IT IS NOT always easy, but on most days, I can rally to celebrate the life of Jahmai Donaldson – even while I am forced to face the senseless act of violence that claimed his life one year ago. I can work my way through the sadness that surfaces whenever I remember how he was gunned down while cutting grass with a neighbour because Jahmai’s presence still looms large over my life.
At Jahmai’s funeral, I said that I would go on with the work I started in prison – the work that his class in the Youth Training Centre (YTC) inspired almost a decade ago – because I knew that Jahmai would never leave me. He would always be in my heart. And he is.
Jahmai left me with invaluable lessons about optimism, love and acceptance. I learned the importance of recognising everyone’s hopes and dreams from Jahmai’s class. They wanted to right the wrongs they had committed, and they wanted to make a contribution to this country. Their enthusiasm proved infectious.
Jahmai’s class inspired me to write Wishing for Wings, the story of our academic journey together. The book included my students’ reflections on their lives. Their love for history inspired me to write Making Waves: How the West Indies Shaped the US.
From this class, I learned to live in the present and cherish every minute of life. I avoid being trapped in the past or lost in the future. I take nothing for granted. Jahmai taught me there is peace and joy that come from facing those fears that try to rob us from enjoying the moment.
In YTC, I learned to dream big in the face of reality – namely a violent Trinidad and Tobago that makes life unpredictable and downright dangerous. My time there reinforced my feeling that a real education transcends exams and focuses on learning for life.
Bright and determined, Jahmai and my other students dedicated themselves to the task at hand – namely their CXC English exams – because they believed it could be their tickets to success and happiness, but their curiosity transcended those exams. They dreamed of a future with a job and a family and acceptance from a country that had failed to meet their needs academically.
My students taught me how to take responsibility for my own life and my own happiness; they taught me how to live without pity. They believed in working hard and dreaming big. They believed in reading. Literature grounded them and allowed them to take flight. They owned up to the choices they made in life, never blaming their parents or their teachers or their gang leaders. Over and over again, they spoke of the choices they had made, and they believed that healing could only take place if they took responsibility for their actions.
The extraordinary courage these forgotten boys of Trinidad displayed in the face of the diversity that defined their lives inspired me to find bigger and better ways to help young men in prison.
Although Jahmai excelled academically, he chose a different path than the one I had envisioned for him. Gardening brought solace and joy to him, but he dreamed of earning a university degree one day. I had hoped Jahmai would become a social worker or a psychologist because I knew of his amazing gift of helping people.
I miss Jahmai many times every day. His infectious laugh, offbeat sense of humour and profound discussions about life and books still slip in and out of my memories.
I measure my life in the lessons I learned from Jahmai and his classmates. From them, I discovered how much we can accomplish regardless of age, class, nationality or ethnicity. Jahmai’s story inspired many people to contribute to the Wishing for Wings Foundation.
I have taught CXC English and Caribbean history classes, encouraged debate teams in all the prisons, helped inmates write a soap opera and organised funding for certified barbering classes, PVC furniture making and decorative tiling. I worked with Children’s Ark to provide a library for Port of Spain Prison and a programme for inmates to read to their children. Jahmai and his classmates inspired all of this work.
It took me nearly a year to update Wishing for Wings so that it would include Jahmai’s death. I was afraid the act of writing about his murder would erase some of the magic of our experiences, but it didn’t. If anything, it confirmed my convictions. And every day I still go out in the world with a feeling of hope.