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Sunday 26 January 2020
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My quest for a better place

Debbie Jacob
Debbie Jacob

EVERY MORNING feels surreal to me. I wake before dawn to gather my thoughts and work on my latest book so that I can face the rising sun with confidence. Tears will flow for my children, Ijanaya and Zino, who no longer live here in Trinidad, or for a memory that surfaces of those who are no longer in this life. But by the time I lock the gate of my house and venture out the door, I am sure this day will provide unspeakable joy and a sense of peace.

I glide between vastly different worlds: The International School of Port of Spain where children from 45 different countries check out dreams from my library and the prisons of this country where those not so fortunate to receive an education search for ways to dream and believe and feel some part of my world. I love both places because I find hope everywhere I turn.

In prison, I marvel at young men with a thirst for knowledge like I’ve never experienced anywhere else. I see the light in their eyes when they listen to their recorded voices for the soap opera they wrote in my class. They say, “We never knew our voices could express anything but anger.”

I have seen men on a high no drug could induce because of the prison debates that began in my English class in Port of Spain. My world is surreal because I cannot imagine how an idea will take flight: how a CXC English class in YTC ten years ago could lead to newspaper columns and a book – Wishing for Wings.

I have gone to challenging schools to read from that book and had the sublime experience of hearing a pin drop while teenagers listened to dreams of incarcerated youth.

I have witnessed great debaters in prison become leaders, whom I depend on. I see Aaron Charles of Carrera or Terrence Morris of Golden Grove Remand Prison working tirelessly in their prisons to develop debate teams, and I know when no one can explain the confusion, sadness or fear I feel – especially during an earthquake in prison (and there have been two!) – I can count on Donnel Inniss in Port of Spain Prison to make me feel like a survivor. So many young men outside of prison make me proud. Mark, Josiah, Marc, Daniel, Darrem, Ashton…

In prison is where I find creativity, talent, shattered lives and soaring dreams like I don’t see in the “free world” as inmates call that place where we live. I have seen young men proudly show me the PVC furniture they built from one of my skill-based classes and say, “Look, Miss, poor people can have nice furniture too.”

I sit in graduation ceremonies for my certified barbering classes and hear Marlon Lee lead the Remand Prison choir in a gospel song performed like they are in the Hasely Crawford Stadium, and I hear a graduate from one of my barbering classes singing from his soul, “I swear, I can be a better man” from Jah Cure’s Prison Walls.

I am indeed honoured that the Trinidad Express named me the Individual of the Year for 2019, but in my surreal world, it is difficult for me to understand how it can be for selfless work in our prisons. I feel like the most selfish person I know. I seek out the company of the outcasts, the dispossessed – the forgotten men and women of TT – and excavate their buried dreams; their creativity and their hidden beauty because they buoy my soul.

It is not always easy, and I am fortunate to have support from Joel Roberts who works in the trenches with me in the prisons. I find peace in unimaginable places. I am not a brave person or a special person. I am an ordinary person doing what I need to do to find happiness and try to make this country a better place.

If I can’t convince people of how important ordinary is, then I have failed in everything I do because it doesn’t take politicians or special people to fix this country. It takes you and me – ordinary people – summoning the strength to say, “I refuse to be a victim.”

And so I thank the Trinidad Express for the unimaginable and unexpected honour of being named Individual of the Year for 2019. In my surreal world, your award means that you recognise the need to give people in prison a voice.

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