Convent Girls: Crashing the Stereotype

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“Where is your accent?” That’s the first question people ask me when I confess that I attended St. Joseph’s Convent, Port of Spain.

This is usually followed by, “You are so not a convent girl eh!”, which more often than not brings me great satisfaction. Not that I am ashamed of having attended SJC. I passed my Common Entrance exam with flying colours, and passed confidently through the front door of my first choice. No shame in that game.

It’s what I found when I got there that makes any association with the Convent Girl stereotype problematic.

What is the Convent Girl stereotype? The Convent Girl is a cute, well groomed, Roman Catholic girl who is both snobby and wealthy (or maintains the appearance of someone who is wealthy), has what is known in some circles as a ‘Westmoorings accent’, and, most of all, keeps herself separate and apart from ‘the masses’.

 

‘Frighteningly, the Convent Girl does not speak unless she is spoken to’

‘Unlike those aggressive Bishops girls, she knows her place’

 

Frighteningly, the Convent Girl does not speak unless she is spoken to, has the best etiquette and manners, and simply could not hurt a fly. While she will more than likely become a housewife, the Convent Girl has also been known to enter the traditional professions where she won’t make much of a name for herself because unlike those aggressive Bishops girls, she knows her place.

This stereotype is not unfounded.

In my seven years at SJC, there were many students and teachers who fit this stereotype to a T. They were quite comfortably the Convent Girl poster children who were pampered and applauded by the school’s administration, as if they were the cat’s finest pyjamas.

These girls would add an “ah” to every single word they spoke, and go up an octave at the end of each sentence.

They would do exactly as they were told without question and would usually be rewarded with a Prefect’s badge at the end of their mindless tenure.

After all, for the school’s administration, forcing everyone to conform to one particular stereotype was the simplest way to exercise control, and when faced with an easier way, and a more challenging one, who wouldn’t choose the easier way?

Furthermore, the SJC has its foundation in the Roman Catholic faith, which, if we are honest, is one of the most conservative religions in Trinidad and Tobago. To stay true to its roots, the administration had to ensure that it was unacceptable to behave, dress, speak or adorn yourself in a certain manner.

 

‘The end product would inevitably be elitist lady conservatives destined to spend their lives following the straight and brainless narrow’

 

Creative outlets that encouraged critical thinking, such as sport, drama, dance and journalism, were not given much priority. We were taught that academic performance was most important since that was what we were there for. No matter how hard you may have tried to put this aside, very few persons have the conviction not to be persuaded by this conservative way of thinking. The end product would inevitably be elitist lady conservatives destined to spend their lives following the straight and brainless narrow.

Some would even say that persons of a certain social grouping were favoured at SJC.

They would say that these persons came in on the 20% at Common Entrance or through a ‘bligh’ transfer at Form Two; teachers were mortified to tell them what to do and they were allowed to circumvent school policy. I cannot say whether ‘they’ would be right, but I remember, in particular, that when I graduated the principal didn’t want me to accept my award in a thin-strapped LONG dress, but allowed a student’s mother from that same social grouping to accept her daughter’s award in a mini white dress with her ENTIRE panty printing through the back.

I do not doubt that pandering to particular classmates helped secure some much needed funding for the amenities, which we enjoyed equally, such as a fully stocked science lab, an air conditioned audio visual room, a Form Six study room, and a well stocked library.

In the end, that is surely a lesson in life, because the real world is not much different.

 

‘Sometimes the rich just get away with stuff’

 

Sometimes the rich just get away with stuff.

Did witnessing such behaviour influence some of us to adopt the mannerisms of this certain class so that one day we too could get away with stuff? Well it’s possible.

Once you understand the background to the stereotype, you should also understand that many of us, including myself, are nothing like this. For the most part my friends and I are down to earth, natural, intelligent women who have taken the world by the horns. We have carried our bottomless ‘inquisitivity’ to the next level becoming professionals who live our lives in accordance with our own values.

When I asked my classmates to weigh in on this topic they were very excited to talk about our alma mater and the famous stereotype.

Some felt that the administration was not to blame for the stereotype, and believed that many students were already sheltered and elitist when they entered the school. Therefore, although SJC did nothing to alter their behaviour, it was not the root cause.

One classmate noted that her sister went to Convent and sported blonde dreads for most of her school life without being subject to any pressure. Others were happy to be called Convent girls because for them it was a positive association with over-achievers who maintain their femininity. These young women have redefined the stereotype, accepting some aspects and rejecting others, thereby making it their own.

In the end, no secondary school is perfect. In our young Republic, they remain works in progress.

Personally, the negative experiences at SJC encouraged my interest in areas of law, which focus on socialism and fairness. While at Convent I found my creative voice writing for the Vox, and it is this past time, which continues to ease my frustration in what is sometimes an unjust world.

Most of all, my family and friends continue to lend me incredible support through a journey made more colourful by my SJC past, but not determined by it.

 

Check out Part 2 to this article – The Great Convent Girl Hoax. See if Nicole Greene agrees with Gabrielle.

 

Author bio: Gabrielle Gellineau is an Attorney-at-Law and Trade Consultant who loves to communicate via words, written and spoken. She can be contacted at caribbeanfutures@gmail.com. You can also check out her blogs www.carifuture.blogspot.com and www.geevoice.wordpress.com.

 

Illustration by James Hackett. Check out his website www.shizzies.com.

 

Gabrielle Gellineau is an Attorney-at-Law and Trade Consultant who loves to communicate via words, written and spoken. She can be contacted at caribbeanfutures@gmail.com. You can also check out her blogs www.carifuture.blogspot.com and www.geevoice.wordpress.com.

19 Comments

  1. Christine Nanton

    July 19, 2010 at 2:04 am

    There is definitely a stereotype of the convent girl and I believe the author coined it it a “T”. Being an ex-convent girl myself I can relate to the experiences of being in class with persons of a certain social standing- a mix btw those who legitimately passed for the school, to those who simply appeared 1st day of school in Form 1 and had to be added to the register, to those who got a “bligh” and showed up in Form two and three.

    I can relate also to the obvious favour given to some of these very persons by teachers and administration. SJC is founded on a history of not only Roman Catholicism but also of STRONG parent support. Past and present students know all too well of the many mothers (mostly ex-students themselves) who run Personal Development Programmes and the Sick Bay and teach us Home Economics and for the most part, I still think I can identify persons from my year group who would follow in in their mother’s footsteps.
    My close circle of friends, however, were what some would call the “anti-Convent” convent girls. The ones not from “the west” (minus myself because I live Diego Martin) and whose mothers didn’t take care of their every whim and didn’t really have a “convent accent”. But at the end of the day, we were smart. We were the ones keeping the teachers on their toes and challenging administration and we were still given prefect and captain badges.

    For the most part, we accepted some things the way that they were knowing fully well that some of our classmates parents were the ones funding some of the conveniences that we enjoyed.

    At the end of the day, SJC is what you made it. Anyone who passes through there could say the same. And no matter what we do, that stereotype isn’t going away anytime soon…

  2. Aisha De Bique

    July 19, 2010 at 2:10 am

    I enjoyed reading this.I agree-you are nothing like the stereotypical Convent girl.You understand that stereotypes are made to be broken-and that you are at your most powerful when you challenge the status quo.Attending Convent has no doubt made you more empathic.’Empathy’-unfortunately is greatly lacking…The PRICE OF PROGRESS IS HIGH.Too many people seem only concerned with academic and material advancement.In this rat race basic virtues like empathy are lost.Academia alone cannot move a society forward.

  3. Karen Francisco

    kfrancisco

    July 19, 2010 at 6:13 am

    We should start a club, CONVENT-GIRL ANONYMOUS, where we could vent issues and build sisterhood amongst the various school through T&T… lol

    Great Job Chica!

  4. Marsha

    July 25, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    Samantha Lezama….excellent comments!!! What really is the point of this article? I say focus your priorities elsewhere Ms Gellineau – Attorney-at-Law! This is clearly a case of sour grapes!!!

  5. Khaila

    July 26, 2010 at 6:53 pm

    Interesting that none of the ladies who commented would say that they conform to this stereotype of the Convent girl. Unfortunately I think that that in itself has become the stereotype of us SJC ladies: to deny that you’re the atypical Convent girl. *shrug*

  6. Theresa Mollenthiel

    July 27, 2010 at 4:34 am

    Peter denied Christ for fear of being rejected. Because of the common entrance or SEA as the case may be, not every one was able to get into the famous SJC. This was the reason for a lot of ill feelings towards children who went to the prestige schools. I certainly do not think it fair to bite the hand that fed us just so that others may accept us. Who I am is made up of more than just what school I attended and at the end of the day I have a choice to be whatever I want to be. Attacking Bishop’s school was really not too cool either. I believe that at the end of the day, we should see the good and beauty in each person and forgive those who have to stereotype others to justify a past that hurts them or makes them feel less in any way.I meet beautiful people from all walks of life and from many areas in Trinidad and in the world: rich, poor and otherwise most of whom are gracious.The most unhappy ones though are the ones who find it necessary to stereotype.

  7. N.C.

    July 27, 2010 at 8:50 am

    I did not agree with many of the statements in this article. I am very proud of the education I received at SJC and view the entire experience as a positive and well-rounded one.

    I did not hail from a wealthy family, in fact; I grew up in East Dry River (behind the bridge) and attended SJC from 1989 – 1996. I found the administration to be 100% supportive of sport, drama, local culture and journalism and gave high priority to these undertakings.

    There are many examples I can give – but to name just a few: In Form 4, my year group won the Young Leaders Project with a project promoting radio and television journalism; a couple years later we participated in a drama festival at Naparima Bowl and also claimed top prize; junior calypsonians were also nurtured and supported; our steelband group under the directorship of Anthony Prospect (RIP) made it to the finals of the Secondary Schools Pan Festival; and I eagerly looked forward to the big annual production of Sports Day where the students who excelled represented SJC at the Inter-Secondary Schools Track and Field Events.

    But what affected me the most from this stellar education I received was the many outlets for volunteerism and community outreach provided by the institution coupled with the administration’s dedication to teaching us respect and tolerance for others evidenced by the many assemblies from our Hindu and Muslim sisters in our very Catholic Chapel.

    And at the end of my “mindless tenure” of obeying the rules and expressing my opinions at the appropriate times and places, I was an Editor of the Eureka Magazine, a Prefect and a Captain in Form 6. FYI – I am not a housewife. I hold 2 BA degrees, a MS and an MBA degree. I speak 3 languages fluently and I have lived in 3 continents. I am the only black woman and the youngest person in my organization’s management team. But, I get up every day and play harder and smarter than all of the good old white boys because of the positive foundation I acquired at SJC.

    The majority of my classmates and close friends are also professionals, even those who were born with the proverbial silver spoon. And if we do it all from the boardroom to the kitchen with an accent that defines us as elite- oh well!

  8. Helen Shair-Singh

    July 27, 2010 at 3:23 pm

    Ms Gellineau, I was tempted to just write that, as with most experiences in life, I think you got out what you put in, and leave it at that, but…. nah, too easy.

    My first reaction to this was to take offense, not because of the opinions you expressed here – they’re yours and you are entitled to them – but because you didn’t just expound on your personal experience at SJC but in doing so felt it necessary to paint us all with one big, broad, ugly, condescending brush …. like one of those people who need to bring others down in order to elevate yourself.

    Your tirade didn’t mention a time frame, so I don’t know if things changed – drastically – during my tenure at SJC from whenever you were there, but since my experience there left me with a very different attitude to yours, my next reaction was sadness that you had such a terrible experience when I, and so many others, used those five or seven years in a way that created more precious and cherished memories for us than it did for you.

    And before you write me off as one of the pampered, mindless women you describe here, I came from a motherless family (lost to cancer when I was 8 years old), with a quadraplegic father and 3 younger sisters who I became ‘mother’ to all before I even passed my common entrance exam (at the top of my class, thanks to my own hard work, no ‘bligh’ here). In his condition, my father couldn’t hold a proper job and I’m not ashamed to say that we had to do without a lot. Getting new shoes for school (Bata sneakers, if you please) was a big thing for us, as it meant we no longer had to use the ones with the air-conditioning (i.e holes) anymore.

    I also didn’t go to the schools that my new SJC classmates came from, I went to Mucurapo Girls RC in St James so, going by your standards, if there ever was a candidate to feel like the odd-man-out entering SJC, it would be me, doncha think?

    The reason I didn’t however is because the principal and teachers at SJC didn’t see me as a poor lower class child who didn’t fit your ‘stereotype’ and didn’t have any family money behind me but rather they saw a girl with potential, and passion, and hunger to be more, do more, have more, because I knew what it was to have nothing, and they nurtured that and I can safely say that they might have saved my very life…. I never underestimate to think of how differently it could have turned out were it not for the care of my teachers at SJC.

    Even more than that, because of my personal situation at home, I didn’t have the time or the inclination to make friends while I was at SJC… my sole purpose was to study hard and come out of there with as much knowledge as I could hold in order to make sure I could create the best possible life for my family and myself. Somehow though, despite that, today I can say that the most phenomenal women I know and am blessed to call my friends are my classmates from SJC…. women who, unlike you it seems, have grown beyond the narrow-mindedness of youth… with whom I have found friendships that sustain and support me through thick and thin, friendships with women who have known suffering, defeat, disillusionment, hard times and heartbreak and have not only become stronger and more beautiful for it but managed to become successful career women – lawyers (surprise! you’re not the only one, sorry to break it to you), doctors, award-winning athletes, artists, and yes, mothers and housewives – who wouldn’t think twice to band together in support of one of our own.

    I’m sure there are those who may be what you describe, but then again, there are also others like me… and, ironically for the rest of us, like you. I don’t end every thing I say with ‘ah’, don’t speak only when I’m spoken to, am not ‘mindless’, am not and never have been rich and pampered, and thankfully I have learned that I have much better things to do with my life than to sit in judgement of others,and that applies to ALL other SJC women I hang out with. All that you have done here is show that, despite your claim to have grown from your SJC experience, you haven’t.

  9. Renee class of 93

    July 28, 2010 at 6:49 am

    I have to agree with the last two writers N.C. and Helen. I loved my days at Convent, made some great friends both the typical “snob” referred to and some down to earth people. I would say that this place gave me a great foundation to be where I am today – a successful individual with a double masters. Yes I did have the “Convent accent” as some people called it but that was just speaking properly which was a result of my upbringing (family of teachers) and the administration at SJC.
    To me you get out of something as much as you put into it. I view SJC as a fun period in my life, adored my teachers and would forever be grateful for what they gave to me.

  10. Gabby

    July 29, 2010 at 1:36 am

    I am overwhelmed by the response this article has gotten. Thanks so much for the feedback ladies it is much appreciated. I am also amazed that the article hit such a nerve in some of you but that is what opinion pieces are all about. From the comments though it seems that some of you have not appreciated the use of irony, sarcasm and poetic license and would benefit from another more objective read of the article. You may see that we are in fact singing from the same song sheet. I would love to hear from the men that went to Convent. Much love to you all for your comments and your support of the website. Hope you have a chance to read the other articles on the site and continue to pass along the article to your friends and family that went to Convent.

  11. Amaya

    August 3, 2010 at 11:58 am

    I think Gabby that if you did not like Convent that you should have transferred to another school during your time there. The door was most certainly open to allow the many hundreds who would gladly have taken your place, sat down to do productive work and gone on to be productive citizens

    No institution is perfect and this one had its flaws as do many in our small but progressive country. Ask the children who have no one to teach them and who spend wasted hours in a school where teachers spent hours chatting in the staffroom instead of the classroom

    Surely your time could have been better spent rather than bashing the accents and perceived sterotypes of the school but instead suggesting mechanisms for change in the institution that you so loathed

  12. GH

    August 4, 2010 at 12:21 am

    Would just like to note that there are several “Westmoorings girls” who got in to SJC on merit and proved it by going on to win scholarships.

  13. gms

    August 23, 2010 at 1:20 pm

    I have to agree with the writer and the comments posted as they are all based on your experience. Mine was different. I came into SJC afetr doing O’levels at St. Francois Girls’ College and entering at that stage of my life allowed be to see the drastic differences that existed. At SJC the girls made me feel welcomed but not the administration.

    Convent girls are taught to conform, not ask questions and are spoon fed. Look at the number who exist in unhappy marriages, dropped out of UWI (harder system than US and Canadian systems) and the drops to which they gravitate.

    The administration has mastered the art of rules for some and not for others and how to help young girls and their families hide teenage pregnancies and still write exams (most other schools make you leave).

    We can go on with this debate but at the end we will take from it what we experienced.

  14. Lola

    September 2, 2010 at 4:26 pm

    How odd these weird observations from this article.

    I did Mathematics, Physics, Art and GP at A levels….I was still lead in the school play and was Captain of my house & had an active interest in dance. I have gone on to complete an undergrad in Physics, have 2 Masters degrees (LLM and MBA). I am a wife and mother AND I work in a very faced paced job after spending a decade outside of Trinidad learning and working hard and getting to the top of my profession – all on my won without the proverbial “silver spoon in my mouth”.

    I love to cook and watch nonsense comedies and reality shows yet love reading the FT & Nobel Prize authors. This year alone I have become one of the first accredited members of my profession here in Trinidad…I think I am pretty well rounded.

    I certainly am not known for “speaking until spoken to” and take great resentment in being categorised as such. To say I have not outshone my colleagues where ever I have worked would be inaccurate. I am no wall flower. As for your derogatory comment on being a ‘housewife” well…time teaches us that it can be one of the most rewarding, important and fulfilling things we can ever do with our time. Do not under estimate the value of the matriarch. Hopefully in your somewhat youthful rant you are simply exhibiting your immature and inexperienced perspective. Sometimes it even sounds that you are, in the immortal words of Basdeo Panday, a “pseudo racist”.

  15. Jasmin

    September 14, 2010 at 6:16 pm

    This comment is to Lola. Listing your qualifications is not relevant to the point of the author’s article. I’m certain that women on both sides of this discussion have done well academically and professionally. The author wrote an interesting piece about a stereotype and her experience (not yours) in evaluating the accuracy of the stereotype. The fact that she got so many comments both agreeing and disagreeing with her point says that it’s a topic worth debating. It is mighty stupid of you to throw race and Panday into this discussion. Talk about twisting a discussion to suit your own (divisive?) agenda.

  16. Gerard - never went to SJC.

    September 16, 2010 at 3:19 am

    For a bunch of well educated, intelligent women like yourselves, you don’t seem to possess the capacity to read thoroughly and critically.

    “you should also understand that many of us, including myself, are nothing like this. For the most part my friends and I are down to earth, natural, intelligent women who have taken the world by the horns. We have carried our bottomless ‘inquisitivity’ to the next level becoming professionals who live our lives in accordance with our own values.”

    ^seems to pretty much describe every comment posted here imo; People who defied the stereotype. I don’t anyone who DOES fit the stereotype (and there are lots) would post here anyway.

  17. Rashidah Vitalis

    January 5, 2011 at 4:37 am

    convent girl and proud of it
    #PILAR

  18. Danielle

    November 29, 2011 at 9:09 am

    to ready about SJC. My Mom attended school there, and while I have only just moved to Trinidad (at 25) it’s interesting to gain insight into what her experiences may have been. Its funny, but I think she fits the SJC stereotype to a T and probably wouldn’t be ashamed to admit it! Great article. Very well written.

  19. chen

    April 30, 2015 at 11:50 am

    I found this article interesting, as it brought back many long forgotten things. It wasn’t just the Sjcs, but their many associated schools so to speak, like St.Gabriel’s, St Rafaels, the boys equivalent Presentation, St Gabriel’s boys etc etc oh least I forget Queens.
    I recall common entrance exams where I had passed for (as it was called then) a Modern Sec school one of the new type schools that were being built at the time. My cousin also passed for a similar one where she lived.However, because that part of my relative were well connected and wealthy she was given the opportunity to retake those exams AT HOME. I am telling you the truth WITH the then minister of Education present! Yes, I said that. I was there at her grandmother’s house BUT this was NOT extended to me because my side of this family were the poor side that, got whatever they thought we should get and be grateful for and we were. So she got her chance to go to SIX and became and is powerful as an adult.
    I did not do much and even though a commentator Helen Shari Singh says and rightly so that it what you make of it. What many didn’t know back then is that the mindlessness extended way way beyond the SJCs and the like. It is /was a generational way of life in my day, and we were glad to get the cast offs from wealthy relatives and a “high” seat at the church, a Creole Pecking Order. All such a long time ago.

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