By Kwame Dawes
I meet many people who remember their high school years as some of the most painful and difficult times in their lives. Many do not want to remember those years. They hated school and they hate the memory of that time. They were happy to graduate, and even now, when they see friends from their old school days, they feel nothing but discomfort and revulsion.
The curious thing is that I understand those feelings. I do because despite the fact that my seven years at Jamaica College leave me with a good and powerful sense of the value of the experiences I had there, I know many of my friends and schoolmates who harbor less than warm feelings about the College, for good reasons.
For all the benefits of being at JC, there were problems, problems of class, of poor teaching, of unfairness, and problems that came from the larger problems of Jamaican society. There was abuse, and there were things in retrospect that strike me as almost criminal—things that were allowed. You will all recall that bullying, that thing we euphemistically called “singing” was enshrined in our life as students. People suffered from these things. The homophobia that we are known for (even if not properly understood) existed at JC—boys were not just teased, but bullied and beaten because they were either suspected to be gay or were actually gay.
These realities existed. School was sometimes hard academically, challenging, even. Sometimes we had teachers who did not have much of a clue of what they were doing. Very often the best teachers were never assigned to the lower academic streams. Our system of determining one’s professional future at age fourteen was in so many ways a damaging and misguided practice. Merely because of one term of poor grades in third form, it was concluded that I could never have an occupation in the sciences.
While I had no great regrets about this, I know so many of my friends who were pushed into fields that they really were not suited for, nor did they have the inclination or genuine desire to pursue, nor the maturity to decide.
My point is, as I think of my years at Jamaica College, the sense of goodwill, appreciation and warm regard that I feel does not emerge out of rank idealism or out of a desire to sugar coat those things that were negative. On the contrary, I have strong memories of JC, some more positive than others, but my overwhelming sense is that I would not trade that period for anything else.
I see those years as constituting an important foundation for my future life. Perhaps there were specific things that made being a boy at JC such a positive time for me. And for me this is quite personal. Being an artist and having the chance to take art classes and to spend hours outside drawing and painting, and being affirmed for the work I did, made me want to go to school in the morning.
Cricket was everything to me for a long time. I wanted to play, I learnt how to deal with almost an entire season of making ducks and still recover years after to be selected for the National Youth Trials.
For all its problems and peculiarities, my seven years as a cadet taught me a great deal about leadership, about resisting group speak and the madness of peer pressure, and about laughing at the cruelties we all inflicted on each other. I stayed a cadet because I was promoted through the ranks.
I enjoyed my academic experience at JC. I enjoyed the business of learning things I did not know. I enjoyed what many of the best teachers did in making me understand the history of Europe and the history of the West Indies; I enjoyed studying West Indian literature and Shakespeare; and when I became a sixth former, I enjoyed the privileges that came with being a leader in the school.
We laughed a lot as boys. We laughed at each other, we teased, we gave each other nicknames, and we laughed a lot. Belly hurting laughter. Tear jerking laughter. Laughter that made us run around holding our sides, trying to shake off the mirth.
The humor was sometimes brilliant. Describing a fellow cricketer’s unfortunately short pants, as being “short of a length a rising”, was genius banter, horrendous and merciless teasing and the source for much laughter. Calling a man “Last Night” or “Tippa” or calling a teacher “Perch” or “Bushy” was puerile, cruel, and yet imaginative and funny.
There were the triumphs—consuming triumphs that taught me what pure joy was, what victory was—our success at School’s Challenge, the year we won Manning Cup, the year we went to the Sunlight Cup Finals, the year Dave Hazle won a gold medal for class one hurdles at Champs, the goal that Shenk, the great Luke Whitney scored from the half line—those were beautiful defining experiences.
And there were heartbreaks that taught us how to lose—perhaps for some of us, taught us too well how to cope with losing. When we lost the Manning Cup finals in 1975, or when we found ourselves for years incapable of replicating the sporting prowess of the old Jamaica College; or when we lost cricket matches across the island, and found ways to laugh at ourselves on the bus back home, we learnt how to lose.
These ideas may seem completely random. They clearly represent elements of school life that may have kept me coming to school with pleasure and positive anticipation. And even though some of the most defining wounds in my life happened at JC, for instance, I have learned that despite what seem like random matters, that what makes Jamaica College so important to me is that it was a school with a long and illustrious tradition. It was school that I could say I was proud of. It was a school that had a history that we knew helped us to see ourselves as having a place in the fabric of Jamaican society.
It is impossible to calculate the extent to which that sense of being from a school that has such a long tradition in Jamaican society, even when it is a school that may have had its challenges and problems, but I have a strong sense that the benefits of that tradition have been important to the lives of so many JC men.
In the 1970s, the vestiges of the old elite school still existed, but the school was changing. The new mandate of free education was changing the demographics of the College, and in so doing was making the school begin to assume responsibility for the wider population of Jamaican society. To do that, the school had to change, and we saw the early days of those changing pains. They were changes that I believe have made the school a stronger school. And anyway, the changes were necessary.
I always dreamed that I would stay deeply involved with JC during my adulthood. For years after graduation I coached the Sunlight team and I even taught part-time at the school. I expected to play in the Old Boy cricket games in my thirties and forties, but those years passed while I was living in the US.
I have missed a great deal of what it means to be a JC Old Boy—at least in the way that I experienced most Old Boys while I was student. But I hope that in another way, the tradition I remember of knowing the names of some of the famous JC Old Boys, and the way that knowledge make me feel proud and a part of a great tradition, and the way that knowledge inspired me to want to be successful as well, operates for those boys who are at JC now when they learn of me and the work that I have done over the years. I am as interested in being a JC Old Boy who has done good as I am being the source of pride for my family and my country.
When people ask me why I am a writer, I find myself returning to JC, to my sixth form years, to my teachers, to the books I read in the library, to explain why I did become a writer.
I am grateful for the models of heroism, skill, faith, manhood, that other boys gave to me at JC. I am proud to be a JC man. Proud and deeply grateful for what that has meant to my life.
This article was written exclusively for the Jamaica College Old Boys Association of New York to commemorate our 20th Anniversary. Dr. Kwame Dawes was honored at the Gala with the Distinguished Alumnus Award. Reprinted from the Griffin Awards Playbill.