I USUALLY brace myself before I open the newspaper, but I let my guard down last Wednesday. Without thinking, I turned to the story on the young man killed in his bed in the Port of Spain General Hospital, and there I saw a picture of my former student, 25-year-old Dejean Broker.
He was one of the teenagers who grew up with me in prison. As a teenager, he joined my CXC English language class and CXC history class in YTC nearly ten years ago, and he pursued his classes with zeal when the system later transferred him to the Port of Spain Prison because of his age.
For those who flipped through the newspapers last week and saw that he had been in the hospital because he had been chopped in some altercation in St James; for those who knew he had once lived in Kelly Village and now lived in Laventille; for those who know he was shot ten times in a hospital bed, it might appear easy to write Dejean off as a bad boy, but I saw the softer, hopeful side of Dejean.
Dejean fit the description of many teenagers and young men I have taught. He loved learning, and he wanted to change his life. He had dreams and aspirations when I knew him. He had a troubling past. Most importantly, he had a story.
Wide-eyed, charming, respectful and cute, Dejean always appeared as neat as any young man can look in prison. His plaits, hardly stylish, were not unkept either. Always excited about learning, Dejean demonstrated amazing focus in class. He never missed any classes while in prison, and he was never late. He could tune out distractions. He didn’t have to shout to make himself heard.
Other students missed class because they were “studying their cases and couldn’t concentrate,” but Dejean discovered great joy and a sense of purpose in class. He gained confidence, and even dreamed of furthering his education outside of prison.
It was not difficult to visualise Dejean in a prestige school with an ambitious girlfriend, a pile of passes and a university education, and then wonder what went wrong? Why couldn’t that have been his path in life?
Like many young men in prison, Dejean loved history because it offered strong, admirable men, and a past that showed promise.
He didn’t have a lot of rough edges; he was never the inmate with swagger. He had amazingly expressive eyes, full of light and promise, and they sparkled – I swear – with praise.
Dejean never tried to hide his troubled past or gloss over his gun possession charges. He was one of those teenagers who made me dare to hope. His commitment to his two younger sisters gave him a purpose to live.
He often asked, “Miss, do you think you can help me find a job when I get out? I really want to take care of my sisters.”
Then he would disappear for a time and end up back inside.
“Don’t worry, Miss,” he would say with great conviction. “These are old charges. No new charges. I’m not going to do anything wrong again.”
That’s a promise that is often impossible to keep when young men with a murky past struggle to survive, and yet I thought Dejean’s personality might give him a fighting chance. I thought: if someone recognises his loyalty and commitment, his work ethic and his determination to succeed he could make it. When no one recognises these traits, gang leaders step in.
Realising this I began offering skill-based classes – certified barbering, decorative tiling and PVC furniture-making classes – to better inmates’ chances outside. There are success stories. Young men do make it, and the ones who don’t always make me wonder about how to measure success in someone who has been in prison.
Last week, staring at Dejean’s picture in the newspaper, I remembered his optimism. Perhaps, I thought, I have nothing more to offer young men in prison but a fleeting glimmer of hope in a country torn by violence.
Perhaps, for a brief time in prison, in my classes and programmes, young men like Dejean had their only experience in life where they dared to dream of a better life. Maybe that is the sum total of what I offer, a fleeting dream that only some will be able to capture.
Rest in peace, Dejean. You were not just a statistic. You were a young man with promise; a young man with a story. I loved your spunk and spirit. You inspire me to try harder.