The ‘Big Man’ and The ‘Schoolgirl’

Schoolgirls by Rick Elkins

If you want to understand the gap – chasm, really – between law and public morality in Jamaica, look no further than to any discussion about sexual arrangements between men and women.  The specific forms – in this case, sexual liaisons between adult men and adolescent girls – provide a clear view of the muddy waters that Jamaican folks are wading in the minute they get up on a soapbox about this issue.

Consider the following conversation that emerged on in a FB group of 22,000+ Jamaicans over a 5-hour period on February 21, 2012.  At the time of this writing on the same day, there was a total of 66 responses.  Undoubtedly, there are more now.

A woman posed the following question:  Do you think a big man should date a school girl?

If you’re at all familiar with the social attitudes of Jamaicans, you should be able to predict the flow and content.  But, here goes:

  • (W) School girls should be focusing on their education. so no !
  • (W) No man…….dat outta order
  • (M) like high skool girl or college? cause high skool a no
  • (W)Its high school girls…..those girls neva stay wit di man fi long
  • (W) y would a man inna him high age wah date pickney him daughter age?
  •  cuz most of a dem jus disgustin, an some a di gal dem too licky- licky
  • (W) W-e-l-l, let’s see……hmmm…….#1. He’s gett’n old and he wants to feel young,#2. Havin’ a young girl arond boosts his “EGO” especially amongst his frenz.#3. Men have been doing this for centuries, and you can’t change the genes of the species.#4. A womans biological clock starts tickin’ as her age comes off the calender while a man at 75yrs of age can get an 18yr old girl pregnant .#5. Majority of men see nothing wrong with it.#6. When a woman goes out with a younger guy, ppl talk and stare and say that it’s not right.#7. As much as us women hate to admit it, there is a double standard and there are things that men can do and we’ll never be able to do it in a million yrs, and The list goes on and on of the things men do that us women are against but can’t put a stop to….
  • (M) In Canada, usa, uk and many other countries you go to jail. It takes a community with good morals to raise a child correctly and teach that child wrong from right. Adults should be protecting the children of their community not exploiting them.
  • (W) HELL NO!!!
  • (M) Why not?
  • (W) of couse not! [to man] pervert, tek wey uself!!
  • (W) That’s like unnuh man have friend and dem watch u daughter grow from baby then wah date one of her school friend ah nastiness dat man…….ppl morals gawn outta de window..de door all de toilet cah hole dem nasty morals…..kmrt

    (W) wen my dawta was 15 , her dad come 2 me nd bawl murrrhhhhhdah she deh wid wah ole man !! nuh amt a cutliss an hoe an pikaxe stick gadda up fi go beat di man !! wen mi jump fi go talk 2 har , ongle fi fine di man a tremble unda di olda sista bed ( she had her own apt ) di ‘ ole ‘ man was 25 an fraid fi him loife ,mi decide fi talk 2 di fada an calm him dung ( inna my mind mi seh nuh rush dem , dem wi eventually leff ) well him neva tek mi advice so him sen threat an show up a di man house . fast fawud , mi a talk 2 har an mi hear di man vice an ax him if mi nay talk 2 him years earlier , him same 1 !! big weddin a plan , pa a gi har weh , mi a plan fi remine him bout it afta di ‘i dos ‘ wen him unda him juice
  • (M) when Satan take over a person heart and mind morals get left behind. No God fearing person live them nasty life. The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.
  • (W) [to M] I know hun..but ah still nastiness…
  • (W) [to W].she was young yes but me ah talk dem man inna dem 40/50’s ah ah run dung 15/16 yr old dem fe humble dem self
  • (W) Why can’t he date someone closer to his age?
  • (W) Big ole hawd back ashy kin man dem need fi leave people gyal pickney alone.
  • (W) Dem wah string up…dem ting deh sicken me tomach ….
  • (W) dutty pervert dem an some a di gal dem juss as bad…pure slackness
  • (W) Dis man muss a buy di young girl wha she want, dats why she deh wid him. Di man like di likkle girl cause she young an impressionable. Him nuh waan nobody him age cause him cyaan fool dem. A hope she have enough sense fi use protection an birth control so she nuh catch no diseases or go breed, cause as soon as dat happen the wutlis man a guh run leff har.

At this point, I honestly could not believe what I was reading.  To me, the question was posed in a way as to seem no different from the “do you think it’s ok to flush a sanitary napkin?”  sort.  Not a SINGLE person noted that there was a tiny not inconsequential matter of the legality of such.  I’m no “law and order” type, but here, it seemed to me anyway, that one might at least hint at awareness that such sexual relations are regulated? Not so.  Trying to contain my irritation, and 4 hours into the conversation, I decided to make an intervention of sorts:

  • ME: What you mean by “big man”? A man who is older than 21 years, or any man with money?

    That you are posing this AS a question, goes to the heart of why girls continue to be sexually exploited and ADULTS are not doing shit about it. What we think ought not to matter; there is a clear law that says that any person who has sexual relationships with a girl under SIXTEEN YEARS OLD is committing a criminal offense.See’t deh – read it. http://bit.ly/wPb38XPage 10, Section 8 & 9. According to the law, when you see an adult man either courting or touching a child under 16 years old, you are watching criminalized behaviour in process. When you see a pregnant girl who is still in school, you are looking at someone who has been victimized sexually. She does NOT have the right to consent if she is under 16 years old, no matter if she wants to. The only male persons who can potentially get away with it are those who are under 23 years old. BUT they have to be able to prove that they believed she was at least 16 years old.You know what would put a serious dent in the amount of child sexual violence? Threatening these boys and men and letting them know they are going to go to jail if they even so much as look. Tek pickcha a dem an dem license plate and sen’ it guh gi police. Si how fast dem tings stop…Wi need a “School Yard Crew” fi deal wid dem.
  • (M) Ladies and gentlemen a lot of these school girls are the one doing the chasing because financially they know they can get what they want. Are they dirty and immoral also? [to me]

    do you have any idea the amount of law suite that that scenario would create? So a 17 year old school girl is ok to deal with because it is not against the law
  • (W) to [sic] intimate ,,casual is best for first date. That’s my opinion
  • (W) hell no,him mus go look him dam size
  • (M) As long as it is not illegal do what you do.

    (W) No..But then again am old fashion & still living in the middle age..lol…
  • (W) but some of these school girls are very BRITE,and dem nuh want school bwoy a big man dem a look
  • (W) STOP BLAMING THE UNDERAGE KIDS !! ( Typical J’cans kmft )
  • (W) I am a big woman and i don’t believe that i should be in any arguement with no school girl over my man,so if my so call man decided that he is gonna get involve with a school girl,then he can go cause i CAN definately do without his sorry ASS…
  • (M) mi old fashion and is a man of principle….nau, go tek yu book…..and try spell you name lickle gal….
  • (M) I would not call it dating.
  • (M) Bigman nuffi dey wid pinkiney period..aldwo me lickle an love big oman lol lol…frm dem ena dem teens frm 11teen to 19 is lickle pickiney datm..a big man who is 40 add mus dey wid no girls in dem teens cos that teen could be his dauter or neice..
  • ME [to M] – what does anything of this have to do with “dirty” and “immoral”?? Maybe you are missing something: does the law say anywhere that the problem of statutory rape depends on who does the chasing?what scenario? The School Yard Crew? Girls 16 years old and older can consent to sex, yes.
  • (M) Looking for some clarity on the law. Is 17 ok by law? The scenario of taking pictures of men talking to school girls and using it to prosecute them.
  • ME Unnu whe’h deh debate this missing the point: there is no room to negotiate who him can deh wid or not. If she’s under 16, back the fuck off or go to jail. A unnu whe’h deh gwaan like seh dis is a matta of opinion a create di problem, an a mek it look like seh if HIM want to, is fi him biznis, an’ ef SHE want to, is fi har bizniz. Not a baxide. Unnu need fi know what is what suh unnu can know what is *a matter of opinion* and what is *law*. If you think the law is not a good or just one, then that’s another thing. But this isn’t a moral issue; it’s a legal one. Separate the two.  [This comment got the highest number of “likes”]
  • ME (to M) did you go read the statute? You need to do that. It says that no child under 16 years old can consent to sex. Anybody who engages in sexual intercourse or play with a child under 16 is liable to criminal charges. That’s it.  Laws don’t tell you what TO do; they tell you what NOT to do, and the consequence of such.
  • (M) My question on the law pertains to a girl who is 17 not 16.  [I couldn’t tell whether he was being daft or what…]
  • ME (to M) And I answered it quite clearly. Once a girl is 16 years or older, she is presumed to be able to consent to sexual intercourse. In other words, YOU need to figure out what you want to know, and how the law speaks to that, or not
  • (M) Stop talking is riddles and answer the question. Is 17 the legal age of consent. A yes or no will suffice.  [Riddles??? Ok, so he IS a little slow on the uptake it seems]
  • (M) [to ME] not unda my roof lol den again, wey me knw..(Take ten men wid dauter n ask dem the consent ? An den you tell me the ansa) den you take 10 man wey nuh ave nun n see wey dem sey..me caah guess dem ansa ” dem nuh pardon nutten”…”16″ me lookin at how hard we afi go work fi sen R go high skool..NO sa tel him fi come ask me fi consent”fi R..”smiling evilously”
  • ME [to M] No. 16 years old is the legal age of consent.
  • (M) So then it is not a legal issue but a moral one. So any big man can date a school girl 16 or over and he cannot be prosecuted. Under 16 and it becomes a crime. Thanks.
  • ME [ to M] “What” is a moral issue?
  • (M) Dating a girl 16 and over.
  • ME [to M] – the law covers that. If she is under 16 years old and anyone above that negotiates sex with or for her, dem a deal inna criminal ting too. “Age of consent” means that she cannot consent and nobody else except the STATE can consent for her. Suh according to the law, di faada need fi guh aks di Prime Minister, or the Governor-General ef some odda man can have sex wid him 15 year old daughter.
  • ME [to M] ok. yes. That is, most people would find it more acceptable if she was dating someone her age or two years older, but not if she was in a sexual relationship with an adult. In fact, the law creates a moral “gray area” between 16 and 23 years old, where she might be able to consent to sex, but there is a question about whether someone over 23 years old should be involved with a 16 year old.
  • (M) Aal wen me read dem comments yaah enuh only mek me sharpen me cuban till it white fi jig saw up somebody…me sey “18”…an triple s ask sey if bigman fi date skool girls NO.NO.NO you knw hard the father or madda afi work and sacrifices n help frm plp fi dem reach dem age dey..an den dem ole rustykin ole man dey see dem n waah give dem argument..”0,0″ me naah go tek too good paah me heart lol
  • Me [to M]  – so now you know exactly what to say without having to use that Cuban:

    1) under 16 years is against the law of the land, and which will get you jail time;
    2) under 18 years is against the law of [M], and that will get you coffin time
  • (W) nope, nope…big is the operative word…while girls is the other…
  • (W) Bwoy wat a way di man dem a look fi loophole inna di law fi date the likkle girls, KMT.
  • ME (to W) You see’t tuh???? What a baxide deh pon di lan!
  • (W) Whether us women like it or not. When the day arrives that our age is no longer on the calender, many of us will be pissed that the man you are with cheats/cheated or has left the relationship for a younger woman. Whether she be 16 or 25, you are now old and not as much fun anymore and he see’s sup’m in her that you used to be. I think as women we shud enjoy our lives no matter what age we are. As for a man in his 40’s or 50’s wanting a girl 16,17,18,19,20.#1. He can impress her,#2. When he does something nice for her, the delight she shows makes him feel like a “GIANT.” I hate to sound like a broken record…. No matter how much we women hate it and some of us will not admit it, but one day we are all gonna get old and your man will either leave you for/cheat on you with/keep/ admire or want a younger woman….. As a matter of fact men always want younger women.
  • (W) We simply need to start talking to our girls – AND boys, about what’s out there, how to be alert and how valuable they are….creeps of all ages usually go after girls (esp.) that can be fooled, have low self esteem or are unloved/unvalued.
  • (W) Its di big ole perverts dem mek mi neva like guh a shop fi mi granny even when was 11 and 12 and reach puberty. You could just feel dem staring you down…waiting fi yuh turn 16 fi pounce. Nasty bugga dem.

To summarize:

most of the women expressed disgust at such relationships, recognised that girls are acting on and expressing sexual desire in ways that men took advantage of, acknowledged the transactional nature of such relationships, and ultimately concluded that this was just the way things have worked from time immemorial.

The few men who participated were of two minds: complete rejection of such relationships from their stances as fathers or potential lovers, with a minority seeking ways to justify [their own interest in] sexual liaisons with school-age girls.

The social scientist in me makes me want to parse the information in many ways: where do the participants in this conversation live? Ages? Age of first sexual experience? etc.   But, this is a blog post.

What’s striking, but perhaps unremarkable, is that at no point do the responses recognise the type of sexual relations as problematic for legal reasons.   On the other hand, discussions about homosexual sex – and many of such have prevailed on the particular FB page – are often framed in both moral and legal terms i.e. many argue that sex between men is illegal because it is immoral, and even if it were to be made legal, it would still be immoral.   No such luck on this topic.  Heterosexual sex – even if it is between persons who are unequal in power and ability to give consent – is given broad latitude, no matter who it harms.   And that kind of response – trying to come up with explanations for it and ignoring the broader context for such – is fairly typical of how Jamaicans approach this issue.   An article in the Jamaica Gleaner from a couple years ago gives you a good idea of what this kind of argumentation looks like.

The other thing that stands out is how few responses and participants there were.  On the buggery question, one could easily sees hundreds of responses within hours; that has happened several times in the past two months.   In fact, even people who never respond often feel the need to put in their two cents, which is most likely to be a strong condemnation of such.

Even as I’m making distinction between the ‘moral’ and the ‘legal’, I’m also saying to myself, but how can I really justify drawing this difference so as to privilege the ‘legal’ when I don’t believe that the ‘legal’ is pure in intent or application anyway?  In the same group of statutes called the “Sexual Offenses Against the Person” Act, there is at least one other clause that I find both morally and legally problematic (i.e. the buggery law).  While I do recognise that the buggery law is part of the legal framework, I certainly don’t tell people to obey it, or encourage it to be taken seriously, the way I am doing in this conversation.  I don’t feel the same about the clause regarding statutory rape; this is a law that I think should be made to work.   In this case, I feel that one law (buggery) actually sets out to harm people; the statutory rape law sets out to protect people.   Some might argue that the buggery law is intended to “protect” people too, but there’s nothing in the actual language and practice of the law that suggest how otherwise vulnerable persons might be harmed by the sexual behaviours under scrutiny.

My presumption is that children are vulnerable before entering the space of the law, while boys/men are being made vulnerable through applying this law.  I think I need to write more about this.   Clearly, there’s something there that requires some teasing out, if only to explain why there is so little recognition and observance of *the fact of the law* that speaks directly to the sexual abuse of girls.

Comparing public and political responses to buggery and child abuse might be the best way to understand the gap that exists between public knowledge (i.e. everyday understandings of sexual practice), public policy (i.e. law) and social practice (what people are actually doing).   The gap doesn’t seem to be fixed.  That is, people are not always ignoring the laws, nor are the laws always triumphing over ‘commonsense’ approaches.  Instead, there’s another factor at work:  the gap changes based on cultural ideals.   That is, specific sexual values have been normalized through cultural practice and become hegemonic; the laws only seems to matter to and for people to the extent that the statutes reinforce those values.   When the law seems to go against those values, people simply ignore the law and defend the “culture”.

This raises an important question: which sexual values and which cultural practices (regarding sexuality, but not only that) are at work through Jamaican law?  At what point does cultural practice (re: sexuality) become institutionalized in law?  Big questions, but there must be specific cases that can speak to these processes.   I need to look into this more, if only to figure out what can be done to promote sexual values that do not cause harm or aim to disempower girls and women.

I also find it problematic that there’s no recognition in the conversation – or in most of the other studies, columns, news articles etc. – that girls are experiencing normal sexual desires AND that those can be channeled in ways that don’t hurt them.

The blaming of schoolgirls for participating in illicit sexual encounters with adult men presumes that girls should not have those desires to begin with, nor should they express them at all!   The “tek up yuh book” approach to dealing with sexual desire, where education should become their focus instead of finding a love interest with whom to explore those desires is not exactly helpful, especially to those who are already alienated from their education.   What exactly is there in the current educational scenario that is remotely engaging to the students?  So, that’s hardly helpful advice that all girls could connect to.

Arguing that girls are the problem does not exactly work against men’s interests either.  Men (especially those who do not have daughters) are probably just as likely to claim that they are powerless when confronted with their own sexual desires.   Never mind that they invest time and energy in cultivating those desires – one just has to see how they behave around the bus stops and vicinities They must act on it or they may die, or something equally dramatic.   So, telling men to redirect their adult desires towards someone their own age is only going to make them more anxious to exploit girls.  Getting girls to stop seeing adult men as worthy objects of desire is not easy to do.   And it has to be done in a way that men get the message before they become adults.

Similarly, getting adult women to see the problem as men’s misdirected desires instead of focusing on girls as nubile temptresses is yet another part of the story that has to be addressed.  Every time I hear about a fully grown sexually experienced woman fighting a high school girl over a man, I think of plantation slavery.  Where else would such fights be seen as important to have??

This sense of competition between adult women and adolescent girls also says something about the predominance of cultural values about youth and aging in relation to femininity, and where girls & women see their “market value” declining as they get older and develop more sexual experience.   In the Jamaican context, it’s not makeup, cosmetic surgery, fancy clothes, economic status or even skin color that determines a woman’s value; it’s her ability to perform sexually and to satisfy her lover’s sexual desires.  It’s how men perceive and project their desires onto her physical body.  Men’s desires are treated as a constant, pulsating social and metaphysical force that is literally carved into the landscape – just look how many go-go clubs exist, notice all the half-naked women painted on walls, plastered on the billboards, television and mobile phone screens, when men congregate in public, their collective visual field become something akin to a brothel or auction where women and girls are being tested or appraised for fitness.  All females are required to respond, no matter what their age.  If that’s the context in which women and girls are operating in Jamaica, then what any individual girl/woman can deliver is immaterial.

The difficult truth is that girls and women can never win at a game where they are interchangeable and disposable.   As long as they believe they can win, however, they will continue to engage in dubious acts  of self-promotion to project the idea that their sexual performance is worth testing.  But at the end of the day however, what women say about the tightness of their pumpum doesn’t really matter; it’s what men think and do with women’s bodies that count.   Jamaica might as well not have an age of consent.  Men don’t care one bit, and they haven’t been made to care.  And that’s what needs to change.

Whitney and me

I’m watching myself respond to the news that Whitney Houston died.

I heard on FB.  I watched the status updates change, and was – still – in disbelief.

My first reaction: what???

My second was a status update:  “alright. stop the world right now for a minute please. I’m having a moment.’
I mean, what the fuck…?  I realise I’m still fighting to put words to feelings long buried and usually hidden.

I’m not one to get sentimental about a popular figure.

But I feel like I lost something of myself in these recent deaths – earlier this week it was Wilmot Mutty Perkins.  Today, it’s Whitney Houston.

When I came to the US in 1985, my first purchase with my birthday money was Whitney Houston’s album aptly named “Whitney Houston.”  I played that LP day and night.

I gazed at her for hours posed in her Norma Kamali bathing suit on the album cover.  I promised that the moment I could afford it, that’s the exact bathing suit that I would purchase.

Her music took me thru a  turbulent year and a half.  Her voice comforted me through a rough period of displacement, of being forced to grow roots in soil that was hostile to me, of having to grow up and get used to a whole new way of life and of identifying myself.

I tried to decide whether I liked any of the boys that were in my high school, but I ended up fantasizing about Whitney instead.  I learned to dance to this album;  I cried to it, laughed, wore out a few needles on my new turntable that sat at the foot of my bed.  I still have the album.  Never saw the need to get rid of it, no matter how much technology has changed.

Major moments of my girlhood took shape with Whitney playing in the background.  I can’t help but feel connected to her joy and her pain.  I never knew what to do or think about her drug habit, so I pushed it out of my mind. I had no answer, none that made sense.  Although it did make sense. She was dealing with her emotional pain the way so many of my generation were dealing with theirs.   She simply was Whitney.

Dulce posted:

“Ay, Whitney!!! May she rest in peace and may all her pain be finally gone! In sheer disbelief and sadness and feeling like some part of my youth and early adulthood has gone with her!”

I responded:

” yes. I’m having the oddest conversation in my head as I’m listening to her music. Even as I’m just stunned into silence, I’m asking, why am I feeling like the wind was just knocked out of me? like I don’t even know where to turn? Like all the mirrors are cracking and falling down and I’m left looking around for something to look at, reflect back something loving, inspirational, a reminder of what’s possible? why am I feeling this way, totally bereft of those moments of pure joy in my young adulthood? I’m not supposed to feel this way about a pop star? would I feel the same way if Mariah Carey died? I know I wouldn’t.”

Nicole echoed that sentiment:

“Now that my childhood is officially over, I am going to bed.”

Tony, too:
” I just want to say that I am deeply shocked, disturbed and shocked by this news and feel as if a major part of my youth has been stabbed in the back.”

And when we wake up tomorrow, we will still have that dull feeling of having lost something, and perhaps feel guilty that we never loved her enough.  Otherwise, she would have stayed.  Or maybe not.  The point is, we just lost something big, and we have no idea how to fill that gap, or whether it can even be filled.

Poor women having children is a crime against society…

…or so you will come to believe if you read Jamaican newspapers and take public opinion as gospel.   The latest example of how Jamaicans love fi tek poor people mek beat’n tick emerged this week.  The Jamaica Gleaner has been doing a series examining how various individuals are managing to meet their needs in a steadily eroding economy.   The most recent story was one featuring Mrs. Karen Davis, a single, widowed woman who manages a 29-person household in the Kingston/St. Andrew area on very little.

The comments in the newspaper have leaned towards heavy blaming and moralising, with the occasional intervention of a few brave souls.  It can be a fairly brutal experience to go against the popular viewpoint among Jamaicans.  But sometimes, you just have to do what’s necessary and take the lashes.

On the FB thread started by Donna Hope-Marquis, a faculty member in Cultural Studies at UWI-Mona, they’ve been vicious, to say the least:

“what I don’t understand is why these idiots continue to have children and not able to feed them. Fools never realise what’s going on around them..”

“I see parents of these kids as selfish. They are not thinking of the kids and the life these poor lead and the effect lack of food has on development and education.”

“Stupid people!”

I responded to the above statements as such:

Wow. I wonder how many of us would be around if all persons living in poverty chose not to have children until they were no longer poor? And we seem to forget that poverty is not an individual situation; it’s a social condition.

I’ll say it again, even though most of us choose to ignore the basic fact and replace it with moralizing:

Having many children does not make one poor. Family size might lessen the amount of disposable income that you have, but it doesn’t determine whether or not you have an income or access to social resources to begin with. Public policies that govern access to education, quality housing, transportation, utilities, etc. make the difference.

A who tell mi fi guh seh nutt’n? Donna ready fi tek mi aawn:

Natalie D. A. Bennett, I can see you are taking this personally for some reason. Well I am taking it personally because I come from a very poor background, much worse off than this one where there was no rice and chicken back on any day, as we could not afford either one and had to live on what ground provisions we had, sometimes with a little salt. And one thing I learnt early was that having multiples of children in poverty and not gaining education and some source of income is going to keep you poor. You tell me and all the others what kind of public policies are going to improve the lives of these able-bodied people without their input. If you have ever been truly poor you would know that PATH programmes and other forms of social relief and welfare are designed to keep you poor since it is not enough to live a decent life off much less to carve some semblance of social mobility. Rich in nature and poor in pocket is not just a saying but a reality. When people who know better encourage others to stay in these situations with all kinds of cliches and shifting of responsibility to states and governments we remove the full agency from people to take charge of their own lives. Stuffing some contraceptive in diverse parts of your body is as important as getting up and looking some gainful employment that can be multiplied by the number of able-bodied adults who could spend their time more sensibly, rather than trying to ensure that the nation is populated. When that is added to whatever state benefits there are then one can only marvel at the possibilities.

I read and re-read this response, and then decided to reply because it seemed to be responding to things that I didn’t say. But I was also really taken aback by the shallowness of the analysis:

@ Donna – Because you choose to make your social background a part of your public identity, this story is personal for you. Perhaps you need to create some distance so that your personal experiences can stop clouding your vision. I’m probably way off, but I do expect that as someone who is a professor of cultural studies would know how significant public policy is to shaping people’s lives, choices and identities even in Jamaica.

So, when you make statements like

“one thing I learnt early was that having multiples of children in poverty and not gaining education and some source of income is going to keep you poor”

and

“When people who know better encourage others to stay in these situations with all kinds of cliches and shifting of responsibility to states and governments we remove the full agency from people to take charge of their own lives.”

and

“Stuffing some contraceptive in diverse parts of your body is as important as getting up and looking some gainful employment that can be multiplied by the number of able-bodied adults who could spend their time more sensibly, rather than trying to ensure that the nation is populated.”

I can only conclude that you don’t have nearly enough distance to see clearly, or that I am mistaken with regard to your knowledge of public policy.

Being able to stuff contraceptives anywhere is a matter of public policy
Being able to go to school and get an education that can translate into adequate income is a matter of public policy
Being able to find a job is a matter of public policy
Being able to go to work is a matter of public policy
Having a place to live (or not) is a matter of public policy
Getting old enough to become an able-bodied adult is a matter of public policy

I also expected that you would pay attention to the data presented in the newsarticle. Let’s look at that again:

“Widowed four years ago, Karen said the loss of income from her husband, Sherman, who was a fisherman, has also led to a decrease in their purchasing power to maintain the large family.

Ranging from age two to 53 years old, the family consists of 12 children and 17 adults. Twelve of them are Karen’s children and nine her grandchildren. The other eight comprise of cousins or partners of her children.

Five of the adults have permanent jobs, while the others do the occasional odd jobs here and there.

Of the children, two are in high school, two in primary school and five in basic school.”

Mrs. Davis is 53 years old, a widow and head of household. That means she was born around 1959. What were her options when she arrived at childbearing age, roughly 1970? The oldest child mentioned is 31 years old. I don’t know if that’s her son, but let’s pretend he is. That would means he came along when she was about 22, around 1980 or so.  If I just counted 12 adults chronologically (again, we don’t know who is who), her youngest child would be 20 years old, being born in 1981.

You don’t know if she had any abortions, miscarriages or stillbirths before then and since then.

You also don’t know about the quality of healthcare that she had. When one has access to good care, doctors and midwives tend to pay attention to women with histories of twins, as she does, and with multiple births to begin with.

We don’t know what her relationship to her husband was like.

Five out of 17 adults have permanent jobs; we don’t know if they are fulltime or part-time, minimum wage, etc.

We don’t know how long odd jobs last, or how lucrative each is.

We do not know the relationship between the adults.

We do not know if it’s the children vs. the partners who are more likely to be employed.

Of the 12 school-aged children who live in the family, we don’t know who they belong to, and how those children are distributed i.e. if one person had 5 of them, or if its 1 per adult, etc.

In short, we do not know a lot.

What we do know shows how severely people are shortchanged in Jamaican society, not least of which is developing frameworks that enable people to become their best selves.

The only thing we know for sure is that Mrs. Davis runs a large household on very little, and has more love to go round than most of us will experience in a lifetime.

You raise the question of agency, as if such is disconnected from structure (or that other apparatus that manages structure, public policy). But in doing so, you also decided what “agency” should look like for her. Isn’t that a rather disempowering, and frankly, disrespectful, claim to be making on Mrs. Davis’s behalf?

To go back to your personal story, it’s also fascinating that you choose not to see the amazing display of agency in a newsarticle (which doesn’t even give us adequate details to justify the moralizing, mind you). Mrs. Davis could have CHOSEN to abandon her children, or to discourage them from staying close to her. She didn’t have to work this hard at preserving some notion of stability even in their difficult circumstances. Instead, she seems to be very committed at maintaining her homestead as the “haven in a heartless world” for family and kin, to use a cliched expression.

Compare this news story to all the other stories that populate the newspaper encouraging scorn against the archetypical careless, irresponsible woman who doesn’t even know who her children’s fathers are, is mean and abusive to her children, and has no sense of dignity or moral interior. Can you honestly look at Mrs. Davis’s story as presented and not see a display of courage and tenacity beyond what I (and perhaps you) would even be capable of in such circumstances?

As for your comment about “encouraging people to stay in their situation”, I don’t know how you got to that. You don’t know anything about me or my politics regarding women’s reproductive choices.

What I do make clear is that I don’t care to judge Mrs. Davis or anybody else for the choices they make. What I try to do is understand what obtains, and why they feel the way they do.

No amount of moralizing about what Mrs. Davis should have done, no amount of insults leveled at her about how stupid, irresponsible and careless she was for having 12 children, etc. can do her any good. Instead, what it does is far more harmful. It is exactly attitudes like that, coupled with an “I understand because I was in her situation” that would lead policymakers to want to forcibly sterilize women who have more than 3 children, and have that proposition be taken seriously.

I made a vow to myself many years ago, perhaps an outcome of being a medical student, “to do no harm” with the life that I live. I see people as human beings, and that requires me to pay attention to what makes it possible for them to have the best choices that they need. That’s the only way I can know how to be of best service.

In other words, as someone who *does* know that the circumstances of Jamaican women’s childbearing decisions are not as simple as some of us would present, I am not going to capitulate to “commonsense” when I don’t know enough about this person’s situation to begin with. And yes, I’m going to point out the problems inherent in presuming what choices she should have made, without also prescribing for her.

I certainly hope that Mrs. Davis does not get a whiff of the kind of stuff that is being said about her on the internet. The article presents her as a stoic woman who is far more devout than myself. Certainly far above telling people who are calling her stupid to eff off.

But then again, this is part of what it means to be poor isn’t it? To always have other people telling you what choices you should make and what kind of person you are, but who never actually do anything to improve the range of choices you have.

So basically, if you aren’t going to berate this woman as careless, irresponsible and fool-fool for not having used birth control, for “allowing” her grown children to “live off her”, and for working hard to take care of her extended family, then you shouldn’t say anything.   In fact, there’s plenty to say, but it won’t necessarily fall on open ears.   I did say that I wanted to do  more public writing that engages the discourse around poverty and childbearing, and particularly the woman-bashing, so I guess I might as well begin right now.  Aaah bwai.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation, Pt. 1

 Girl reading “Running the Road to ABC” in Mother’s on Half-Way-Tree while her mother provided Suduko instruction (below).  The book is by Haitian poet Denize Lauture, and features six Haitian children making their way to school (Aug 25 2010).

Since I returned from doing my Labor of Love project in Jamaica in August 2010, I’d been mulling over how to expand my mobile literacy project.   Originally, I had decided to focus on Kingston – I had begun the work there, and made a lot of contacts with artists and community organisations; I even had my eye on a building at 61-63 Orange Street.  It turns out that the building, decrepit and dirty though it is, will not become mine anytime soon.  According to the owner, Abraham Joseph, there’s no way he’s going to rent or lease it to me; as he put it quite succinctly “Listen to me – I’m not a generous person; I don’t care about helping people; the only think I care about is making a profit.”

Suduko expert gives quick tutorial to fellow customer at Mother's, Half-Way-Tree (August 25, 2010)

At the outset, I decided that this year would be the pilot phase, when I would assemble as many of the programme’s components as possible, put the whole thing in motion, and then take careful notes on how everything flowed.   I was aware that I didn’t have everything I needed, money for one thing.   In this experimental phase, the actual results didn’t matter as much as getting an understanding about how the different pieces – environment, resources, people, politics, etc. – interacted and worked together, or not.  From there, I could figure out what I would need to tweak in the subsequent years to get the results I wanted.

Jan – March 2011 – write proposal

March 2011 – visit Granville; meet with community folks & potential sponsors; investigate sites; spread the word about the programme

April – May 2011 – send out letters of inquiry; applications for monies

May – June 2011 – drives for books and art supplies; more fundraising; ship 4 barrels of books, art supplies, puzzles, games, etc. to Granville; line up accommodation, transportation, publicity, volunteers, co-instructor, storage

July 10, 2011 – arrive in Jamaica with seven pieces of luggage (yes, excess fees galore) after missing flight twice

July 11, 2011 –  The adventure begins with posturing by one gov’t agency that claims to “run” the community centre where I was scheduled to do the pilot programme!

July 11-15, 2011 – Did outreach within the district, talked with parents, shopkeepers, taxidrivers, JP’s, tradespeople, children, folks who I knew since I was a child, etc.  I met some awesome people – really ordinary and very smart – they got the link between arts & community development without me even saying much!  I bet people usually write them off as ‘mad’.   I also met a few naysayers who didn’t like the location of the programme, didn’t believe that any children would come, or that anybody would support it.  I did challenge them on their negative perceptions and what they chose to see as obstacles.  Issue of violence raised several times.  Definitely more conversations to be had.

July 15, 2011 – Registration begins.  Parents & children showed up. So did four volunteers!!

One parent came ready to fight somebody – she had heard that the person had told somebody something and somebody else overhead and told her daughter who told her – it went just like that – a preview of things to come?

Number was supposed to be capped at 30; registered 45 children.  I couldn’t turn the pre-schoolers (5 years old) away.  This was my chance to hook them into reading and I wasn’t going to give it up.

My other major task was to go in search of a certain school administrator who has been missing in action since June; he was in charge of clearing the barrels from the wharf, but had not responded to any calls, email, text or personal messages I’d sent to him. Nor had he gone to get the waiver from the Ministry of Education to clear the items.   I was on a mission to get these barrels cleared.  I called the school and found out that he was there at that moment.  I showed up, re-wrote the letter requesting the waiver, handed it to him to have him sign it (I also provided the pen), and then took it to the MoE’s regional office.
A bit of gumption rescued me from the stonewalling of the administrative assistant.  When I gave her the letter, she told me that I needed to fax more information to her before she would pass it on to be signed by the Regional Officer.  And that wasn’t going to happen for at least another day.  But I wanted to talk to him directly;  she informed me that he was ” not available at the moment.”  Right then, guess who walks out of his office? Naturally, I pounced.  And that was that for the waiver.

July 16, 2011 – Had to get on an early morning bus (Knutsford Express) to go to Kingston to pick up food from Food for the Poor location in Spanish Town.  Noone could explain why I couldn’t retrieve the order at the Montego Bay location.   I should have known this was going to take all day: I let somebody from a Jamaican agency insist that “all you have to do is come before twelve o’ clock, and just come to the gate and the security will call to go in and pick up what you ordered; no man, you don’t have to wait, you just tell the security the name of the agency and they will direct you”.  And I fell for it.  Wayne, a friend who volunteered to drive another friend’s pickup got me at the KE depot and we went directly to the Spanish Town location; got there before 10 am.  We joined the We did not drive out of there until after 3 PM.  That meant I did not have enough time to get back to Cherry Gardens, put up the stuff and then back to New Kingston to get on KE.   Instead, I found my way down to the bus park by Darling Street end of Coronation Market and got on a Coaster.  It was fine; in hindsight, the ride was just as (un)comfortable as the KE, so guess what I’ll be using to travel between Mobay and Kgn from now on, at 1/3 of the price?  Yep.

July 17, 2011 – first thing to tackle: install a bookshelf for the books.  Esther joins me in MoBay and we go shopping for plywood (it took five people  to sell me two sheets of construction plywood!) and rope (far cheaper in the store ironically named Efficient Hardware where it was sold by the pound, than in hoity-toity True Value where it was six times more expensive!).  Found someone to drill the hole in the ceiling and install the hooks.   Then four (volunteers Chris and Marcia, Esther and myself) of us strung, knotted and hung the shelves, somewhat haphazardly, into place.  The books didn’t actually arrive until Wednesday, since I was hit with a dose of passive-aggressiveness on the part of a certain school administrator.

Bookshelves in the designated library installed by Christopher (volunteer), Esther and I. (Photo by Nikolai Samuels, Aug. 12, 2011)

July 18 – August 12, 2011 – Granville Reading & Art Programme Lite.
What was I thinking?

This question passed my lips in whispers several times over the four-week period as I tried to keep the kids from killing each other (literally!); dealt with electricity outages, water lockoffs, sugar shortage, running out of toilet paper and soap; figured out how to feed the kids each day (the goods did not make it from Kingston to Mobay for another 3 weeks!) while not freaking out about how much money I was sucking out of my own checking account; did impromptu lessons to convey basic math & reasoning skills that children should already have learned in school; created ad hoc ‘behavior management plans’ for the particularly disruptive kids;  managed volunteers who needed to be told what to do & how to do it on practically every task that mattered; managed parents who didn’t know that they were supposed to behave like adults; intervened in abusive situations in the homes of individual children, all the while trying to get a good night’s sleep in order to be able to navigate the daily trip back and forth between Mt. Salem and Granville, to start all over again the next day.

All that said, within the chaos, things actually got done.  We even managed to have some fun.

More on Andrew Holness’s proposal for teaching English in Jamaican schools

This was written to respond to someone (and the many someones ) who claim that it is “romantic” to argue that Patwa should not be replaced by English, since the former does not help with Jamaica’s ‘competitiveness’ in the global economy.  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

[His] comments are funny (and not in a ha-ha way) for how [he] vainly tried to disguise ideology with the same old neo-liberal hogwash about reason, competitiveness and what not. There’s no “reason” in [his]  comment, just defense of a system of thought that was never based on anything but a justification of the presumed superiority of all things European. Hence, the denigration of whatever the subaltern produced, no matter it’s ‘marketability’. What [he is] spouting is really an updated form of that ideology, you know, the one that says that speaking English is a marker of how civilized one is?

Our children don’t need to learn to read and write in English because of lofty macroeconomic claptrap. They need to learn because they are being excluded from membership in the society and are being denied the opportunity to make informed choices about how they want to live their lives.  Speaking English is not going to change the mega-exploitative tendencies of Jamaica’s ruling class (now called corporations) or guarantee people jobs with living wages.  It does guarantee that at least more people will have a chance to carve out alternatives within that structure, and that they will be able to figure out when they are being screwed and even be able to do something about it.

(I also think it really, really bothers English-only proponents that Jamaica’s major contributions to world culture have come through patwa and patwa-speakers. A bit of red-yeye *and* embarrassment, I think)

Teaching English with the assumption that children speak “broken” versions of such, is *not the same as* Teaching English with the assumption that children already have a different language structure in place. In the first instance, you spend a lot of time “correcting” rather than instructing, a technique which denigrates patwa as non-language, as essentially wrong in all facets, and not worth speaking except by the ones who were not lucky enough to be “corrected”.  Now, where have we heard and seen this strategy in use before?  Hmmm, just in most of the world where those Europeans who had claimed the right to dictate the cultural and political climate decided that their particular way of speaking was best.  And indigenous peoples around the world are still paying for those decisions.

In the second instance, you actually get improvement in command of both languages. (Oh drat, that’s not what the English-only folks want – it’s English or nothing.) To use [his]  example, the best way to teach Spanish to a Portuguese kid is to recognise that there is *both* overlap and divergence between the languages, and that the patterns in errors that the child may make is due to the child having prior knowledge of and facility in another language.   If you don’t know, or fail to point out that yo and eu do mean the same thing and are used in the same way, but are spelled and pronounced differently, then the child cannot appreciate that in many instances, s/he will be able to figure out the Portuguese equivalent (see that word?) to a term they already know in Spanish, or that you can say the same thing in different ways, depending on the language you are using.

As an aside: I totally blame people like Carolyn Cooper for unleashing the most heinous transliterations of patwa onto the public, as if they were ever accurate translations; that effort has only allowed the English-only folks to maintain their position that patwa is really broken English that can be ‘fixed up’ so respectable people can understand.

So, don’t even try that “all AH really wants is for Jamaican children to know English” line.  There are few who will miss how his personal prejudices taint an otherwise reasonable (yes, [his] word) and necessary step to improving children’s academic achievement.
Furthermore, if he had bothered to read the volumes of research written in ENGLISH, he would have noticed that one can teach a language with sensitivity and with excellent results.

And by the way, there is actually a hybrid of Portuguese and Spanish – it’s called Portanol – that is spoken wherever Portuguese-speaking and Spanish-speaking people regularly interact with each other. And no matter which is the primary language, people who speaks it knows the difference between the three, and can switch from one to the other. But being educated in the fullest sense is not what is desired is it?  No, it’s indoctrination about the superiority of English. I’m sure that you don’t think the subtext of those hundreds of English language institutes that are popping up in Japan and China is that their indigenous language is cluttering up the airwaves, and is inferior to English? Nope, it’s about having another tool in the toolkit.

But somehow, the colonialist mentality has never left Jamaica. Too many of us not only want to fling wheh the existing tools – dem too ol an tan bad, dem nuh look modern – but wouldn’t mind ef di govament nuh jus’ fling whe’h di toolbox dem a dungle heap tuh.

Andrew Holness’s commentary on language use in school

Dear Mr. Holness:

I read your commentary in today’s Observer, and while I will comment
in a more public fashion later, I thought it more appropriate to
respond to you directly at this time.

For far too long, public policy in Jamaica has been crafted in a silo
– one defined by political allegiance and expediency, and completely
separate from (as well as contrary to) the mountains of relevant
research and scholarship that exists on a given topic.  The government’s lack of coherent policy on how to treat Patwa and English in the formal school system is a casualty of that silo approach.

Jamaica is neither special nor unique as a post-colonial society
possessing both an indigenous language and a formal, inherited language.  Nor is this country unique in treating the indigenous language as inferior to the inherited language.  What is different (and quite troubling) about the Jamaican context is the absence of reasoned discussion and focused understanding among policymakers about what issues are at stake, how the issues overlap, and concern about the unintended effects of any policy on the population in the short and long term.  No topic can be meaningfully understood by casting it in polarized terms.  A debate requires multiple points of view, not simply the ones that are loudest or best mesh with political agendas.  This silo approach to public policy is simply unacceptable and, as we have experienced for decades, detrimental to the social health of the society.

In my view, your comments reflect the problems created by such an approach.

It may be in vogue to claim that Jamaica needs to get its people ready to participate in the information age and become “key players” in the “global economy”, etc. etc.  However, the country already does that.  What is being asked – indirectly – is for all institutional systems to work together to improve that performance, and to expand how (and which?) Jamaicans participate.  What is also being presumed, but not made clear, is that better facility in English expands such participation, and to what end.  And yet, you have not presented any evidence to support this point of view; nobody has, to date.  As [outgoing] Minister of Education, it would behoove you to make this argument crystal clear, providing whatever systematic evidence that exists about how English will improve Jamaicans’ economic and social standing.

It’s not enough to say that “English is a universal language.”  It could be argued that Jamaica does not observe other “universal” conventions, so what makes this situation different?  Indeed, is it true that we don’t speak it enough or adequately? Why should we speak it more than we currently do?  To me, good public policy is premised on being able to provide answers to the basic questions, rather than leave everyone guessing what those answers might be.

At this moment in the 21st century, there is also little value or sense in telling Jamaican youth that their future in a global environment rests [only?] on their ability to converse in the ‘universal’ tongue, English. The evidence simply doesn’t support that claim. To be “Jamaican” is already a distinct identity in the global marketplace, and one of those markers is that we possess a language of our own, Patwa, through which we convey what is unique to us.  It is a rather sorry state of affairs when Patwa speakers can be recognised as contributing to world culture but not to our own society. In case you weren’t aware, in a moment where hundreds of languages are dying every year, we have contributed a new one, and whose users grow every moment!

While I certainly agree that the quality of writing and speaking in mass media is paltry, that’s not about lack of respect for English (frankly, the warping/dancehall-izing of Patwa is just as bad), but about the generally low standard to which decision-makers hold and subject the population in all areas, from education to politics: appearance counts more than content.  Again, public opinion and impressions are not adequate bases for good public policy.

What you seem to be getting at, and which I do agree, is that not being able to speak, read and write English well does constrain the choices that individual Jamaicans do have and how much influence that one has over their lives. While facility in English does not remove all constraints, it is worthwhile to note that the limitations that youth may experience because of non-fluency in English are not created by the choices that they make.  Instead, those limitations are imposed by the kind of thinking that you are also guilty of, and which has already been embedded in the education system.

That is, there is no formal recognition that Patwa is a language, separate from English, and is not “broken English”. Those who come to school not speaking formal English are never taught to do so; they are dismissed as dunce, slow and backward, and treated accordingly. They are never given the tools they need to help them excel, and so leave school (often early)
feeling like they are not worthy members of the society.  In a similar vein, non-English speakers are treated with disdain in every quarter of the society except the ones where *only* Patwa speakers dwell.

It’s not a coincidence that those arenas are also the ones where you
won’t find well-stocked libraries, well-run schools, banks, effective
community organisations, etc. and where criminality and alternate
economies flourish.  So, it is indeed disingenuous for you to say that
you don’t “buy” the argument that non-recognition of Patwa in the
classroom is a form of marginalization, when the very working of the
institutions over which you are responsible is the touchstone of that
marginalization!

Unfortunately, your stance “It is not one or the other, we must be
able to speak English” is least supported by research-based
scholarship.  Perhaps you should have added “…as well”.  Jamaica is
a bilingual society; this is not about what one wishes or believes to
be true.  It simply is so.  Consequently, public policy on language
use in the classroom (and elsewhere) has to be crafted based on the
understanding of what that means for us, and what will work in the collective best interest of Jamaicans.  Cutting edge practices in
literacy and in Education today recognise that one cannot simply replace, ignore or wish away another language that already exists. Rather, one must figure out how to work with it to attain fluency in
another language.  This is a critical area of concern in your policy
recommendation, and which was never articulated clearly or addressed
properly in previous policy frameworks. For that reason, Jamaican
children have emerged from elementary education over the past two
decades as, at worst, illiterate in both languages and at best,
literate in one and completely ignorant of the other. And yet, this is
the precise area that will determine whether this new policy is
workable. I think everyone would appreciate some elaboration of how
you expect this to work, teachers included.

Getting Jamaican children fully fluent and literate in English does not lay in simply dictating that English be made the lingua franca of schools.  There has to be a process for making this so, one which takes note of the problematic way that Patwa is currently treated in schools i.e. as a non-language that is not being used to educate children in an adequate way.  In order for English language to become the formal language of school contexts, Patwa and English must first be treated as equal and complementary language systems. Administrators will have to communicate in the language.  Teachers will also have to treat Patwa as distinct from – not an inferior or broken form of – English, and be able to teach English as a language.

You must also deal with the systematic discrimination against people (including children) for not speaking English, including within the ministry’s jurisdiction.  In a context where value is attached to ability to
communicate in English, Patwa will retain its power as the language of
opposition, dissent and subversion.  How will this focus on English
affect how children (and staff) are treated when they don’t use English to respond to the authority figures? Does this expectation include non-teaching staff?

As you may be aware, the majority of teachers do not know how to
distinguish or move back and forth between English and Patwa except to
say “that’s wrong” or “speak properly” or to characterize Patwa as
“broken English”, as you did.  That approach is neither useful nor effective, pedagogically speaking.  Thus,  the teachers’ capacity to work with the languages must also change. In addition, you are essentially requiring teachers to use only English in schools, when you have no assurance that they even speak and write the language well enough to conduct instruction in it.  In fact, this may be an important moment to further distinguish between Jamaican English and textbook English; too many conflate these, as we see in the newspaper columns.

If your proposition is a backdoor strategy to delegitimizing Patwa, it will backfire quickly. Neither public opinion nor one’s biases about the problems of Patwa (and merits of English) are adequate or legitimate bases for making policy or taking public stances on this (or any!) issue. The language question is a sufficiently complex issue that requires you as incoming Prime Minister to step back from the fray, to tease out all (not just some) of the merits and drawbacks of the various approaches to a dual-language environment, and to present a careful, thoughtful, knowledgeable and pragmatic position to the public. Whether or not you like or approve of Patwa is irrelevant and ought not to figure *anywhere* in whatever decisions are made.  What should be done is what is best for the country, given what is known and understood.

I write this as an educator and as someone who is very invested in improving the capacity of every single Jamaican to be able to make
choices about their lives, including the ability to speak back to
power.  That is why I have been working to create a community-based
literacy programme that immerses children in reading and creative
activities in an English language environment.  I want children to know English because their social value and future possibilities are being determined by that language within a deeply unfair system.  I believe that they need to be given the tools they need in order to show what they are capable of, and to be able to choose how they express themselves over the course of their lives.  It’s why I tell parents to spend time talking to their children in English so that the link between what their children hear and speak and what they encounter in books, public airwaves, etc. is easier to forge.

But nowhere do I convey the message, subtly or otherwise, that it’s not
acceptable to speak in Patwa, that Patwa is somehow inferior to
English, or that if they do not speak English they won’t be able to get a job.  None of that would be true, and for obvious reasons. Indeed, I do correct parents when they restate my request as “telling the children to speak properly” – one can speak properly in Patwa as well!  The children also get to write and create in Patwa, and be able to read that back to themselves.  Myself and the other instructors teach them how both languages operate, so they are able to understand the differences and know how to use them.  Eventually, they will be able to tell when what they read or hear is “incorrect English”, separate and distinct from what is Patwa.
Knowing how to make that distinction is a form of cultural literacy. Unfortunately, this is not a form of literacy that is widely available or encouraged. Tellingly, your approach – English or else – does not support that form of literacy either; your comments certainly do not distinguish
between “broken English” and Patwa, nor do you seem to realize that in
a bilingual environment, a distinct form of communication emerges that
is a hybrid of the existing languages.

This is what silo thinking does: it blinds you to the complex
realities that do exist, and reduces those realities to dualisms that
are easy to swallow and to offer opinions about. Sadly, what Jamaicans
need more experience with is the ability to think in nuanced ways, and
to accept gray areas as legitimate spaces in which to work.  The
position that you have spelled out takes us a few steps backward in
that regard.  This issue calls for an attitude of respecting the
history and utility of each language form, and for making a case for
why English should be taught with more precision and attention in
schools than has been to date.  It is not necessary to create more
discord and to take potshots at Patwa in order to advance that
argument.

Your goal as chief policymaker ought to be to devise effective public
policy that reflects the cultural situation as well as creates a more
vibrant and inclusive society.  Such policy has to create better
outcomes than what went before, and needs to be useful to everyone
interested in promoting the social well-being of Jamaican citizens.  I
hope that you are able to meet that goal with regard to the language
issue and schooling in contemporary Jamaica.

On Steve Jobs’ passing

Yesterday when I saw the news item that Steve Jobs had died, tears actually welled up in my eyes.

Why? I knew little about this man.  I’m not an Apple person, and am very good at resisting any and all efforts to make me buy something that somebody else thinks I need.  I’m also not a celebrity hound, so I don’t pay a lot of attention to what happens to rich people, except when an exceptional individual gives a lot of money for a good cause, or actually does something that is worthwhile for humanity.   It’s only a few minutes before writing this post that I finally watched that YouTube video of his commencement address at Stanford University, and which has been circulating for a long time.   I was surprised to learn of his family background, his working-class roots and his experience at Reed College.  All that makes me admire him a lot more.

What I did know of his personal life was that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer; I remember feeling really sad for him when I first heard.  In the prime of his life, he seemed that he was being asked to accomplish far more each day than most of us could, all because he didn’t have much time left.   Pancreatic cancer typically means a sure death; that he was able to live for this long was a gift that I’m sure he fully appreciated.

In truth, all I really cared to know of Steve Jobs was that, with every new invention, he was just brilliant – always being creative, showing how one can still imagine from the edges, and then figuring out how to project that fertile imagination with such panache and intensity onto the marketplace.  That work had made him into a cultural icon, and from the tidbits that came through FB, he also seemed like a decent enough person.

He also clearly loved and enjoyed what he did, and had some understanding of basic human needs for relationships, joy, experiences of beauty, ability to communicate easily and effectively.   The raw display of talent and creativity, of taking the mundane and turning it into an extraordinary experience.  The products made me, a non-techie with a purely utilitarian approach to gadgets, giggle.  I mean, I was always smiling when I think of or interact with Apple products. I suspect that’s how other people responded too.

Sure, he was a master at manipulating all of us, making us want things that we weren’t sure we knew what to do with, other than what the ads said we could.  But his products are also smart, and enhanced whatever intelligence the users already possessed, leaving a lot of room, in fact, opening doors for people to do whatever they wanted to.  They pushed the user to be more curious, more adventurous, more creative, to want to push the gadgets themselves to the next level, to even surpass whatever Steve Jobs might have envisioned.   I know that I have totally appreciated how his vision has transformed my experience and expectations of media, and in a good way, a richer and more empowering way.

All that is not the work of a computer person, that’s the work of an intellectual, a genius, someone who thinks and lives in an interdisciplinary way.

He understood that person + machine created something new and different in every encounter, and the sum of those encounters exceed the realm of what we could understand.  And that was ok. One doesn’t need to predict the future. Instead, one needs to live fully in the present and create as many futures and possibilities as possible.  You can greet, accept, reject, or transform them when you get there.   That is the kind of person that we need a whole lot more of in this world.

So, to say that this single man has completely changed how *everyone* lives, even if one doesn’t personally own or buy a single thing that his company sells is an understatement.

I think that if you’re going to do something big, then it ought to be good for and accessible to everybody. And he did it. To me, that’s time well spent.

So long, Steve.  May we continue in that fabulous legacy you have left, and do a lot of good with it.