Wishing for Wings by Debbie Jacob: The Voices of Trinidad’s Imprisoned Boys


I had the honor and pleasure of reviewing this book for the Kingston-based Ian Randle Publishers. I found it a remarkably gripping and emotional experience. The words of the boys simply tear at your heart. I would highly recommend the book for anyone working with at-risk youth, educators, sociologists, psychologists – or anyone concerned with the state of modern Caribbean society. Christmas is coming, so hurry out and buy a copy for someone who cares.

Congratulations to the author, Debbie Jacob, for writing such a brave and honest book. Ms. Jacob is Head Librarian at the International School of Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago, and a columnist with the “Trinidad Guardian.” She still teaches the boys at the Youth Training Centre (a euphemism for what we in Jamaica would call a Juvenile Correctional Centre). 

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Here is my review:

Whose wings are these? The title of this earnest, often passionate book seems to refer to the wings of our dreams, as depicted in the well-known Langston Hughes poem that prefaces it. But wings have other functions: not only the spiritual, but also the physical means of escape, of freedom and – in the case of some birds – of dominance.

I know this is a cliché. But this book simply proves that yes, one person can make a difference. Debbie Jacob gives a searingly honest account of her experience teaching English Language and Literature (at CXC level) to a group of young men – with “issues.” They are behind bars, at a Youth Training Centre (or YTC, a euphemism for a boys’ correctional center) in Trinidad. It is a bleak environment, which the boys sometimes describe in uncomfortable detail. Many are there for years, either serving their sentences for various violent crimes or awaiting trial.

Ms. Jacob lets the boys speak for themselves. Their narratives are sometimes disjointed and incoherent, often eloquent; but always yearning, in the way that young people yearn. Now, how did Ms. Jacob, a white woman from the United States who taught privileged children at the International School, elicit such outpourings from a group of angry, bitter and essentially lonely young men? She is from a different, comfortable world. She cannot easily comprehend the life of deprivation from which they come, and is not always aware of the nature of their crimes. But she does not concern herself with this. She simply wants them to pass the CXC examinations; although as it turns out, she and her students want more than mere academic success.

The answer is simple. Ms. Jacob treats each one of the boys as an individual from the outset. Likewise, the reader does not see them as stereotypical “bad boys.”  Her CXC English class of eight is an extraordinary group of personalities: complex and demanding and difficult. We get to know them through their letters, essays, book reports. They express their deepest feelings more easily through the written word, even if their grammar is not always perfect.

As a teacher, Ms. Jacob realizes she is not a “textbook person.” Although the boys are initially obsessed with rules and structure and bring “God” into every sentence, she decides to teach them skills rather than teaching a syllabus. The CXC is a two-year course and she is not always confident in her ability to teach them to the standard required for the examination in just eight months. It’s a daunting task. So she focuses on reading, obtaining as many donated books as possible. The boys devour them. And so, her teaching methods evolve. Several issues emerge, including the importance of culturally relevant reading material – Naipaul, rather than Hemingway. Ms. Jacob points to the enormous value of reading – widely and deeply. The students’ reaction to the books is quite telling. Water for Elephantsbecame a favorite, and Jahmai (a leader, who went on to do well in the exam) was a great lover of the classics.

The author describes how her relationships with each of her students develop, step by step (sometimes there are backward steps). She and her students learn to trust each other – and to support each other, and this evolves naturally, over time. Ms. Jacob shows that her relationship with a student is not a “one-way street.” The boys encourage her; and sometimes adopt a protective, almost nurturing approach to her, such as when there are severe floods in the area.

Ms. Jacob’s students write stark, even beautiful prose. It has been revised and “tidied up,” but their authentic voices form the most compelling part of the book. The language is uncompromising  and the emotional impact so strong that the reader, like myself, might even feel a little tearful.

The author’s tone is never condescending. She does not see herself as a benevolent do-gooder and she is clear-eyed in her assessment of her students. Nor does she look at them as a kind of academic experiment. But her concern, even love for the boys flows through the book. She wants to give each of them wings, but knows that not all of them will fly. This is a simply written, straightforward account of a painful and complex process, that of growing up. Even more “bitter,” (one of the boys’ favorite words) when all the cards are stacked against you.

In an early exercise for their teacher, many of the boys wrote that they would like to be a bird: preferably an eagle, in command, powerful. And free.

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To obtain a copy of this book, contact Ian Randle Publishers, P.O. Box 686, Kingston 6, Jamaica (11 Cunningham Avenue).

Tel: (876) 978-0745; 978-0739; 946-3173  Fax: (876) 978-1156

Email: info@ianrandlepublishers.com

Website: http://www.ianrandlepublishers.com


13 thoughts on “Wishing for Wings by Debbie Jacob: The Voices of Trinidad’s Imprisoned Boys

  1. My students — past and present — and I are honoured that Wishing for Wings is receiving such a favourable response from readers. We are grateful for Petchary’s stunning review. This is all beyond what we ever imagined when we began this venture together. While these boys are Trinidadian, they do represent many of the social and academic issues that define the culture of poverty throughout the Caribbean region. I am deeply indebted to Jamaica for all of the material I used in my class from the Gleaner’s articles on Christopher “Dudus” Coke to Bob Marley’s music and Ian Randle’s publicaiton Chanting Down Babylon. I see Wishing for Wings as a book in which every reader matters because reading this book means that you are listening to the voices of teens that society haa ignored for too long. Many thanks. Debbie Jacob

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    1. Dear Debbie: Thanks so much for your comment! I do agree with you (and it kept running through my mind as I was reading it) that all the social and educational problems that we face in Jamaica were mirrored in your book. I thought it was so interesting that you used some Jamaican material, and that the boys related so closely to it! I should perhaps have mentioned that. I do hope you will visit us one day soon (and also hope to visit Trinidad again – it would be so nice to meet up). It is so important for the boys’ voices to be heard. Thank you once again for giving them their voices. The loneliness is one of the things that makes me so sad, and there is nothing worse than that for a young person growing up. Very best wishes and thanks to you. Emma

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      1. Yes, sadly, these issues are a Caribbean problem. There is no way to teach boys in Trinidad without having some link to Jamaican music and culture. I have always felt that it is so ironic that our teenagers have a sense of being WEst Indian on some level as opposed to just being Trinidadian, and no one in education uses that either. I look forward to meeting you, Emma.

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      2. That is such a good point. I think perhaps this is true of education across the Caribbean – the cultural “connectedness” is not emphasized at all. It’s only when you travel round the Caribbean that you become aware of it. All the best Debbie!

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  2. Thank you for sharing this tremendous, well-considered review, Emma! All the positive points you listed are reasons why we’ve picked Wishing for Wings as our November Book Club selection. Caribbean society needs more uplifting, realistic titles like these — let us hope that more Debbies of the islands emerge.

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    1. You are most welcome, and thank you for your kind comments! I am so glad your bookstore is also highlighting Ms. Jacobs’ book. You are right, the Caribbean does need more narratives like these. What I liked was that she was firmly grounded in reality (didn’t make it too pretty) but the voices of the boys spoke of a kind of spiritual yearning that was, as you say, uplifting. Yes, I hope there will be more Debbies in the islands too. Thanks again and I hope you will share my review with others in Trinidad. So glad we found each other this way! (I didn’t tell you but I also worked in the book business in Jamaica for eight years – I helped establish a chain of stores called The Bookshop Limited and was the Buyer – lovely job! Unfortunately the economy intervened and the bookshops are no more… But it was a great experience).

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    1. My name is Emma, not Kate! 🙂 I do wish there was a Ms. Jacobs in Jamaica (although having said that I am sure there are potentially some). Yes, I thought too that it would be great to have a Jamaican version of this story.

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