Our Education Minister, Rev. Ronald Thwaites, has an interesting style of public speaking. When he wants to make an important point, he folds his hands, raises his eyes to the ceiling and holds forth, in beautiful English, with the occasional Jamaican patois word or phrase thrown in, for effect. Minister Thwaites is a lawyer and a “man of the cloth,” so it is not surprising that this is his style. He sometimes uses words that have many of us running to a dictionary. It’s all very impressive.
As the new school year approaches, Minister Thwaites has had a lot to say. He attended the annual Jamaica Teachers’ Association meeting, which most Education Ministers must enter with some feelings of trepidation. Perhaps in an effort to empathize with the teachers, Minister Thwaites made the comment that parents should not send their “leggo beast” children to school and expect the teaching staff to act as social workers to correct their behavior. Well, I agree with him; teachers are there to educate, not to spend their whole time trying to control a hot, cramped classroom (over)crowded with children. Children are there to learn.
There is no argument there. However, the Minister’s use of the term “leggo beast” (articulated with emotion and almost repressed anger) to describe students with learning and behavioral problems startled me. There is no doubt that parental responsibility is key; but does Rev. Thwaites really think it appropriate or helpful to describe children who may well have suffered from all kinds of abuse, neglect and carelessness in this way?
Now, I am not one for necessarily being “politically correct” – but how does this contribute in a positive way to any dialogue around the issue of our children? The expression, basically meaning an animal (a street dog, perhaps) that is out of control, is not appropriate for a Minister of Education to use in describing our most vulnerable children.
Joy Crawford of Eve for Life expressed her concern thus on Facebook: “As a mother, as an Adolescent Health and Development Practitioner, as a Child Rights Advocate, as a mentor for young girls abused who manifest many ‘inappropriate behaviors’, as a Jamaican who believes that we are better than we are demonstrating, and as a human being who hates hate…I have been recalling the use of that term by the adults around me in the 1960’s and 1970’s – it was used in relation to a wild ‘loose’ girl/woman with nuff man in the community, especially if she seduced a married man. Also used to describe children at play who were loud, noisy and running around the yard wildly, not stopping when the adult beg for some peace and quiet.”
As Joy notes, many Jamaicans appear quite comfortable with this name-calling; this particular phrase is rather an old-fashioned one that many young people would not be familiar with; Minister Thwaites has reintroduced it. Of course, there are more current hurtful and condemnatory terms that we can throw at our children. We don’t have to look far. If you Google the term “leggo beast,” you will find numerous references to the lyrics of several reggae songs. We have been living in a patriarchy and the expression was often applied to young women who behaved in a “wild” and promiscuous way (as in Steel Pulse’s damning little ditty of the same name).
So did we all give birth to little beasts? Well, we know the answer. As Wilmot Perkins used to say on his radio talk show, when those children are lying in their cribs in the maternity hospital, they are innocent babies – a blank slate, if you will. It is up to us – the parents, society, teachers, everyone – to show them the right way, with love. Not to slap and hit and shout and call them names. Those kids are just bad kids, let’s label them and let them live with that label, and then dismiss them.
The position of “Dean of Discipline” was only introduced in 2009 in Jamaican high schools. Schools have Guidance Counselors; but I recall some time ago in a discussion I joined on television, a teacher told me his school had one guidance counselor to serve some 600 children. All these people can do is out fires. A comprehensive counseling and behavior modification program is almost impossible. These children need help, not curses, and a ten-minute dressing down in the Dean’s office can do more harm than good. If you show love you will not get hate in return. But these school staff members hardly have the time to show love.
The mindset behind the “leggo beast” comment reminds me of Minister Thwaites’ colleague Peter Bunting’s recent remark that Jamaica has a “culture of violence.” If that is not an insult to the Jamaican people, I don’t know what is, especially coming from the Minister of National Security. How does this help us to move forward, Minister Bunting? As if to reinforce that point, the Minister was reported by at least one media house as saying there are plans to spend J$10 billion on a new prison. Minister Bunting later denied this report, saying that he was just responding to a question by noting that in general, in the longer term, Jamaica needs a new, modern prison facility. Nevertheless, is this what we look forward to? Culturally violent Jamaicans and assorted leggo beasts sent off to a new, bigger, better prison?
Meanwhile, more metal detectors have been ordered for schools and I believe the National School Security Policy manual is now complete and available for distribution.
So, what are the options, the solutions? I wonder what the Education Minister proposes – apart from keeping these beasts out of schools (where are they to go, by the way?) Of course there is an alternative. It is a long, hard road requiring considerable research, planning, deep thought and careful implementation. It is a long, hard road to healing. As Joy Crawford notes,“I believe the homes ‘these children’ live in are broken and need repair (by various levels of intervention, prosecution if needed).” Let’s focus on repairing the family (even though it may not be the kind of perfect “nuclear” family that those of the Minister’s generation grew up in). In a Gleaner column, Shanica Blair suggests that if leggo beasts are not allowed in schools, they should be taught in a “structured and disciplined environment” (a separate institution?) She adds, “Positive reinforcement can’t be underestimated. Many say this won’t work, but these children see themselves as bad and not intelligent, thus why should they bother to behave or even try?” Indeed. If we continue with the negative, the vicious cycle we are now trapped in will repeat itself, endlessly.
But our leaders are not particularly interested in working on these kinds of complex and time-consuming solutions. After all, elections are just round the corner, and they are busy name-calling, finger-pointing and insulting each other, journalists – and the Jamaican people into the bargain. We have excellent role models!
As I have said before in this blog, and I quote Winston “Burning Spear” Rodney: Where is your love, Jamaica?