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On Island Profile: Verna Araujo

June 13, 2005 — While the meaning of "true value" seems to have lost its place within today’s bustling, money-oriented society, such things as the importance of loving one’s job, having a good education, and remembering the lessons taught by one’s parents still resonate daily within the activities of longtime school teacher Verna Araujo.
"My mother was a teacher, too," Araujo explained, "so teaching was always a part of my lifestyle … it seems like I’ve always been teaching somebody something — my dolls, my dogs, my brother."
Araujo continues, "But my mother wanted to be a doctor first, but since it was unheard of in those days, she only had a choice between nursing and teaching … so when I decided I wanted to be a teacher, she said that since there were so many choices open to me, I should really consider what I wanted to. And I wanted to teach, it was what I was really passionate about."
Raised in St. Kitts, where her father was a pastor, Araujo started her teaching career in Antigua at the early age of 16, immediately after her graduation from high school. Having gone through the British school system, Araujo was two years younger than most of her first students — an unruly bunch of kids who were on the verge of being kicked out of the school system.
"In an institution where the smarter kids were placed in A-level classes, I was teaching the G-level students, so you can imagine what that was like," Araujo joked.
To her surprise, Araujo found that the students were instead quite motivated, and she challenged them to learn first-level Spanish in order to pass an equivalency exam at the end of the year. "80% of them passed that test," Araujo stated with pride.
After completing her college education at the University of the West Indies in Barbados and teaching at three different Antiguan schools within a course of three years, Araujo also studied in France before coming to reside in Coral Bay, St. John, with her parents Lloyd and Elva Kitson in 1988.
While Lloyd continued to be a pastor and Elva a headmistress at the Coral Bay Moravian School, Araujo was offered another Spanish teaching position at Antilles School in St. Thomas.
"It was different because Antilles was a private school," Araujo stated, "and I didn’t know what those kids were going to be like to teach. In Antigua, I taught at public schools in the country, and even though the students came to class without any socks and shoes, I knew they were eager to learn."
But the new environment provided few difficulties for Araujo, who was instrumental in the formation of the school’s now four-year French program.
"When I first talked to Mark Marin," Araujo said, referring to the school’s late headmaster, "I asked if I could teach French as well because it was my first love. But he said that since they already had a teacher there from Paris, and because it was only a part time program, they didn’t need anyone else."
With this in mind, Araujo was shocked when she was offered that very position on her first day at the school. "The previous teacher had to go back to Paris because she had suffered an aneurysm," she explained.
Because French was not an integral component of most school curriculums at the time, there were few individuals qualified enough to substitute. Consequently Araujo was hired, teaching both French and Spanish to middle and upper school students.
In time, with Araujo’s encouragement, the French department was expanded at Antilles, allowing upper school students the choice of learning either French or Spanish in order to fulfill the four-year language requirement needed to graduate.
Araujo, after having later given the Spanish position to another teacher, stayed on to teach French exclusively, taking on students at first through fourth levels.
More recently Araujo has become responsible for the teaching of music at Antilles School, a job that she says is "interesting and part of my other life."
Referring here to the influence of her father and mother, Araujo explained that she had been around music since she was a young girl, playing piano at the age of four and singing in many church choirs and groups.
One such group, Antigua Black, allowed her to explore and nurture her love of indigenous music. "We come from a very rich heritage," Araujo said, "but our indigenous Caribbean music tends to be pushed aside as if it’s not valid. Instead, things like calypso and reggae, and the other music that comes out of the people, seems like it’s only played at Carnival time."
Araujo continues, "But there’s a world of history, of folklore, and wonderful things that came out of old work songs — things springing from people that used to be out there cutting cane — blood, sweat, and tears that people don’t know about."
Because Antilles did not incorporate such ideas into their musical classes and programs in the late '80s, Araujo further contributed by founding the school’s Expressions choir in 1991, allowing students to learn more about their culture.
"Hip hop and rap … those things are nice," Araujo added, "but they are imported. It’s time for us to export what we do."
Presently, Araujo channels her childhood influences into the formation of an all-encompassing music program. While already teaching second- to tenth-graders, she shows much concern about the subject not extending to students in the upper classes.
Besides the creation of a large choir, Araujo hopes to build an instrumental component, teaching music theory and practice to all those willing to learn. "We only started teaching tenth-graders in the last year or so," Araujo said, "and they were learning how to play bells … and it was amazing, when they saw what they could do, what they could learn, to see the metamorphosis. And it teaches them responsibility, which will inspire them to do something, maybe something musical."
Araujo supplements her own interests by additionally taking part in local choirs and writing her own music, a talent taken from her late father.
"He used to write hundreds of things," Araujo remembers fondly, "hymns, songs, anthems, other things — but he could never play an instrument. He would write something and then have my mother play it. When she said that it was wonderful, she would end up playing his music in church — she was the organist there also — and we would sing his songs."
These days, when the urge strikes, Araujo channels these memories by making her father her muse. "When I’m writing something now, I take comfort in knowing that he’s helping me somehow … and I’m always still asking him for help," she stated.
Among many other endeavors, Araujo finally serves Antilles in her capacity as advisor to the National Honor Society, a position which she discusses as quite close to her heart. "Honor seems to be something that’s going through the window these days," she explained, "and it’s more like whatever a kid can get away with, he’ll try and get away with."
"It’s essential that we tell our kids what you have to do to achieve that, and tell them that they have to do it when nobody’s looking, so that they know they can do it themselves."
An organization like the NHS, Araujo adds, helps to facilitate this idea through the balance of academic discipline and community service. With Araujo, members of the organization aid in contributing food and clothing to the homeless, cleaning areas throughout the territory, and providing other services to those in need.
Araujo, whose two sons graduated from Antilles, says that she tries to instill these values in them as well. "I’ve talked to them about the things that I’ve learned from my parents, told them to believe in God
, given them love, so that when they come to the harder situations, they would make their decisions based on the things that I have taught them, but also make the intelligent decision, the best assessment in any scenario.
Education," she concluded, "allows the things you learn to become a part of you. That’s something worthwhile to pass onto your kids."
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