Q: I graduated from college with a degree in entrepreneurship from a Nigerian institution. Thanks to my course of study, I have...
A small boat speeds in to shore from one of the oil-drilling platforms off the coast at La Brea. On board, Jahmai Donaldson is on his way to meet the T&T Guardian. Surrounded by complicated-looking machinery, the oil refinery, trucks coming and going and the workforce of T&T’s biggest industry, Jahmai now wears the uniform of an offshore oil worker. Hard hat, high-visibility jacket, overalls blackened with grime from a serious day’s work, heavy-duty boots.
He looks far more comfortable in this attire than he did a year ago, when he was still wearing the brown-and-white inmate’s uniform of the Youth Training Centre (YTC) in Arouca. Back then his life had reached the kind of nadir some boys never recover from.
Now, looking out to sea, he points out Chaguaramas in the distance. “In the evenings and sometimes in the morning you can see Venezuela right over there,” Donaldson said.
The highs and lows of Donaldson’s life and his resurrection from angry young criminal into hard-working, positive, ambitious 22-year-old are documented in a book called Wishing for Wings by Debbie Jacob, a teacher whom Jahmai credits as being his saviour when he needed one the most. Jacob also documented some of her encounters with “the lads” in her columns in the Monday Guardian.
From his promising early school days at St Benedict’s College, La Romaine, he gradually descended into a cycle of rejecting not only “normal” society but his own talents. He was always intelligent, even admitting school was too easy for him. But, in his words, “School was not a place to learn for me, I was interested in material things. In primary school I would say I was a little too confident, because I had good marks. But I wanted good clothes and good shoes.”
He grew up in Pleasantville in a single-parent family. His mother worked hard to provide for her six children, but they were as poor as you might expect a large, working-class Trinidad family to be. That his siblings (he is the second youngest) have all succeeded in life, both academically and professionally (his elder brother works in insurance, his sister, whom he now lives with in Marabella, works for local government) is testament to the way his mother raised them.
But somewhere along the line, the younger Donaldson decided he wanted the fast track to possessions and wealth. He left school at 16 with just two passes—and not before being arrested outside the school gates for receiving a stolen mobile phone. In the “humble community,” (as he describes the place he grew up) the people he saw who had the nice shoes, cars and jewelry were the rich people—or the criminals.
“I would see things and know the brand. We never had those things, but we were exposed to children who came from wealthier families. “And people involved in crime lived in the area. A stone’s throw away from where I lived,” Donaldson said. By crime he means drugs, guns, robbery. And in small “humble” communities where many live in poverty it’s easy to identify those who have fast-tracked via the profits of crime to sit behind the wheels of fast cars and SUVs.
While still in school, aged 13, Jahmai began to loiter with increasing frequency by the house of the area’s gang leader, attracted by the vehicles and bling. He wanted acceptance, but at first the experienced gangsters ignored him. “They make you feel you’re new and not important…It’s kind of like brainwashing,” Donaldson said.
The leader, whom Donaldson still prefers not to name, is now dead. But before his demise he coached Donaldson in the art of buying and selling drugs on the street and managing a stash house. He stuck close to the leader, avoiding the attention of the police, until one day he decided he could go it alone. The money he had made and the thirst for more encouraged him.
When he was rich enough to be walking around “deck off in gold,” he decided that, for his own protection, he ought to start carrying a gun. He bought a 38 Ruger pistol for $7,000 and “felt like people started to be more fearful. It tricked me into a sense of power,” Donaldson said. He would show it off to his friends and occasionally to customers he needed to frighten or threaten for money.
One day, riding in a car with acquaintances, he was pulled over by police, who found the gun and arrested everybody. He was charged with possession of a firearm. He pleaded guilty and was convicted and sentenced to three years in YTC. That arrest, while devastating at the time to himself and his mother, probably saved his life.
YTC: a lucky break
Debbie Jacob, who remains in close contact with Donaldson, concurs. “I don’t know if he’d be alive today if he hadn’t been arrested. I don’t know if any of the boys would,” Jacob said. (In her book Jacob writes about several of the YTC boys she taught CXC English, not just Jahmai.)
There’s a sense he doesn’t want to go into the sordid details of his past life, so whether he committed serious violence before his arrest is unclear, but once inside he fought regularly; physically and verbally. The anger and frustration of being locked up with 18 other dangerous boys (“some from Port-of-Spain,” he emphasises) in a “nasty, smelly, scary place with caged children, plenty yelling, really harsh prison officers making you feel less of yourself,” must have been like hell.
“It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” he said. He was still in the mindset of a bad boy, and rapidly he rose to the top of the tree of bad boys. Regularly he was put in solitary confinement, not least for refusing to take part in the primary school lessons that some of the less literate boys were made to do. At what point did he decide he needed to change his life and go back to normal?
“When I realised I would need a life after prison. I started accepting everything for what it was. The reality of the situation. I found it to be inhumane and I was worse off than when I had started on that path,” Donaldson said. The first person he cites as helping him turn the corner was a student teacher named Beverley Hinds, who was doing a thesis at the prison and teaching the primary school lessons. She came just at the right time and offered him the chance to help teach less gifted children.
“For the first time in a long time I had been given responsibility for something. I felt I wasn’t as lost as I thought I was. That was my break,” Donaldson said.
Turning a corner
Then one day Debbie Jacob walked into the prison as a volunteer English teacher. “Meeting Miss Jacob was amazing. “At first I thought she was just another teacher, at the end of the day I just wanted to pass. Then when I saw her and she was a short white lady and I was like. ‘Eh, this is for real? What’s she doing here?’
“The most amazing thing was that she was bold. She didn’t appear to be scared and that stood out. She would be serious and she would talk to you like peers, she didn’t try to talk down to you or humiliate you,” Donaldson said. Later he was hugely thankful they had been given a “real teacher,” even though Jacob had told them she had never taught CXC before.
Jacob recalls the first encounter slightly differently. Describing her first impressions, she said: “He was the one who I thought would give me trouble. Just murmuring things under his breath the whole class. If I had to pick out one of them as a troublemaker it would be him.”
After just two classes, Jahmai was put in “lockdown,” and not allowed to attend class for two months. “He was always fighting. He had a short temper,” she recalled. “But we wrote back and forth for two months. I gave him his homework.
“I soon realised he was one of the smartest boys I ever taught,” Jacob said. Though interviewed separately by the T&T Guardian, the mutual affection is clear in how they speak about each other.
Donaldson talks about her method of teaching and the things he enjoyed, but he is reticent, perhaps still slightly embarrassed about the transition from bad boy to scholar. He doesn’t reveal an important facet of his learning. Later, when I spoke to Jacob about his learning skills, she told me he read classics: King Solomon’s Mines and The Lost World. “He loved Jane Eyre. “That was his favourite classic. He was a real leader in class, learned to express himself on such an amazing level,” she said.
During the two months in which he was banned from attending class, he realised he liked it so much that he wanted to be back there. He even used to hang around waiting for another student called Mark to come back and tell him about class, “everything about it, even the jokes.”
The relationship between the two has been mutually beneficial. Jahmai passed his CXCs and is now studying for a certificate in psychology at UWI, the preliminary step to a degree. He wants to be a social worker or psychologist, but for now he is very happy to be working for a living. Realising that one can earn money through hard, legitimate and satisfying work is a revelation and he thanks his “blessed, blessed father of a friend,” a man called Ken Lee Chin Sing, who gave him the chance to work for the Trinity oil company.
“When I came out he grasped me one time and asked if I was ready. I told him yes,” Donaldson said. Now his days start at 5.30am and end late in the afternoon. He is learning everything he needs to about offshore drilling, gauging, diving, welding, fabrication and engineering. “I feel great,” he said.
As for Jacob, she said: “I wouldn’t know what to do without Jahmai in my life. He and the other boys were like a rock. They added something to my life. We talk a lot and he has these great insights which you don’t expect of someone so young.” Both Jacob and Donaldson both have their own families they are very close to. But the bond between them is a special one. They have helped to change each other’s lives.