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Memoirs of The First Female Student of QRC…

The trinidad Guardian / In the award-winning movie Hidden Figures there is a powerful scene where one of the film’s protagonists, a female mathematician named Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P Henson), had to run half a mile from her work station just to be able to use a restroom as there was none nearer that she could have used as a coloured woman. For Hazel-Ann McLean, that scenario is not something that is far-fetched. When McLean was attending secondary school, she too had to travel a long distance just to use the bathroom.  McLean’s reason, however, was not as a result of racial segregation. McLean was the lone female student at the Queen’s Royal College (QRC). “Oh yes, my walk of shame,” McLean told the Sunday Guardian when asked about the difficulties she faced in doing something simple as using the bathroom while being the lone female in an all-boy’s school on a full-time basis. McLean had to walk from the school’s Science Block, which is near to St Clair Avenue, to use the restroom at the Teacher’s Lounge located inside the North Block, which is nearer to Hayes Street. It is approximately 400 metres. “I had to walk the school’s courtyard and with boys stopping me to talk and all I wanted to do was go to the bathroom. I had a couple moments. I have a lot of stories in the book about my walks to the bathroom. To this day, I am good at controlling my bladder as a result of it,” McLean said. The book McLean is talking about is A Sparkle of Royal Blue: Memoirs of the first female student of QRC. It is currently available on Amazon and has an official launch date scheduled for May to be held in this country. McLean attended QRC, which boasts alumni such as this country’s first prime minister Dr Eric Williams. She attended there from 1986 to 1988. McLean originally attended St Francois Girls’ College where she successfully completed her Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) examinations. She then applied to do her General Certificate of Education (GCE) Advanced-Level subjects there and was accepted. But then something happened that would change her life. “I wanted to do physics at Advanced-Level at St Francois and I enrolled and I was accepted and everything, but I was the only girl that was going to do physics at the Advanced-Level so there was just one teacher with me and he had other classes and they were like, this is not a good use of resources and of his time, so they told me that I couldn’t do physics,” McLean said.  “The term started, I was already enrolled in St Francois at the Advanced-Level, I started classes for the week and then they said, wait, this is not working out, this is not making sense having one student to one teacher.”   McLean went hunting McLean, however, was not willing to part ways with physics. “So I went hunting,” McLean said. She went to the co-educational Polytechnic Institute, but their classes were already full. McLean’s mother, Cynthia, then decided to take her to QRC. “So mummy took me to QRC. We already knew there was an arrangement where the (St Joseph) Convent girls go across the street to St Mary’s (College), so we were thinking about trying an arrangement like that with me and see if I could go just for physics because QRC and St Francois are brother and sister school,” McLean said. McLean has also previously done physics lessons on afternoons at QRC for CXC. “When we went QRC, they were like, well, it is not going to work because our timetable is six-day rotating, so I could not go for physics every Wednesday or every Tuesday as the day the classes would be held would always change every week and St Francois’ timetable was fixed, so I would have challenges with scheduling as well as transport between the two schools,” McLean said. “So my mother stood with her hands on her hips and said ‘well, why can’t she come here full-time’ and everybody froze and then they looked at each other and went into a side room and did a little huddle and then said ‘okay, we will give it a try’. That was it,” she said. McLean, only 16 years old at the time, was excited. “I was like okay, I want to do my physics. I didn’t care, I wasn’t thinking out the whole process about uniform and bathroom. I was just like good, I got into a school to do my physics,” she said. McLean was accepted to do mathematics, chemistry, general paper and, most importantly, physics at QRC where Winston Douglas was the principal at the time. McLean started school the next day. “My mother asked me what I wanted to wear, I purchased a couple shirt jacks right at the school and then she took me straight down town,” McLean said. “They asked me what I wanted to wear and I just came up with a skirt and designed the uniform myself. And my mum, she can sew, so she just went and made me a skirt that same afternoon and I went to school the next day.”   McLean said she did not think of the journey she had ahead. “I don’t know what was in me, I just wasn’t feeling anything, I was just happy I was getting to do physics. That is all I was studying I really was not thinking this is a boy’s school, this is going to be challenging, I did think that for a brief moment that I did not know how these boys would have accepted me being the only girl in the school but I said, you know what, I don’t care, I don’t care. I just wanted to do physics,” McLean said.   First day of school,  challenging the enrolment The first day of school McLean was escorted to the office of the dean, Mr Lilla. “While I was in the dean’s office all these boys rushed in, they wanted to meet this new student and I was confused because I was seeing these grown men with beards wearing the uniform and I didn’t realise these students were so big,” Mc Lean said. “I just stared them down and let them know that they would not scare me, that I am still coming, that I want to do physics, that was all that was in my head,” she said. McLean was then escorted to class. “He (Lilla) came back and collected me, maybe an hour after sitting in class, and took me over to the Ministry of Education and he said he just wanted to check something,” she said. The Ministry of Education was right next door to QRC. “I didn’t know what was going on and they brought out the charter and it did not saying anything about ‘boys’, only said ‘pupils’, and they were like ‘well, I guess she can go back’ and that is when I realised they were challenging my enrolment,” McLean said. She was escorted back to the school and the class. “I was sitting in the very back row and they all accumulated at the back of the class to get to talk to me. I was there just talking with them about generic topics and then my pencil fell and a swarm of boys just swooped down to help and I thought, ‘what the hell is this?’” she said. “I just froze, I said something stupid and got myself in trouble and put my foot in my mouth like I used to do  a lot, and they burst out laughing at me and it just broke the ice, I guess.” One of the most embarrassing moments McLean said she had at QRC was when she marched in the school’s sport’s day. “That stood out to me because I had to stand out more than I was already standing out. I used to try and keep a low profile as much as I could and they wanted me to be more a part of the school, so they pushed and pushed and told me I had to participate,” she said. “So I had to wear this tank top and a skirt and it was short and with the whole school staring, and from the time I stepped out of the bathroom to the courtyard I never heard the courtyard get so quiet ever, it was an instant hush and just a lull and then uproar, whistles and I just kept my head straight and went and lined up with my house and marched in front the boys, did my salute, and we won. I went back inside and immediately changed my clothes and I never heard the end of that,” she said.   A second female enrols After a year of being the lone female at the school, when McLean entered Upper Six, a second female, Charlene Rampersad, enrolled at QRC. “I was a little bit concerned because I knew what I had to deal with my first year and I did not know who this person was, how she would be, and I had sort of set a standard with the boys to keep them at bay and I didn’t want to upset the system that I had put in place,” McLean said. “So I was a little bit worried but at the same time, I was saying maybe it would work out where I may actually get somebody to talk to or whatever and it worked out very well, Charlene and I became very good friends, we are still friends to today,” she said. McLean said it was hard to get close to anyone because other students became subjected to picong. “One of the boys was helping me one time and he was just being a friend and he would go to the cafeteria for me and they labelled him Jarvis, they call him Jarvis to this day, because it was a security system back then and I realised one time that I could not have any friends, I was not allowed. Just like Jarvis, it would have been bad for them and it would have been bad for me,” she said. McLean had a “secret friend” though, which she said she reveals in the book. McLean eventually graduated from QRC. “That is when it kind of hit me, the magnitude of the situation being the first female to graduate from QRC,” she said. After, she attended the University of the West Indies for a year before migrating to Canada, and eventually settling in Pittsburgh in the United States of America, where she works in technology information management in the health sector. McLean is now a mother of two children—Siroun, who is 16, the age McLean started her journey at QRC, and Aryll, who celebrated his 12th birthday earlier this month. 

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