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INSPIRE J


ahmai Donaldson was a troubled teenager so enamoured of rap stars that he had his teeth replaced with false ones made of gold and diamonds, similar to the popular American hip-hop artist Lil Wayne. “Following the wrong crowd” eventually landed Donaldson in Trinidad and


Tobago’s Youth Training Centre — juvenile prison — where he continued his trouble-making ways, getting into fights and regularly being put into “lockdown”


or solitary confinement. He recalls being taunted by guards who told him that when he left prison he “would amount to nothing.” For a time, he believed them. Today, Donaldson, now twenty-two, is a very different young man. He may have the gold


teeth for the rest of his life, but his attitude and goals have changed entirely. I couldn’t pin him down one recent Saturday morning, because he was on his way to a class at the University of the West Indies — one of five courses he’s taking to earn a certificate that is his first step towards a degree in either psychology or social work. “I want to help people,” he says of his degree choice. “Plus, the human mind is very


LESSONS


When writer and teacher Debbie Jacob volunteered to teach English classes at


Trinidad and Tobago’s juvenile detention facility, she had no idea how hard the challenge would turn out to be — or how rewarding. Now she hopes her book about the experience will inspire others


to reconsider the fate of young offenders. Erline Andrews finds out more Photograph by Kim Johnson


82 WWW.CARIBBEAN-BEAT.COM FLYING


interesting.” Donaldson credits the change in his life to someone whose background is very different from his own. Debbie Jacob grew up on a remote farm in rural Ohio. She moved to Trinidad three decades ago, after falling in love with the country and the Trinidadian who would become her husband. She’s the head librarian at a private school for expats and well-off locals; for a time she taught English there as well. She’s also a columnist for the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian, known mainly for her thoughts on local culture and education. She’s written a children’s book, a collection of short stories, and a handful of study guides for Caribbean literature. When she volunteered in 2010 to teach O-level English


language to a small group of young inmates at YTC, Jacob wasn’t sure what she was getting into. At first, it seemed her worst expectations would be realised. Her students were moody, prone to anger and fighting. Some dropped out of the class. Some — like Jahmai Donaldson — missed many classes from being in lockdown. Jacob had to bridge distrust, insecurity, and other emotional


barriers before she could even begin to prepare them for the exam. And she had only eight months to cover a syllabus that normally required two years.


T


oday, Jacob is more confident about her ability to reach challenging students, and more committed than ever to teaching young men like Donaldson. She’s also speaking


out on an issue she hadn’t thought about prior to teaching at YTC: the plight of young men — some of them innocent — seeing their youth drain away as their cases drag on in an inefficient court system. She credits the change to her first students at YTC, with whom


she formed a bond that continues. “I learned so much more from them than they ever learned from me,” she says. “I taught them some academic things, and they forced me to face a lot of issues in my life that I had never faced, like how not to just become depressed or give up when things get hard.” Jacob chonicled the extraordinary story of her relationship


with her students in a series of newspaper columns, starting in 2011. She subsequently adapted the articles into a book, Wishing for Wings, which has received praise from readers and reviewers since it was published in October 2013. And the story is now in the early stages of being made into a documentary. Trinidadian writer


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