Last update: 09-Dec-2013 1:43 am
Monday, December 09, 2013
Trinidad & Tobago Guardian Online
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Helping lost boys find themselves
In 2011, the T&T Guardian began publishing a series of columns by Debbie Jacob about her experience of teaching CXC English language to a group of inmates at the Youth Training Centre. Jacob’s book Wishing for Wings, based on these columns, was launched on Thursday evening at the Hotel Normandie, St Ann’s. T&T Guardian editor in chief Judy Raymond had this to say at the launch:
It gives me great pleasure to speak this evening on behalf of Guardian Media Ltd as a sponsor of this event—not least because it will be a refreshing change for the Guardian to feature in the news for doing something good. Of course, no begging and pleading at all was required to get the Guardian to sponsor this launch, because the columns on which this book is based were first published in the Guardian, and Debbie is one of our own.
In addition, a book like this is in keeping with what we do, in a small way, to help Alta, the Adult Literacy Tutors Association. The T&T Guardian also supports the arts: in addition to our Sunday Arts Section, started last year, we’re now the media partner of the T&T Film Festival, and although we’re not an official sponsor, for the past two years we’ve provided the best coverage of the Bocas LitFest, as I’m sure Marina Salandy-Brown would admit if she could.
But this connection goes a lot deeper than that. This is also a pleasure on a personal level. The first time I met Debbie, it was in a newsroom and both her babies were with her, in a pushchair. That shows just how long ago this was, because they are both now adults and six feet tall.
Since then, Debbie has moved on, because she had two children and a mortgage to take care of. She has changed careers not once but twice—and showed terrible judgment both times: she became a teacher and then a librarian. So, having left journalism, she managed to find not one but two other professions whose practitioners are also paid only a fraction of the respect and the money they deserve.
But although Debbie left full-time journalism, she left it too late. Once the ink gets into your blood, as they say, you can’t escape. She’s always kept one foot in the newsroom, writing features and book reviews and profiles. These days, as well as her weekly column, she also runs the book club in the Guardian’s Sunday Arts Section.
Like Debbie, many of those of us who practise journalism do so because we are writers. We’d really rather be at home scribbling, but we have to make a living, and journalism, at least from the outside, looks like a good way of combining those things. Many local writers have subsidised their other work by writing for the Guardian, Derek Walcott, Wayne Brown and not one but two generations of Naipauls among them.
But journalism is also worthwhile and valuable in itself, and especially in the hands of real writers. Too often today, people think that real journalism is just the news of the day about what politician said what about which other politician, or that it is just investigative journalism. Debbie’s book is concrete evidence that that is not true. And Debbie’s publisher, Ian Randle, understood that Debbie’s columns were not mere ephemera to be skimmed through before being used to wrap fish, as the saying goes.
Ian realised that these columns were worth collecting and publishing as a book. They demonstrated the importance, the quality, the durability and the usefulness of what a newspaper can and should do. Journalism is raw history. It’s literature in a hurry. But it is still history, and at its best it is literature. This book draws on all Debbie’s professional skills, and it also shows some of her personal qualities, which come through in these and her other columns—which I am sure she’ll be horrified to hear.
Like everyone else, Debbie is frightened and frustrated by the crime, the inefficiency and indifference of public officials, the breakdown in law and order that we see all around us. But Debbie did more than just grumble about it in 750 words a week. She got up and went to teach at YTC, and watched the boys in her class blossom, and then wrote about it.
She shared first with them and then with her readers her passion for literature, her fierce belief in the redemptive power of the written word, her sense of fun, her love for this country and its people, and the dogged optimism that has always kept her going when times are hard. She’s a gentle but very determined soul.
Simply and powerfully told, the stories in Wishing for Wings are worth reading just for the pleasure of reading them, from the moment when Debbie steps through a rust-red creaking gate that seems to her like the entrance to Hades. The boys she meets on the other side are vivid characters, who reach off the page and grab you by the heart—like Olton, who wanted to be a turtle because they live long, so that he wouldn’t be dead by the time he was 20 or 30.
Yet these same students represented “a side of the country that people have come to fear,” as Debbie puts it. Her stories about these lost boys and how she helped them find themselves bring to mind some words by Derek Walcott, writing about the West Indies and their fractured past: “Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole.”
That’s what these columns and this book are about, and that is why they are important, and moving, and worth preserving and re-reading. This is a book about love. Wishing for Wings, published by Ian Randle Publishers, is available at Paper Based, Hotel Normandie, St Ann’s, and other bookstores.
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