In my time of solitude I often reflect on my life from my simple abode in Rose’s Valley, a small rural district in St. Elizabeth, to where I am today. My beginning mirrors the life of young, innocent, happy children, so unaware of the trappings that they do not have.
My parents, Laura and Headley Mitchell were two very humble people. Although both had no secondary education, they were both brilliant. My father was a farmer and my mother a housewife. She later developed the skill to become the district midwife and continues to boast of the number of babies that she delivered. She helped us with all our homework, regardless of the subject area. She helped me to write the compositions that were recognized for excellence. To this day I still stand in awe of the wealth of knowledge that she possesses.
My father read many books and he would always have us read the Bible to him at night. I was told that he followed the teaching of Haile Selassie and even wore dreadlocks at one time. He was a great father and provided for us. He did not believe in corporal punishment and I can still hear him saying to my mother, “Laura, never hit the children when you are angry.” My dad died on November 28th, 1966. It was a dark day for me as I watched him die at home. My father was never sick. He was only ill for one day and that was his last.
My parents and seven children lived in our very small four-room house. One of my sisters, Carol and I, shared a twin sized bed. Our mom made the mattresses for our beds from whatever was available; old clothes or dried banana leaves stuffed into large bags. Getting a new mattress was wonderful because we would no longer feel the lathes on the frame beneath it. In my small rural district no one had electricity and only a handful of homes had running tap water. Kerosene lamps provided light for us at night. I can only recall two homes that didn’t have a pit toilet and a few had a kitchen attached to their house.
We were happy and free. We never went hungry because there were many fruits and vegetables for us to eat. My mother sold the extra fruits and vegetables that we had to the higglers, the Ministry of Agriculture or the local markets. Sometimes I walked with her on the six-mile journey to the market in Troy. “Olive,” our donkey carried the load and I got a ride when I became tired.
Our only demands were to complete our chores at home, do our homework, attend church and be on time for school every day. My introduction to infant school at three was a horrendous nightmare for me. Separation from my mother who walked me to school was a gradual process that took many trips. I was often back home before my mother on many of those days. Once I got over that fear, there was no stopping. I was in school for the next thirty-three years of my life, skipping only four years to age forty. My journey took me from infant school in the Baptist church to my graduation from dental school in New Jersey.
I walked barefooted to school like most other children did and never thought anything of it. It was the norm. Sharply pleated blue tunic and white blouse were our only uniform requirement for girls and brown khaki shirt and pants for boys. My siblings and I were in school every day, including Fridays that saw attendance down to a handful. Parents took their children out of school on Fridays primarily because they believed little was taught on that day. Not so in my home, going to school was mandatory, rain or shine, no excuses. When I sprained my ankle and could not walk, my dad took me on his back and I once rode on Olive’s (our donkey) back. Need-less to say, my embarrassment was unspoken but other students, as callous as they could be, never let me forget.
I went to “big-school” at age six and spent two weeks in grade one before Mrs. G. Bryan knew that a handful of us were above that grade level and moved us to grade two. I was finally able to leave behind me forever, the girl who bullied me through infant school. Little did I realize that while I did her class work to buy her friendship, it was unintentionally reinforcing in me, what I had to learn. The poems and some of the books I read then have been etched indelibly in my memory. My father and my sister, Carol, helped me escape the bullying I encountered from another girl and a boy in primary school.
My ascendancy through primary school was remarkable. I went through junior one to five in four years. In grade five, Mrs. Billings, my mentor and principal of the school, placed seven of us considered “bright” students in a special class. We were assigned advanced work and once we had completed that, we joined the form three class, skipping forms one and two. In addition to that we were in Common Entrance preparation class every day. I was a little pass ten years old.
The Common Entrance examination was our gateway into high school. That examination was the symbol of accomplishment and passing it gave us wings to soar to unimaginable heights. It also epitomized brilliance and excellence. I was expected to pass that examination. I sat it the January after my father died unfortunately. He never lived to see his “Mercan,” colloquial for “American,” get a scholarship to Hampton High School the following September. It seems he somehow knew that fate would lead me to a life in America.
Our world was shattered after he died. My happy childhood was suddenly thrown into a tailspin. How was my mother going to support her eight children, one not yet born? But, quoting my mother, “Behind every frowning Providence, God hides a smiling face.” And so, we got by with the help of relatives who gave us their children’s old clothes and shoes. We also received Fifteen Pounds, cornmeal, flour and cooking oil monthly from the Jamaica Poor Relief Organization for the next three years and this supplemented what she provided on her own. Poor Relief was a very rudimentary form of welfare but my mother never allowed this to compromise our standing in our community and we are still one of the most respected families there.
I went to Hampton School, an all girl’s boarding school, atop the verdant green Santa Cruz mountains, in Malvern, St. Elizabeth. Hampton is quite easily the most prestigious girl’s boarding school in the Western Hemisphere. In 1967 when I attended, the three hundred plus girls who attended hailed from across the world, from Israel, United States and other Caribbean islands. Our teachers likewise were highly trained from Europe and Jamaica.
I spent five years there and was never home for a midterm break because my mother could not afford the bus fare. It was at Hampton that the reality of how impoverished I was came home. Although the school had strict rules on what and how many items of clothing and food supplies could be taken to school, the quantity and sparsity of my belongings could not be ignored.
I made friends and gradually became an all-round student. I became games captain, played on the school’s field hockey, netball and track and field teams. I competed at Girl’s Champs in track and threw the discus. I was sub-prefect when I got to fourth form and a prefect in fifth. I was a good student in sciences and mathematics and went to Munroe College our brother school for physics, chemistry and art. I took and passed five subjects in the General Certificate of Education (GCE) examination, set by Cambridge University, England.
I left high school in June 1972, taught for two terms in the same primary school that I had attended, and worked in Barclay’s Bank for one year. I applied to the School of Radiology, University Hospital of the West Indies and attended on a Government Scholarship. I graduated with a Diploma from the College of Radiology (DCR), London in 1976. I was then qualified to be a Radiographer or X-ray Technologist. My diploma was recognized in thirty-seven countries around the world.
My living standards had started to change by then and my ambition to become a doctor was driven and encouraged by Roi, the man who would become my husband and my children’s father. I was cognizant of the fact that, “one’s status in life is never dictated by where one comes from” and, “you cannot change history but you can make history.” Roi came to the United States to study and later earned a law degree. I followed a year later to Philadelphia and that became home for us.
Times were very difficult and challenging. Yet, despite all that we faced as new immigrants, I was able to work full-time and attend college full-time. I worked as an x-ray technologist from eight am to four pm, went to classes from five pm to ten pm, Monday to Thursday and eight am to twelve on Saturdays. My pregnancy with Roy, our son, did not sway me from my goal. I continued to attend school and work full-time. I went to classes on Monday and gave birth on Thursday. I kept up with my classes by telephone and my husband became my courier. Two weeks later I was back in school. Computers and the internet were yet to be a reality.
Philadelphia Community College was my first experience of college in America. From there I transferred to Widener University, in Chester, Pennsylvania. With my diploma in radiography and the courses I had taken at community college, I earned a Bachelor of Science (BS) degree in Radiological Technology from Widener University.
My determination to attend medical or dental school and a degree from an Ivy League University seemed quite compelling. The opportunity came from my job where there was a Union. As a member and a delegate, I seized the chance at a scholarship that was offered. I applied to the University of Pennsylvania and was accepted.
I gained a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Sociology of Science in two years. Armed with all my requirements, I sat both medical and dental school admission tests. My decision to attend dental school was spurred primarily by the fact that as a child, I had very poor dental care. The man who came to our district was a “quack.” I had a cousin and a niece who were both dentists and I had young children who needed me. Dentistry was the perfect decision for my lifestyle.
I was offered a scholarship to attend the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey. UMDNJ was not my first choice but after my visit to the school, the decision was easy. The students and staff were welcoming and happy. The facilities had recently been upgraded and the summer program really gave me an opportunity to experience the rigors of dental school. Four years of dental school and I was finally the doctor I wanted to be.
Present on graduation day was my mother, Roi, my children Danielle, Roy and Angelina, some of my siblings, friends and other relatives. Most of them knew or shared my humble beginnings and were now present to share in the celebration of my success. When my name was called “Dr. Annette Mitchell-Riley,” it was the culmination of many years of an incredible journey. Aim for the moon, you may hit a star.
DMD, BS, BA, Dip.CRT, FICOI, DICOI, FICD