would walk around each class listening out for anyone who made an error. The main test at that time was the Common Entrance Exam which was done by year 6 students. Each school would get a specific number of places for each student in the Common Entrance class. This means that not every student got the chance to sit the exam. Those selected few were handpicked by the Principal a year before and would start preparing for their exams. The children who got picked would feel lucky to be given a chance to be placed in a high school. Each student got about three attempts at the exam. Those who did not sit the exam would get a shot through the Grade Nine Achievement Test or branch out in Vocational Areas such as Carpentry, Masonry or Farming.

The journey home

After school the students would start the journey back home playing along the way or discussing the day they had at school. Some children would save some of their food and drink from lunch and they would all stop and share whatever was left with each other at some point on the journey. They would raid fruit trees, stashing the unripe ones until they ripen. When the children got home it would be time to check on the animals again, and for those children who only had one uniform, they would have to ensure that it was ready for school the next day. Homework was a must too. They used the kerosene lamp to provide lighting to do this.
Primary school those days seemed so much fun. What do you think you would be doing if you were around then?

I also recommend you read Ranking of High Schools in Jamaica - Jamaica's Top Secondary Schools.


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