Reflections on my journey as founding Principal of El Socorro Islamia School (1949)

El Socorro Islamia new building
There are events in the life of an individual that stand out as a shining star in a cloudless sky, as he passes through the corridor of time. Such an event occurred on Bissessar Street in El Socorro. The date, 3rd March, the year 1949.

Nabab Ali (ra)

The Tackveeyatul Islamic Association had appointed me as “Head Teacher” (now Principal) of their school at El Socorro. It was the first non-Christian school to receive state aid and it marked a new dawn for education in Trinidad and Tobago. I realized that for a man of thirty-two, this was a responsibility of great magnitude.

It was a crisp morning and with the exultance of a five year old who is anxious to open his birthday gift, I entered the building that day. It was an open hall with a stage. Two three feet walls, flanked the open hall on either side. The floor was of concrete structure. There was an adjoining room at the back of the building. This was the Prayer or ‘Namaaz’ room. The appearance was more like a hall than a school building.

One thing was uppermost in my mind. Since this was a Muslim Denominational School, the atmosphere of the ‘school should be that of the noble religion of Islam. Indeed, many were the people who had worked and ! toiled, who had sacrificed their time and money for the establishment of this cause and for the realization of this day; men like Nazir Ahmad Simab, missionary from India, the late Mr. Abdul Ghany, his son Mr. Nur Ghany, the late Mr. Hashim Muzaffar, the late Mr. Jaffar Ali, Mr. Siddique Mustapha, the Honourable Kamaluddin Mohammed, Mr. Rajab Ali, Sheikh Damree, and many others.

El Socorro Islamia School first building

My Staff comprised four young teachers. They were:- Mr. Selwyn Akal, Miss Abida Khan, Mr. Asgar Ali, and Miss Cynthia Hosein. They were inexperienced, but young and enthusiastic. That morning of the 3rd March, in a brief ceremony, I was introduced to members of my staff by Mr. Nur M. Ghany, President General of the Association. A few other members of the School Board were also present. I recall Mr. Ghany’s introduction: “This is a great day for all those who have laboured in this noble cause. The responsibility is now that of the headmaster and the teachers to take over and make it a success”.

“The responsibility is now yours!” How often those words have come to my mind! I owed that responsibility to the pupils under my care; I owed it to the parents, I owed it to the community, I owed it to my conscience and my God. For the quarter of a century I have served at this institution, I have always reminded the many teachers, the parents and the pupils about this sacred responsibility.

My first task was to impress my young staff. We realized that being a new school, the eyes and ears of the public will be on us. There was on one hand the Education Department, on the other the parents, and above all the pupils themselves. The co-operation which I received from members of staff had been amazing. School hours i.e. the regular period of working from 8.30 a.m, to 3.00 p.m never came into our reckoning. In fact, many of us started classes at 8.00 a.m. and would continue up to 5.00 p.m On Saturdays and school holidays we kept classes to assist our pupils. This may appear unpsychological but it was the Prophet Jesus who said, “Whoso asketh of you to go a mile, go twain”. This continued for years and many a product of El Socorro Islamia still look back at those days with pride.

Truly, the extra effort was reflected in paving the quality ‘of the work. School inspectors (now termed Supervisors)  visitors, members of the School Board, were impressed with our efforts. In fact, I recall the afternoon when the Director of Education, Mr. Sydney Hogben, visited the school. He made a thorough inspection of physical surroundings, the organization, the religious programme, and the general work of the  school.  In the end he inscribed in the logbook; “This school which I visited today makes an excellent impression”.  This tribute coming from an educationist served in many parts of Her Majesty’s Colonial Empire including the Middle East thrilled me immensely. My staff and I celebrated this visit that having soft drinks from a nearby cafe.

Four months after the school was started, an event of particular significance occurred. For the first time we entered a Quiz Competition among the schools of the St. George area. The competition was being held at the San Juan Government School, and, in those days, these competitions drew large attendances comprising parents, teachers, pupils and members of the public. The competition was based on Civics. The trophy at stake was a cup donated by the then mayor of Port of Spain, the late George Cabral. I remembered that there was one particular school which had the reputation for about :three years to cop this trophy.

Our school was represented by two cousins – Majeed Mustapha and Raffina Mustapha. Since we were entering our first competition, we took great pains to prepare those two pupils. But how could we succeed in a.competition with such seasoned competitors! After all we were just four months old. I realized this was a great disadvantage to us but as the saying goes, there could be a dark horse in the race and sometimes there are upsets.

Majeed Mustapha and Raffina Mustapha with George Cabral Trophy for Quiz Champions 1949

That evening before a packed crowd at the San Juan Government School, the competitors from each of the schools took their positions on the stage. The system adopted by the Quiz Master was on the elimination basis. One school competed against the other until there were three finalists. We found ourselves among these three. Another round of questions and we knocked out our competitors. We were now two schools, the past champions and El Socorro Islamia. The excitement was high. The crowd was behind us. There was loud cheering as the Quiz Master popped his question to the opposing school. No answer. He fired another at our school. No answer. There was a tie. Excitement rose! Last question to the opposing team. No answer. The question was thrown at El Socorro Islamia and up came I the correct answer! We had won! It was one of the I greatest moments in the life of our school and this received high publicity in the Press.

One of the greatest blessings to our school was the formation of the Parent-Teacher Association. I regard this as germane to the life of a school. After all, the parents and the pupils are all part and parcel of the education force in the life of the child so why not have the parents directly involved! I organized various activities in which I sought to educate the parents with respect to the nurturing of their children. Through the media of film shows, lectures, panel discussions and visits to institutions and social activities, we became a large family which worked for the uplift and betterment of our pupils. Through the P.T.A. we started the hue and cry for a new building and presented our Board with a cheque to the value of ten thousand dollars. The new building was built in 1969. It was parents who supplied tables, chairs and blackboards to our schools. It was the P.T.A. that supplied us with books for our library, and organized social functions for our pupils.

But this was not all. The P.T.A. became a force which parents looked upon with great respect. We had operating in this organization a “panchayat” system in which many untoward incidents which were in the hands of the law were settled out of court. This resulted in a strengthening of human relationship among parents and members of the community and this had its effects on relationship of children, one with the other. Our school was regarded as a family school in which the members young and old lived in concord and peace.

In this school I had great difficulty in finding school places for pupils who came for admission. The school could have accommodated 396 pupils, but with the formation of the P.T.A., parents and teachers became so closely knitted that when parents had additional children to be admitted, we had to seek a way out. Besides, the parents were working and contributing financially to assist our school. Turning them away, therefore, was entirely out of the question so I had to find more accommodation for their children. It was the parents themselves who solved the problem by allowing us to use their homes, garages and sheds. About three hundred pupils were able to be taught thus.

These parents were Mr. and Mrs. Jhulan Mohimmed, Miss Khatijan (Kat) Mohammed, Mr. and Mrs. Sirju Mohammed, Mr. and Mrs. Hassim Gaffoor, the late Mr. Hassim Panchu and Mrs. Panchu, Mr. and Mrs. Abass Mustapha, Mrs. Meeman Mustapha and our beloved neighbour of revered memory Mrs. Cummings (Neighbour Claudie).

In order to develop the full personality of the child, the school organized various groups in which children are trained. Thus, such extra curricular activities as Junior Red Cross, Cubs and Boy Scouts Movement, Brownies, Literary and Debating Club, Cricket, Netball Drama Club had been founded.

In the Art Society group many of our pupils have won prizes in open competitions among other schools. In cricket, despite the lack of facilities, our school emerged champions among the schools in the Northern Division in 1972.

New building housing El Socorro Islamia

One of the important aspects of our school programme is the religious education we impart to our pupils. I believe that the flower of youth never appears more beautiful than when it bends towards the sun of righteousness. In this aspect of our programme we have been greatly assisted by the evening classes, Maktabs, which are held at the Nur-E-Islam mosque. But religion is not a dogma, not an emotion, but a service doing the will of God. This we have impressed on our pupils and for the many pupils who have passed through El Socorro Islamia, we look forward to their service to their fellowmen.

An event of great importance to our school is our Annual Speech Day and Prize giving function. When we started  our school in 1949,  this was one of our regular features.  For a few years, however, this had to be discontinued because of unavoidable circumstances. Since we have moved into our new building in 1969, we have restarted this exercise. It is indeed a day which all parents and pupils, teachers and members of our School Board attend and we review the year’s work. There is usually a graduating class comprising pupils who, by virtue of obtaining a place to a Secondary School, on the basis of the Common Entrance Examination, are given prizes, as well as words of advice by a special representative from the Ministry of Education.

Principal Nabab Ali (ra) addressing school assembly

Since we have started our Speech Day, it is a source of great happiness to me to see other schools falling in line in this exercise. It is to be hoped that other schools, that have not been doing so will take advantage of this useful practice.

It will be difficult for me to enumerate the many successes the school has achieved. I record herein some of these highlights. I record also some of the achievements of the pupils and teachers who were at El Socorro Islamia. In doing so, I am cognisant of the co-operation given to me by members of my staff my School Board over the twenty-five years. I realize that in  any organization, the co-operation of its workers is the foundation on which success can be achieved. This I have had. Many of the teachers who have served at El Socorro Islamia have gone in other walks of life. Some have moved up and serving with the Ministry of Education. One, Mr. Sham Mohammed, is a Government Minister. To all of you I say in the words of the author:

“I expect to pass through this world but once.
Any good work, therefore,
Any kindness, or any service I can render to any soul of man or animal, let me do it now!
Let me not neglect or defer it,
For I shall not pass this way again”.

Some of the Success of El Socorro T.I.A. School

1. The enrollment of the school increased from 146 to 638 pupils;
2. The teaching staff increased from 4 to 18 teachers;
3. From a modest shed the school has been replaced by a modern two storey building;
4. Won George Cabral Trophy in Quiz Contest;
5. Won Dr. Sankerali Health Shield;
6. Won Trophy for Arithmetic sponsored by the St. George Area of Trinidad and Tobago Teachers’ Union;
7. Won Trophy for Cricket Supremacy among schools in North Trinidad;
8. Placed first for three years in succession among schools in the Area in Essay Contests sponsored by the Barataria Village Council on the Theme Environmental Sanitation & Civics,
9. Placed first in Essay Competition among schools in St. George on Family Planning sponsored by the Family Planning Association;
10. Won trophy for English language sponsored by the St. George Area of Trinidad & Tobago Teachers Union;
11. Placed first in the 9-11 age group in Art competition on the Theme ‘Human Rights’ sponsored by the Ministry of Education and Culture;
12. Placed third in the age group 11-13 on Short Story writing on the Theme ‘Human Rights’ sponsored by the Ministry of Education and Culture;
13. Placed second twice, in Recitation Contest sponsored by Himalaya Club for Schools in St. George;
14. Over the years the school has won five hundred and twenty five places in Secondary Schools on the basis of the College Exhibition and Common Entrance Examination. Last year, with additional places offered by Government, we secured 83 places. Four pupils were awarded exhibitions.
15. Placed first twice in Sports competition among T.I.A. Schools.

1. Hon. Sham Mohammed (Teacher) Barrister-at-law and Minister of Public Utilities
2. Dr. Esau Shamshair (Teacher) Medical Practitioner
3. Dr. Jameel Ali (Teacher) Specialist Surgeon Plastic Surgery;
4. Dr. Nizam Mohammed (Teacher) Medical Practitioner
5. Dr. Sair Ali Shah (Teacher) Ministry of Education
6. Dr. Kemal Ali (Pupil) Medical Practitioner
7. Dr. Robin Hosein (Pupil) Medical Practitioner
8. Dr. Zuleikha Ali (Pupil) Medical Practitioner
9. Mrs. Kamilla Boochoon (Pupil) B.A. Hons.
10. Imtiaz  Hosein (Pupil) BSc.
1 1. Aleem Hosein (Pupil) BSc.
12. Majeed Mustapha (Pupil) MSc.
13. Wahid Mustapha (pupil) BSc. BEd
14. Jaleel Mustapha (pupil) BSc.
15. Fatima Ali (Pupil) BSc.
16. Mushtaq Ali (pupil) BSc.
17. Zalina Mohammed (Pupil) BSc.
18. Sheriff Mustapha (Pupil) M.A.
19. Khalid Mohammed (pupil) M.A.

Extracted from the Tackveeyatul Islamic Association of Trinidad and Tobago inc. Silver Anniversary souvenir brochure (1974)

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