“Black Village when I was growing up was feared in terms of gangs, but I didn’t become a gangster. Where you are now has nothing to do with where you can be.” ~ Stephen McPhee
Principal of L. W. Young Junior High School, Stephen McPhee and students.
Photo: Bahamas Weekly
By Hadassah Deleveaux (née Hall)
He was born to a teen mother. He grew up in Black Village, which is bordered by Bain Town and Big Pond. Gangs and drugs were around him. He knew what it was to only have a sheet to part the front room from the kitchen and bathing area, with the front room also serving as a bedroom. An outside toilet was his reality and bathing in a tin tub was the norm. Growing up in the inner city was clearly not the proverbial walk in the park for Stephen McPhee.
Today, Stephen is the Principal of L. W. Young Junior High School and the holder of a Master’s degree in Organizational Learning and Leadership (2014), having studied at the Barry University campus in Nassau, Bahamas.
“Since getting my Master’s, I have had job opportunities to make double my pay, but I don’t have the courage to say, ‘Bye.’ There is always one more child I look out the window and see that I need to save. These kids are me. I see the struggle,” said the passionate educator.
One conversation with Stephen and it does not take long to recognize his love for education and saving the nation’s youth.
Stephen is the only child of Andrea Bain-Bethel and although the circumstances in which he grew up were not ideal, he was candid about his upbringing.
Stephen as a young boy with his mother, Andrea Bain-Bethel.
“I always had an appreciation that my mom had me at about 14 or 15, but she made it her business to instill in me an attitude of gratitude. She made me feel nobody was better than me and although poorness was a setback, poorness was not a disgrace. The two school pants I had, I was told there was no excuse for them not to be clean,” said Stephen, who to this day takes pride in his appearance and proudly teaches his four children to do the same.
While attending C. C. Sweeting Senior High School, Stephen discovered a love and talent for music. He even was on the verge of applying to the Royal Bahamas Defence Force with the hopes of joining the band, while fantasizing about hanging out of helicopters. Those dreams were short lived.
“My music teacher, Ms. Elizabeth Thornton tore up my application in front of me and my friends and told me I was going to college to be a music teacher. I asked her how, when my mother was a dish washer and we couldn’t afford college. No one in my family at that point went to college; some people didn’t finish high school,” he disclosed.
Ms. Thornton encouraged Stephen to apply to the then College of The Bahamas (presently The University of The Bahamas) and ensured he took the entrance exam. She promised to pay his tuition and fees – which at the time was a little over $500 per semester – with the agreement that if he did not complete the degree, he would have to pay her back. He got accepted, she paid for his first semester and she helped him get a private scholarship for his second semester. By the second year, Stephen had qualified for a government grant.
Paying It Forward
When Stephen graduated in 1996 with his Associate’s degree in Music and a Teacher’s Certificate, he applied to the Ministry of Education with his first, second and third choice of placement being C. C. Sweeting Senior High School.
“They wanted to send me to a school on Sweeting’s Cay. If I couldn’t go back to C. C. Sweeting, I wasn’t going anywhere. I would have looked for another job. I told my mother and she supported me. At that time, my first son was six months old; further, I felt indebted to return to C. C. Sweeting and do for someone what Ms. Thornton did for me,” he insisted.
It was under the tutelage of Ms. Thornton that Stephen blossomed. He played in the school’s band at Government House and even at Lyford Cay for celebrities like Sir Sidney Poitier and Sir Sean Connery. It was because of Ms. Thornton believing in Stephen, encouraging him and giving him opportunities that Stephen believes he is where he is today.
College Opened Doors
Once Stephen graduated with his first degree and became a trained teacher, he was able to support his mother.
“My salary was $1,300 per month. My mom and I never saw that kind of money. That was 1996. We eventually built a house through Finlayson Street and I was there until I got married at the age of 32. With my first salary, I tried to give Ms. Thornton the check for just over $500 as repayment for my first semester. She couldn’t take it. She said that semester was on her and that I gave her a live body to say to other students, ‘Look! He did it and he lives through the same corner as you,” he recollected.
Within four years, Stephen was promoted to Head of Department of Music at C. C. Sweeting Senior High, making him the youngest on the middle management team. He eventually went on to attain a Bachelor’s of Science in Music Education from COB, followed by his Master’s from Barry University.
The Leader in Him
Over the years, Stephen continued to show leadership skills, having served as Secretary General for the Bahamas Union of Teachers and presently Secretary General of The Bahamas Educators Managerial Union and President-Elect of the New Providence Association of Public High School Principals.
Stephen is well respected for his leadership and negotiating skills, standing tall among peers. When he speaks, one sits up and listens, not simply because of that boom-box voice, but moreso because he is knowledgeable, commands one’s attention and is passionate about his calling.
“A teacher saved me, but teaching itself strengthened that. I am always seeking to be that Ms. Thornton. The students from L. W. Young come from Kemp Road, Fox Hill, Elizabeth Estates, Nassau Village and Joe Farrington Road. These are areas with major gangs. My approach is to save just one child and after that I go onto the next one,” he stated.