Thursday, January 29, 2009

Child Labor

Archbishop Donald Reece, the Archbishop of Kingston, meets with every incoming group of Passionist Volunteers. He told our group, PVI 08-09, that we are to coach the youth as much as possible. We are to include them, teach them, and empower them. The communities need to belong to the youth.

My goal was to include them in the library project. Mount Friendship has never had a functioning library in its all-age school, and I’ve been trying desperately to change that. The books that my college friends sent renewed my energy for the project (Thanks again, guys) and I was ready to dive in headfirst with the help of the children. I expected them to be happy about the bags of books and willing to take on a role.

I didn’t think they’d take the project away from me.

The first Monday after the holidays, I drove the program’s white van up to Mount Friendship and asked a few boys to carry the book bags into the library classroom. Before I knew it, there were swarms of boys around the van, fighting for the privilege of carrying the sacks. The excitement was more than palpable. “Dem America books fi we, miss?” Yes, kids, those books are for you. The boys grabbed at the bags of books and ran into the library classroom with them.

I started sorting through the books during the day, and then invited the older children to help me. I gave a brief talk in a few classrooms about the help I needed, posted sign-up sheets on the side of the building, and promised to collect them at the end of the day. I shouldn’t have bothered. After the end-of-school prayer had been said, children were clamoring to get to the library. “Me, Miss!” they shouted as they jostled and elbowed their way into the tiny room, “Pick me!”

Surprised at the turnout, I directed them to the stations I had set up and we discussed the anatomy of a book. We talked about what a title means, what an author does, and who, exactly, an illustrator is. I pointed out the front cover, the back cover, the binding, and the spine. We talked about the right way to put books on a shelf (with the spine facing outward, to read the title) and talked about the concept of a library. Then they got down to business.

Mr. Bennett, the principal, Miss Forscythe, the grade 4 teacher, and I had devised a simple system to organize the books. We found envelopes that Jamaica’s humidity has sealed shut, and we cut them into triangles to be pasted into a book’s back cover. A card listing the title, author, the name of the person checking out the book, and the dates borrowed and returned goes into that triangle. We are keeping a handwritten list of all the books, a list that I enter into Excel on my laptop when I reach home in the evenings.

Within minutes, the room was a flurry of activity; students were pasting, taping, cutting, writing, shelving, and sneaking peeks into the colorful picture books at their fingertips. In shock, I stood awkwardly in the middle of the library. After so many months of struggling in the library as a solitary warrior, I suddenly found myself with nothing to do.

Thankfully, that changed quickly. “Miss!” “Miss!” Miss!” My name was being called from all over the room. I started circulating, answering questions and letting the kids know they were on the right track. Sometimes I had to point out the author’s name because it was hiding on the first page, not on the cover. Sometimes an envelope triangle was mistakenly pasted up-side down and had to be turned before the glue dried. As the afternoon wore on, there were fewer questions for me, but the energy level remained high.

The next afternoon was no less exuberant, nor was the following week, or the week after. I have sign-up sheets where children have committed to be a “paster,” a “writer,” a “counter,” or a “shelver” weeks into the future. The children have taught each other the jobs as well. Shamika was a paster last week. Although she is a shelver this week, she taught Jawayne the right way to glue the envelope to the back cover. Allier has trouble remembering who an author is, but Shandee is quick to remind him.

What is driving these children? What are they here for? Does the library give them camaraderie? Purpose? A chance to hold a colorful book? An identity? I don’t know the answers, but I love my willing laborers and I love that they have usurped my role. The library now belongs to them.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Welcome to the Peak

For my 22nd birthday, my roommates and I climbed Blue Mountain Peak. Standing tall at 2256 meters, it the highest point in Jamaica—I’ve got a thing for hiking and climbing, so this was a giant I had been eager to face. It was seven miles up, and upon reaching the summit, we found a sign that had been posted years before: “Welcome to the Peak!”

We had left in the early hours of the morning in hopes of catching the sunrise, but since our guide had not said a word from the moment we left the base camp, since it was pouring rain, since we had walked the majority of the way in darkness, and since our feet were covered in blisters, we turned around and headed back down the trail as quickly as possible.

I stand now at the peak. January 18th marks the six month anniversary of my time in Jamaica: I am halfway through, I have climbed the mountain. The next six months will be my journey back down the trail. The journey of the past months is not unlike my hike up the mountain, for my first steps were taken in darkness. I was blind to the culture, to the language, to the struggles of poverty, and to the everyday challenges of the developing world. But the activities of each day have enlightened and continue to enlighten me. Every person I meet, every experience I have opens my eyes a bit more. Every step I take in Jamaica is more sensitive, more aware, and more confident than the last.

I will always face rainy days, and the trail still gets rocky at times. But my guides in this journey are open and vocal and supportive: I have the teachers at Mount Friendship School. I have community pillars like Miss Doris and Mr. Brooks. I have my bosses, Father Lucian and Amy. I have the support of my community, Lauren, Michela, and Amber. I have family and friends that love me and the work I do here.

The darkness has lifted; I have gained a foothold on the trail of Jamaica. I have learned to stomp out roaches without screaming. I have learned how to cook ackee and saltfish. I have learned to effectively balance myself on busses careening around mountain roads. I have learned to navigate the Registrar General’s Department and the National Health Fund. I have learned to coach a child through Hop On Pop. I am learning to listen. I am learning to be easier on myself. I am learning to ask for help. I am learning to take it one day at a time and to cherish the small victories.

The day of the climb, we hurried back down the mountain, wishing for warmth, for dry clothes and for the pain in our feet to subside. The return journey was shorter—going downhill is always easier. But I have no intention of racing through the next six months. Everyone says that the second half of mission work tends to fly by, but I want to treasure each moment. I am growing closer to the adults and the children in Mount Friendship; I love them and I love the work that I have been granted the opportunity to do. Every day that slips past reminds me that my time here is limited, and that the laughs I share and the hugs I receive will come to an end all too soon.

As the morning of December 23rd wore on, the mists lifted, the sun came out, and our chilled skin warmed. We realized that our trek had not been in vain, for although we had left the peak, we were still able to enjoy the views of the Blue Mountains. I could look out over miles and miles of untouched and uninhabited mountains and hills. It was breathtakingly beautiful.
And from what I can see from where I stand right now, as Miss Betsy of Mount Friendship, the view is breathtaking.