Helenita Scotland has a pet peeve, and it’s the improper use of the English language. Growing up in the Caribbean, her five children knew it, because she reminded them to “speak properly” almost daily. “She was always correcting,” says her daughter, Helenita Allette Scotland-Crosby. “If you said something funny or subject-verb agreement that wasn’t correct, she would correct you.”
That fixation and fascination with verbal communication became such an endearing quality of Helenita’s, that soon it turned into an inside family joke. Her children and especially her husband, Wilmouth, would chuckle and compare her to a dictionary. Wilmouth would say, “There goes the English dic” when Helenita began correcting someone’s grammar, and the house would erupt in laughter. Even all these many years later, the adult children all laugh remembering the teasing.
Helenita spent most of her adult life as an Educator, teaching on the island of Antigua and then later when the family moved to the Virgin Islands, where her husband served as Evangelical Pastor to his own Church, she continued her teaching career on the island of St. Croix. Now 92 and living at Forest Hills in Washington, D.C., Helenita’s clearest memories are of school and her time spent in the classroom shaping young minds. “I loved teaching,” she says.
It wasn’t an easy path for Helenita to get to the profession she loved. Born Helenita Ramona Byam on May 20, 1926 in Santo Domingo, the capitol of the Dominican Republic. She was born to parents Suzannah and William Byam, but unfortunately, was orphaned at the age of 5.
grew up in Antigua with a foster mom, Ms. Louisa James, known lovingly as Aunt Lou. The family was very poor and Helenita had to work extra hard both at home and at school to graduate from high school and serve as a “pupil teacher.” Living with an overly strict Aunt Lou, she didn’t have much freedom.
“Mom could only go to teach and home and to church and home and that was it,” her daughter Helenita says, remembering stories that her Mom has shared with her children about her early life over the years. Luckily, it turns out that Helenita’s life would change in a remarkable way at church. It was there one day that she met Wilmouth Scotland.
After finishing his theological studies, Wilmouth married Helenita in 1959 and became pastor of a local church in Antigua. In 1973, he accepted a pastorate in St. Croix, and the family eventually moved there. A few years later, he founded the Ebenezer Holiness Church and remained its pastor until he passed away in 2010.
Helenita, meanwhile, was able in slow stages to get her bachelor’s degree in Antigua and later a master’s degree from the University of the Virgin Islands, which had a joint program with the University of Miami. As a teacher and eventually school principal, she was the family’s primary breadwinner, a role that was unusual for women at the time. But even as busy as her outside activities and prospects kept her, she was equally busy at home -- raising five children, encouraging them in their studies and expecting them to excel. In what little free time she had, Helenita read mystery novels, did crossword puzzles and sewed. She loved both intricate embroidery and making hats her friends could wear to church.
Helenita’s namesake daughter says her mom has always been a giving person. She’s not surprised to hear stories from Forest Hills that Helenita is apt to share her winnings at Bingo.
“She’ll stick a $20 in your hand and say, 'Buy something nice for yourself;' that’s how she is,” her daughter says. And the rest of the siblings agree. “If Mom has it to give and there is a need, she makes it her business to fill that need,” says her youngest daughter Olivia. “Mom has a huge heart.”
Her family learned just how giving Helenita could be when they threw a 90th birthday party for her two years ago in Washington. About 100 people came from all over the U.S., Antigua and the Virgin Islands to celebrate.
At the celebration, one woman, Miriam, who considers Helenita like a Mom, told the story of how Helenita took her in and raised her when her own mother was overwhelmed with too many children. And then one day, that mother showed up and unceremoniously reclaimed Miriam, breaking both Miriam’s heart and Helenita’s. They were only reunited decades later, but the love was still there.
Helenita later went on to have a large family of her own, most of whom live in the U.S. While her daughter Helenita still lives in St. Croix, her daughter Suzanne lives in New Jersey, son Allington lives in Florida and daughters Rosalie and Olivia live in Maryland. She also has eight grandchildren and one great-granddaughter. And always with that huge heart and the ability to bring a smile, sometimes Helenita would still give the grandchildren $10 for every A they earn in school. Education is always at the top of Helenita’s mind, even as other things slip away with the passage of time. Says her daughter, “One of her sayings is, 'Once a teacher always a teacher.'”
And sometimes as the family sits, gathered around her for a meal or just for quiet family time, watching a movie or playing dominoes (Helenita’s favorite game), she gets this faraway look on her face and a twinkle in her eye, and they know without having to ask a question, that she is right back there in the hallways of her mind, remembering those special times when she was doing the thing she loved the most – shaping young minds from the warmth of a classroom.