Debbie Jacob writes a weekly column for the Newsday.
He was the boy who frightened me and made me feel uncomfortable merely because he murmured inaudible comments through a mouth filled with gold teeth. And he is one of the teenagers who changed my life immeasurably.
This is what I remind myself as I try to come to grips with the violent death of Jahmai Donaldson, who was shot dead at midday on January 11 along with another young man, Akeemie Wilson. Together the two young men, just 26 and 30, were cutting and raking up grass, clearing more land, it seems, for Jahmai to grow crops.
Jahmai loved growing sorrel, eddoes — any vegetable or seasoning. There is an order and beauty in growing plants, and Jahmai, always a stickler for perfection, marvelled at and enjoyed neat rows of plants that he could harvest. In the decade I knew him, Jahmai always sought some sense of control from his surroundings.
Profound and thoughtful, Jahmai, who loved reading classics because they provided a comfort in the past, opted for a simpler life than the one I imagined for him. I had helped him to get into the University of the West Indies, where he was studying to be a social worker. He had difficulty adjusting to the rigours of university life after serving three years in the Youth Training Centre (YTC), but he always promised to go back some day.
Although most people in Trinidad and Tobago never met Jahmai, they knew him as a real-life character in my book Wishing for Wings, the story of the academic journey we took inside of the YTC. Over the years, much had been written in the press about how much the book showed readers about juvenile delinquency and crime in this country. But it was also a book about how irrelevant our education system is.
Jahmai and the others thrived when they found their education more relevant to their needs. We had to literally discard the boring textbooks and resort to articles on the internet, novels, biographies and model essays from anthologies that related to their lives so that I could teach CXC English language. Thankfully, the school libraries’ supervisors under NALIS saw the importance of this book and made it the one book many communities book for all our schools two years ago.
Librarians and teachers noted its teaching merits. They see value in the teens that much of society has given up on. Society judges these young men and tries to rationalise their deaths without understanding how they once reached such desperation in their life.
Jahmai and the others in Wishing for Wings sacrificed their privacy and exposed themselves emotionally so that people of this country could see the culture of violence that we produce. They showed us all that education needs to answer important questions about life. Everything learned in school must be applicable to life.
Almost a decade ago, I watched these young men and thought how different their lives might have been if our schools had a curriculum that taught empathy, trust and values. We have a culture of young men who don’t feel, think, trust or express themselves unless they have a gun in their hands because we are not teaching them to be responsible and caring individuals.
We teach subjects in our schools, and we do it with textbooks and literature that are far removed from our Caribbean culture. Much of what CXC requires teachers to teach is an insult to us as Caribbean people. We are so colonial in our thinking it’s not funny.
We are an insensitive people who feel that Carnival and fetes will help us to blot out the pain that too many people are feeling. We are a nation that is hurting and yet too many people turn a blind eye or at best complain about the situation without offering any solutions.
Every day of my life I try to honour the lessons I learned with Jahmai. I introduced debates in prison because I am determined to nurture positive leaders. As I tell my students in prison all the time, “Government is not giving us leaders so we will make them right here in prison.”
Each and every young man cut down on our streets has a story. Their lives had a meaning. They meant the world to someone. I can’t forget that because I knew Jahmai, who once offered me and this country the gift of hope. Rest in peace, Jahmai. I will move forward with the lessons we learned together.