Some conversations are difficult to have — even when they are with yourself. This is one such conversation.
A few months ago, I stumbled on a commentary by Rae Samuel written on November 30, 2016, titled “Why our attitude to prisoners and YTC inmates is self-defeating.” The commentary had many noteworthy points about the judicial system and its appalling delays and the ways in which we judge inmates, categorising them wrongfully as “wotless.”
At the end of the column, Samuel spoke about my book Wishing for Wings, the story of the first CXC English language class I had at YTC. For the most part, Rae offered positive comments including the following: “It is as interesting as anything written by Eldridge Cleaver or George Jackson, though not as politically weighty.”
The next line shocked me: “I had/have serious concerns about the reason and motive for producing the book, but it is well worth a read.”
That comment has haunted me ever since I read it. I know there are people who wonder what could have possibly been my motive to write a book about the lives of my students. I knew as I wrote the book that there would be some people who would accuse me of exploitation. As a person with thin skin, I have been hurt by the implications that I exploited these boys, but, at the same time, I have steeled myself for the sake of these boys. I knew — indeed we all knew — exactly what we were doing and what we wanted to accomplish.
I wanted to introduce some of the most amazing teenagers I have ever meant to Trinidad and Tobago; they wanted to be involved in a project that made them feel like they were contributing something positive to this country.
When I conceived the idea of the book, I spoke with my students and Sterling Stewart, the superintendent of YTC at the time. I gave my students about six months to decide if this was what they really wanted to do.
My motive was most certainly not money. Any money the book makes goes to the boys to help them get back on their feet. We wanted people to understand that juvenile delinquents are first and foremost children or teenagers with pressing problems that need to be addressed.
It was not easy for any decision for any of us. To talk about your weaknesses — your anger and depression; your struggles and your concerns — is never easy. To admit that you have made mistakes or that you don’t know all the answers is a humbling experience.
We were willing to risk the ridicule of naysayers because we knew what we wanted to accomplish: open, honest communication that could show the people of Trinidad something about education, crime and redemption.
We did not try to sugarcoat or hide any of our feelings. We offered readers what we valued the most: honesty.
We never regretted the personal sacrifices we made in our attempt to create a better understanding of the problems that plague this country. I have never regretted offering these teenagers the opportunity to make a positive contribution to the betterment of this country.
I know how much better off we all would feel if we had the difficult conversations that we all wish to sweep under the rug.
I had a class of extraordinary teens who believe in the power of communication. As the four-year anniversary of the publication of Wishing for Wings nears, I can still say how proud I am in these extraordinary young men who have never let me down.