Everybody, get flat!
We have come to a dark and divided place in the evolution of our society. This was brought home to me recently by a teacher who nervously faces her overcrowded class of teenagers every day without, she says, the answers that she is expected to provide for coping with the uncertainties that face them daily.
She doesn't fear for herself, she says. She fears for them, her beloved students at a high school in the inner city who are growing up under the trauma of vicious crimes and the lack of respect for life that they see and experience night and day.
Many of them are bright boys and girls who, if allowed time to focus on their schoolwork, will pass their exams and do as well as their peers in the safer areas. But this school is located in the so-called ghetto areas, where the conversation each morning revolves around the latest crime in the neighbourhood and the tally of those killed the night before.
As I write this, the Jamaica Observer headlines a story 'Hell in West Kingston — five shot dead between Tuesday night and yesterday'. No need to wonder; children in those troubled areas are oftentimes hapless witnesses to the gunfights, the killings, and the constant bawling. When will it end?
On occasion we, the general public, will read of a tragic accident overtaking schoolchildren on a bus, or a fire that has created havoc in their lives, a kidnapping, a rape, or even the brutal murder of one of those innocents. The result is usually a visit from the minister, the member of parliament, the counselling units at the Ministry of Education, and the condemnations by civil society.
We only hear about these incidents when they attract media attention, but the reality is that such incidents of violence are everyday experiences for the young. No, the venerable teacher has not given up. What worries her is the growing sense that her young men and women no longer look to their teachers for counselling to address the deep psychological scars that will affect them for the rest of their lives.
"The students are looking inside themselves for healing", she says, "some by developing an immunity to these ravages of body and soul, some by fighting back, some by keeping the story to themselves and refusing to share the pain with adults. The adults themselves are feeling isolated because they are not allowed to intervene at that critical moment to help in the ministering and restoration needed to put the students' lives back on track."
Where, as we stand on the edge of this dark pit, do we put the students in safe keeping while we seek the answers and the means to keep them from falling into the precipice?
Journalist Erica Virtue wrote a chilling piece in The Gleaner on the heavy burden of violence that children are carrying in their tender years.
On-site interviews in a crime-ridden area painted a grim picture of an everyday experience where children are taught to 'get flat' when the gunshots ring out in the naked city. On the streets or at home, the reaction is instantaneous. Some children, according to the article, reported that they knew of multiple deaths of family members or intimate acquaintances.
"Run inside if you are outside. Drop on the ground if you are inside. When you hear talking, or the police siren, it's kind of safe to come outside." Oh my Lord.
We are told that violence to them is as common as breathing, and "getting flat at the sound of gunfire is like a game", according to the article.
"I ask God to protect me from all the perils and danger," says a 14-year-old high school girl. "I get flat and then I pray while I am flat." What an indictment of our society and what a revelation this story has been.
Shortly after the Tivoli operation I had the opportunity to chat with some members of the Tivoli Band while they were on an engagement in my part of the country. Their response to my questions regarding their experiences was instructive. They would not dwell on the traumatic episodes or incidents that they witnessed personally. Their focus was exemplary, it was strictly on rehearsal and then performance.
One 16-year-old was more fascinated by the fact that he had a tear in his uniform and was planning, with a chuckle, how he was going to hide it from his mother and repair it himself. He also took time out to tell me how he was enjoying school life and was looking forward to becoming a prefect in his next year at Tivoli High.
The youngsters in these troubled areas have formulated their own solutions to dealing with the tragedies that so often mar their upbringing. "I don't think the killers know how they have stolen our future," bemoaned one teenage girl with a maturity beyond her years.
Many tend to write off the Tivoli that they have heard about as a place of war and violence. But think, too, of Tivoli as a community which, in spite of the environment, has graduated thousands of students who have made outstanding contributions to society as doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, a city mayor, sportsmen, dancers, musicians, preachers, civil servants, professionals. In spite of the barbs thrown and the name-calling, they simply carry on.
There are parallel situations in other schools that are located in areas far removed from the violence that plagues the inner-city schools and communities that are under pressure.
One teacher in a peaceful rural area says that the change of culture and lifestyle in Jamaica over the years has led to a damaged society. This teacher has given up on the expectations that he had of moulding young lives into becoming worthy citizens and ladies and gentlemen of tomorrow.
In this instance he is not blaming crime for what he calls the social coarseness that now exists and that has permeated school life just when his students are preparing to take their position in adult society. He attributes drugs, deejay music, indiscipline, poverty and the need to hustle rather than learn, as the core of this new behaviour.
If all of this is happening on the front line, then what will become of the next generation? My teachers have not given up, but frankly many of them are not sure how they can handle the situation. Modern communication via the Internet, iPads and cellphones were meant to be tools for learning. But with easy access to every possible low life and slackness, these tools have themselves become a distraction from education and have instead opened the door to all types of debased lifestyles and morals that influence and twist young minds.
The storylines play a big part in this damage to values and norms. Good no longer triumphs over bad. The bad men are idolised as the heroes. In sitcoms, deceptions and lies are the highlights of the funnier moments. Bill Cosby has one of the few comedy shows where misdemeanours are corrected and not rewarded.
Simple cartoons are abusive. Old-time comics were not. Children laugh every Saturday morning at caricatures depicting death, tragedies, accidents, fights, beatings, blood.
A United Nations survey tells us that 80 per cent of Jamaican children are abused in early life by harsh corporal punishment at home. Such treatment is reflected in the games that the children play when they shout at each other and threaten to slap, beat, and deliver other unmentionable forms of chastisement. And pity the poor police. They end up getting the short stick in most stage plays, starting from the community youth club presentation levels.
So with law and order being ridiculed at this infancy stage, you can understand how 'police and t'ief' becomes a deadly game in adult life.
Jamaica is in the grip of a generation that has lost the joys of childhood. We need to focus our attention on youth and education to guarantee a future society that is more balanced and appreciative and aware of societal values, the cord that will hold our society together. Our Ministry of Education cannot be the sole provider. We need two ministries of education — one to handle the basic to primary secondary preparation, and the other devoted entirely to secondary and tertiary levels.
Within their portfolios, and especially the one at the grassroots level, must be inserted the basic character development training that can mould the young minds to be prepared, both academically and spiritually, for the upper levels of education that will equip them to take their places in the Jamaica we need for tomorrow. Another ministry, yes. We can afford to drop at least four of the present ones.
Lance Neita is a communications and public relations specialist. Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org