WHEN Maya Angelou said, “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them” she might as well have been speaking directly to Shauna Lee Swaby. Despite growing up in less-than-ideal conditions in Monymusk, St Elizabeth, Swaby was an honour student at BB Coke High School — until she was raped by a close relative at the age of 16. The painful memories of the traumatic incident, the subsequent threats made to her by the violator, and the humiliation she felt when the news broke in her community, completely derailed her academic success, and she failed all but one of her CSEC exams that year. It was no easy task for the teenager to overcome severe depression and suicidal thoughts, to 10 years later be holding a master's degree in education.
“When I was unsuccessful in my fifth form exams I became a laughingstock in the community once more,” Swaby, who is now a revered primary school teacher, quiz coach and secretary for the South East Saint Elizabeth Teachers' Association, shared with All Woman. “By this time my friends were moving on to university and sixth form, but I couldn't go. That was when I decided that I had to be determined; I had to seek success, and I had to put an end to this humiliation.”
Swaby, who was born from a teenage pregnancy, understood from a tender age that her family was counting on her to make the most of her education. Her earlier years were spent reading by candle and lamp light, as it was some time before her grandparents, who raised her while her mother sought employment, got electricity in their home.
“In the morning before I went to school I would tie out the goats and carry water and so on,” she remembered. “At one point it was rough to the point where I would leave school and go home for lunch then go back to school again. But I worked hard because I had an interest in medicine, so I either wanted to become a registered nurse or a doctor.”
Inspired by the way her grandmother cared for those around her, Swaby pursued the sciences steadfastly in high school, and excelled at them. She did so well that she was recommended to sit three CSEC subjects in fourth form, all of which she passed. But the joy from her results that summer was stolen by the cruel act that would alter her life forever. Her fifth form year, during which she should have been preparing to sit the bulk of her subjects, was spent dressing her emotional wounds.
“Having no woman around, and no one to confide in but a close friend, I kept silent for months,” she recalled. By this time both her mother and grandmother had migrated in search of greener pastures, and she also had to become the woman of the home while her grandfather worked on his farm.
“I struggled with the pain daily, and I couldn't sleep at night. It got to the point where I was placed on depression meds. I contemplated suicide on several occasions, but I was constantly motivated by my high school guidance counsellor, Mrs Neil.”
Determined not to be reduced by the abuse, Swaby enrolled in an evening institute and was successful in her exams. Her next hurdle was to be a financial one.
“I went to Northern Caribbean University to inquire about their nursing programme, because that's where my passion was, but the programme was too expensive for my mother to handle,” she said. “I thought about getting a student loan but I didn't have any guarantors, so I could not think of that as an option.”
She had to change course.
At the advice of one of her former teachers, Swaby applied for the primary education programme at the Catholic College of Mandeville, and was accepted just days before the new school year started. While her mother and grandmother mounted the financial hurdles as they came, Swaby paced comfortably through the four years of her degree programme. But just as she was about to cross the finish line, her health took a turn for the worse.
“Just two months before completion I was hospitalised and diagnosed with bacterial meningitis at Mandeville Regional Hospital,” she recounted. “It's an infection of the brain, and it affected my sight and my ability to walk, and I also had severe headaches. So while hospitalised I could not do much of anything.”
Swaby was discharged just in time to sit her finals after a few weeks of hospital care, and she was successful. Unable to find employment fresh out of college, she opted to volunteer at Mayfield All-Age School, where she had done the practical component of her degree. It was then that she realised that she thoroughly enjoyed teaching.
“I would fill in whenever a teacher was absent, or when a class was too big,” she said, sharing that after three months she was given her own grade one class. “I then applied and interviewed for a clear vacancy position at the school in late 2016 and was successful.”
Since then, Swaby has been using her platform as a teacher to care for everyone she can. “During that year I adopted and coordinated the then principal's initiative of giving back to the less fortunate in and around the school environment at Christmas. I also coordinated a special project to refurbish and furnish a dilapidated room into a staff lounge,” she said.
By early 2017 Swaby was approached to coach the school's quiz team, along with veteran teacher Violet Thomas. Swaby was awarded Mayfield Teacher of the Year award for that academic year, weeks before she was even made permanent.
Marvelled and inspired by her own capabilities and resilience, the top teacher decided to further her education. She read for a master's degree in education at Saint Mary's University in Minnesota, where she maintained a GPA of 3.9 over four-consecutive semesters to graduate last month.
“I knew that there was a lot more for me to learn,” she reasoned. “I believe that knowledge can never be enough, and in order for one to be impactful he or she must have knowledge and experience. I have a growth mindset, I am always eager to learn more.”
True to this belief, Swaby is looking at her options for a doctorate programme to enrol next year.
“It is also my dream to write a book that will serve as an inspiration to the younger generation,” she smiled. “I also aspire to become a lecturer or an education officer in Jamaica, because I sincerely want to contribute to my country's growth and development.”
Swaby maintained that all her life's experiences — good, bad and ugly — have strengthened her into the woman she is today.
“I firmly believe that it is not what you have been through that defines you, but what you have done. I am proud of myself and I am proud of my achievements. I did not just sit down and allow where I am coming from or what I have been through to determine my future. I used it as a method of motivation to push myself forward, and I hope my story can inspire others to do the same.”