It is an absolute pleasure to be here with you today at this celebration of excellence, held, most fittingly, in the school Chapel. I am reminded of the chapel at my own alma mater, St Joseph’s Convent, San Fernando. It was rumoured to be a place of reflection and rejuvenation. I say “rumoured”, because when I was at school, it was a special place, reserved for the nuns only. Students were not allowed to venture there. I used to stare at it longingly. They say that good things come to those who wait. This evening, after a long, long wait, I have finally secured admittance to a chapel at St. Joseph’s Convent. And so, I thank the members of the St Joseph’s Convent, Port of Spain Past Pupils’ Association for their invitation to attend this function this evening, in what I believe can have been no better location. I ask, however, that no mention be made to my alma mater that it has so resoundingly been beaten to the punch.
I absolutely delight in celebrating the excellence of others. The poet John Donne famously wrote that “Each man’s death diminishes me/
For I am involved in mankind”. On the other side of that same coin, each person’s success enlarges me, because it reminds me of how great and of how powerful we, as human beings, can be. This evening, we gather to celebrate eight human beings whose great and powerful service to humanity has enlarged us all. And, just as I could think of no better place to hold this evening’s ceremony, I can also think of no better theme for it than the theme “Engaging Community, Inspiring Hope.” As Donne reminds us in that same poem, “No man is an island/Entire of itself/Each is a piece of the continent/A part of the main”. And so, as we celebrate the excellence of the eight women we gather this evening to honour, it is the entire community that is given hope by their example; it is the entire continent and the whole of the main that benefit from and are inspired by their achievements.
And so, to Sister Philip Geofroy, representative of Sister Gabrielle Mason (who is no longer with us (1941-2022); Dr Lennise Baptiste; Ms Leslie-Ann Boisselle; Dr Eldonna Boisson; Dr Aisha Chow; Ms Claire Eunice Gittens; and Dr Tonya Villafana—please accept my most sincere congratulations on your induction into this Hall of Excellence and your outstanding achievements over the years. My husband tells me that he studied at the Convent at a time when Dr. Villafana was a student here, when he briefly pursued Spanish at A’ Levels at the Convent in the 1980s. He, too, is enlarged by her success and sends his congratulations. As for Ms Claire Eunice-Gittens, in my previous incarnation, you were, and you still are, the stuff of which legends of the Public Service of Trinidad and Tobago are made. You have my congratulations and a nation’s thanks for this.
I believe that celebrating excellence, as we are doing this evening, is an important exercise on several fronts. First, it serves as a public acknowledgement of the hard work and sacrifices made by the inductees. It also provides to them the reassurance that their efforts have been meaningful and worthwhile. In addition, a celebration of this kind sets a benchmark for excellence and encourages others to strive to attain similarly lofty heights.
What I find refreshingly distinctive about this evening’s celebrations, is the clarity and the transparency of the criteria for selection for induction, which the Past Pupils’ Association has so openly disclosed. In this regard, I note that the Hall of Excellence has the ‘dual objective of recognising the outstanding achievements of past pupils and providing role models for present students’ in the categories of Academia, the Arts, Sport, Social/Charitable Works, Religion, Professional, Pioneering Work/ Innovation, Business and Public Service. In addition, induction recognises ‘persons who have made a significant contribution to national development and who emulate the virtues and values of the foundress of the Cluny Religious Order, Blessed Ann Marie Javouhey.’
These criteria are as comprehensive as they are clear — and, insofar as comprehensiveness is concerned, rightly so. For, it is their comprehensiveness that most powerfully reflects the theme of this year’s induction ceremony — “Engaging community, inspiring hope” – because your criteria ensure that inductees must not only excel in their careers and chosen fields, but that their work also has a demonstrable impact on the wider society.
A cursory scan of your past awardees reveals an impressive panoply of persons who have done just that – their work has gone above and beyond as they pursued their respective vocations, at the same time that their work has made a tremendously positive difference in the lives of their communities and of our nation. Among them are the gifted economist and former First Lady Patricia Robinson; the brilliant jurist, Retired Justice of Appeal Jean Permanand, who, in 1993, became the first female Justice of Appeal in the country; the renowned environmentalist Molly Gaskin; the indefatigable literacy advocate Paula Lucie-Smith; the tireless activist Hazel Brown; and the gracious and graceful Speaker of the House Bridgid Annisette-George. There is also among your inductees in 2001, the inimitable Sr. Paul D’Ornellas, whose work in the area of adult education has touched, and continues to touch the lives of so many, including my own. In 2013, Sr. Paul’s ‘right-hand’ in her beloved Foundation for Human Development, former Principal Jennifer Anandsingh, also deservedly joined the ranks of your celebrated inductees. I have benefitted immensely from knowing both women. There is no doubt that the rest of Donne’s proverbial ‘continent’, and the whole of his ‘main’ have also benefited from knowing, and from having had their lives touched, by all inductees since the inception of the Hall of Excellence.
These impressive women, and all of the women whom we honour today, put in more than their fair share of effort, shattering glass ceilings in various spheres along the way, and making themselves completely at home – one might even say, establishing their dominance – in what, in a faraway place, long ago, once used to be called a man’s world. These women cultivated, exhibited and embodied values and traits that benefited their communities and their nation. Their accomplishments have shattered the very definition of success itself; the traditional definitions of success are not broad enough to measure the span of their accomplishments. Theirs have been lives in which, while striving to achieve their greatest potential, sight was never lost of the responsibility to contribute to the wider national community and to cultivate values that promote the greater good. I believe that people ‘of value’ are net contributors to, rather than net consumers of, their nation’s resources and capabilities. And I believe that the women whom we honour today, like those who have gone before them, are women of value. They have ordered their lives in alignment with values such as empathy, compassion, social responsibility, discipline and productivity. And they have found ways to give back and improve the lives of those around them. To paraphrase Donne – If one of them be washed away by the sea, our country is the less.
I have long believed that schools are critical in transmitting to young people fundamental values and principles, as well as the understanding that all of us have a role in making our society better. It is at school that we first learn the values of teamwork, of communication, of hard work and of sacrifice. It is there that we are brought into a deeper understanding of Donne’s concept that no man is an island; that we are all part of a whole’ and that each one of us has a part to play in the wellbeing of society. I was pleased beyond measure to read on the St Joseph’s Convent website, the school’s philosophy, which was stated to be “an education which emphasises the inter-relatedness of life of the individual in relationship with God, with the self, with others and with the wider society. The idea of the school as a community in which each member is valued and nurtured, and her unique individuality allowed to unfold, where ideas can grow and mature and in which creativity can be released and experienced…We are also guided by the principle of meaningful student participation in school affairs and by concern for the development of integrity, courage and strength in our young people.”
What a powerful and a poignant philosophy. St Joseph’s Convent is clearly a school that ‘gets it’. With a philosophy like that, it is little wonder that the school produces confident, accomplished, well-rounded, civic-minded women who become assets, rather than liabilities to the community. With a philosophy like that, it is little wonder that we are gathered this evening to honour women who have excelled at giving back.
It seems to me, as we honour this year’s inductees, that the greatest homage we can pay to them is for each of us to engage in self-reflection and ask ourselves some pertinent questions. How have I contributed to the greater good? Have my actions inspired hope in anyone? How can I make a difference in my community? I suspect that a study of the lives of each of the remarkable women we have gathered here to celebrate this evening, would help us all find better answers to these questions. I suspect that we would find that each of them has been able to lead truly meaningful lives, investing significantly in their careers, while at the same time investing, selflessly and heavily, in the lives of those around them. And I suspect that if we emulate their lives, we will find ourselves leading fuller and far more impactful lives, and answering these questions with greater clarity and with greater confidence.
It is my hope that the success of those we celebrate this evening, and the recognition that we bestow upon them for their efforts, will encourage others to follow in their footsteps. I once again congratulate all of you on your achievements and I wish you the very best in your future endeavours.