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).
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 Elephants” became 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.
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