By Clemenceau B. Urey Sr.
Please permit me to first of all thank Varney and other members of the Sherman family for giving me the opportunity to present some reflections about the life of Mrs. Pennoh, which is the result of the interaction I had with her as one of her many students. I consider this opportunity a great honor and privilege to perform this task. Even though time has erased some of my memories, I will still endeavor to put my memory to task, as I first met her some 57 years ago.
I first met Mrs. Pennoh in 1961 when I enrolled at the B.W. Harris Episcopal School in the sixth grade. She was then, a young, energetic and beautiful dark lady who managed very well a fairly large class consisting of about 40 students. There we met an exceptional lady who demonstrated her commitment to the teaching profession and to her students. She imparted to us good morals and ethical principles and values through exemplary behavior. She was punctual at work, hardly missed a class, presented well prepared lessons, knew the subject matter well and paid personal attention to each student in such a large class.
I remember she was very concerned that some students would fail tests and exams not because of unfamiliarity with the subject matter but because some would become nervous and experience panic during tests and exams; therefore, she would counsel us how to approach tests, trying to allay our fears; she made us sing familiar songs to reduce tension prior to tests and exams. This was a great help to me personally as I recall.
As I reflect on my life today, I give credit first to Almighty God, my parents and next to Mrs. Pennoh for whom I am today. Imagine a little boy coming from this upriver settlement of Careysburg, very skinny, funny accent, poorly dressed, broke most of the time and lacking confidence. Mrs. Pennoh instilled in us self-esteem, discipline, motivation, and to strive for excellence.
At a certain time in one’s life, if one makes a crucial turn in the wrong direction, it is difficult to change course and it may have an adverse effect on your entire life.
For me, the period I encounter Mrs. Pennoh was the most vulnerable period of my life and, therefore, God first, I credit Mrs. Pennoh for what I am today because she greatly impacted my promotion from the sixth grade to seventh. Had I not made that promotion, I believe my life would have turned for the worst. I was depressed and ripe for self-destruction, having lost my father a month after I enrolled at B.W. Harris. This loss was a great blow for me.
Thank God for a teacher like Mrs. Pennoh. Her impact on me was very profound; I, therefore, made a promise to God and myself that I would show her gratitude if I became successful in life; our path separated as she left B.W. Harris to continue her professional pursuit elsewhere and I continued my academic pursuit, graduating from B.W. Harris in 1968 and moving on to the University of Liberia.
She later went on to teach at J.J. Roberts, a Methodist institution, eventually becoming principal. Most religious institutions prefer a member of their church heading their institutions, but Mrs. Pennoh, an Episcopalian, was appointed to serve as principal, which I am certain was a result of her special professional qualities; she served with distinction until she was called to serve as educational counselor, based in London, handling student matters for all Liberian Government Scholarship Students studying in Europe at the time.
As I became blessed and successful in my professional pursuit, I sought her out and began to pay frequent visits to her home to show her appreciation for the positive impact she had made on me. She began to call me her son. In fact, she called me the second son she never had and wished that Varney and I would develop a close relationship, and live as brothers.
Mrs. Pennoh was a committed and professional educator who impacted the lives of many others who were fortunate to come into contact with her in the classroom. Many are today making valuable contributions to the Liberian society and elsewhere. She always told me, “I am not a well to do person but I am happy when I see many of my former students such as you, who are doing well in society”.
That is all she had to show for her commitment to the teaching profession. She did not receive any special honors or recognition, no pension, nothing to compensate her for her exceptional service except her intrinsic satisfaction as regards to the progress of students. She was not even formally and honorably retired. Such is the situation of many other exceptional people who have given their youthful lives rendering selfless and sacrificial services to our country.
They are abandoned at old age and left to fend for themselves. Many are prone to experience serious deprivation but for their children, concerned relatives and maybe others of goodwill. This is wrong. Good governance demands that a responsible government takes care of the elderly and disabled. Thank God Mrs. Pennoh had prepared her own safety net, her son Varney.
We have recently characterized our educational system as a mess. To memorialize Mrs. Pennoh and other exceptional teachers who have predeceased her, we must clean up this mess; we as a nation and people must place a very high premium on the most important resource of any nation–its human resource. Japan, the third largest economy of the world, is very poor in natural resource.
Its high level of development and progress is the result of the output of its human resource. Cleaning up the mess involves weeding out the bad apples in the teaching profession: Those lazy teachers who come to school unprepared, those unprincipled teachers who include materials they have not covered in the classroom, on test to justify extorting favors from students in cash or kind, to name a few.
Cleaning up the mess involves training and motivating teachers to portray the characteristics similar to those of Mrs. Pennoh as she performed in the classroom. It involves creating a conducive learning environment for students and teachers. Doing these things, however, requires committing more budgetary resources to education, being cognizant of the fact that meaningful progress in a nation can only be achieved by investing in the youth and human resources in a big way. Human resource development, however, involves much more than education and training; it also involves proper selection and utilization of manpower to avoid mediocrity and placing square pegs in round holes.
It involves insulating the government bureaucracy from extreme political influence such as the appointment of political cadres throughout the government bureaucracy without due regard for training and experience. Such situations De-professionalize the government machinery and hinders the ability of government to run efficiently and effectively as it strives to deliver badly needed social services and promote economic development.
As we today thank God and celebrate the life of an exceptional educator such as Mrs. Pennoh, we must continue to prioritize, develop, utilize and promote human resource development for our country by cleaning up this mess in our educational system in a robust manner.
On behalf of all those students who were fortunate to sit under the voice of Mrs. Pennoh as recipient of her wisdom and knowledge, I wish to thank Almighty God for giving us Mrs. Pennoh and for her impactful life. As He has now decided to call her from labor to rest, we pray for the blissful repose of her soul and may light perpetual shine upon her, and all those exceptional educators who have predeceased her. In the name of the Father, the Son and the blessed Holy Spirit.