All Woman

From a bar to the classroom

Young woman achieves dream of becoming educator

BY RENAE DIXON Sunday Observer staff reporter dixonr@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, February 16, 2014    

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WHILE working as a bartender, Donna Woolery-McKenzie knew that she wanted to achieve more out of life.

However, as a high school dropout, without any subjects, and the young mother of two, she stuck to her job.

"I knew that I wanted to go back to school at 20 years old," Woolery-McKenzie told the Jamaica Observer in an interview.

However, at the time she was not motivated.

More than 10 years later, a patron at the bar where she was working suggested that she do more for herself. The patron, recognising her intelligence, asked what she was doing in a bar.

"I smiled and I said, 'I am working. I have two children and I have a sister sending to school, so I have three children relying on me,'" she told the patron.

The patron pointed out that she could not be in a bar forever, as at some point, a younger bartender would take her place.

Then a family member encouraged her to go back to school and to become an educator. However, she was this time afraid, because she knew that she would be older than many of the persons she would be in class with.

"I was encouraged in 2003 by my cousin, who was a teacher at the Ferncourt High School," she revealed.

She recalled her cousin, Tracey-Ann Forbes telling her that "having two children is not the end of the world".

"She said to me that I should actually do teaching because it fits me," Woolery-McKenzie said.

As if solidifying her cousin's perception that she should become a teacher, Woolery-McKenzie remembered going to a meeting at Ferncourt High School, where her son was a student, and was mistaken for a teacher by the teachers at the school.

"When I go there to check on my son, teachers there thought I was a teacher even though I was a bartender," she said. Her cousin soon pointed out that that was another reason for her to go at it.

"Bars, in those days are not like now, because you don't have to parade yourself for patrons to buy from you. I am not the goods; the goods are on the shelves or in the refrigerator and I maintained my integrity. I have never been disrespected by a male patron because of the way I carried myself," she said, emphasising that she always tried to act in a professional manner.

Entering the classroom again at 32 years old was not an easy task for Woolery-McKenzie.

However, her cousin assured her that if she attended the evening division at Ferncourt High School, Ugochukwu Durueke would work with her.

She was introduced to the teacher by her cousin and was not disappointed as the teacher, fondly called "Mr Wilson", worked assiduously with her.

"At first I was really timid to do evening classes because I was thinking that there were younger people there and they were brighter. But when I started the classes I found out that they were not really brighter than I was," she said.

When she started classes, she continued to serve in the bar.

"I would work this week and then the next week, on my week off, I would be at class. On weekends when everybody would be at home enjoying themselves, I would be at classes," she said.

She had to work to make up for the times she was unable to attend classes. Also, having started classes in mid-October when several classes would have passed, she had to work extremely hard to make up for lost time.

She studied English Language and social studies in the evening division. It was no easy feat, as she had to learn within six months what many others did in two years. However, she read a lot. She spent most of her time reading newspapers.

"I read about everything, about Jamaica and the Caribbean islands. I was like a sponge, soaking up all information," she stated.

"When I didn't have any customers I would sit on a crate and I would study," said Woolery-McKenzie, explaining how she balanced her studies with work.

When she sat both subjects in the CSEC, then CXCs, she received distinctions in both subject areas and was placed third in the island for social studies.

The results were a big motivation, and so the next year she sat three other subjects — human and social biology, mathematics and principles of business — trying to satisfy the requirements to enter a teachers' college.

During that time, her son was also sitting the CSEC exams and the two were a motivation to each other.

She had her challenges, but again she conquered.

"When I was supposed to sit my math exam I actually went to the exam 27 minutes late because they were fixing the road and it was blocked," she said.

"I was even crying while I was doing it because I knew in my heart that I wanted to go to college after this. I wanted to be somebody; I wanted a career for myself," she added.

She explained that although working as a bartender for years she never saw herself as always being a bartender for life.

She was successful in her exams, and so in 2005 she enrolled with the Northern Caribbean University in Manchester. The struggles were still around, as financing her tertiary education was difficult.

Her husband Clive McKenzie and her friends joined together and ensured that she accomplished her dreams before "time ran out."

College was challenging, however, but she never thought of giving up.

She completed her studies in 2009, bringing not only joy to herself but to her family and friends who believed in her.

The social studies and history teacher went back to the institution where accomplishing her dreams started — Ferncourt High — after finishing college, to try and get a job.

She found out that a Social Studies teacher was on maternity leave and so she went in and convinced Principal Rev Lenworth Sterling that she could get the job done.

At the time, the CSEC class was without a teacher and Woolery-McKenzie believed that she could get the job done.

"At that time, salary was not in my head, it was just me being the teacher wanting to be there for these students, to help them," she said.

She was given the opportunity to prove herself and that she did in a one month stint at Ferncourt High.

When her time was up, she went back to the principal and in confidence told him that she had more to offer. However, there was no vacant position and he promised to keep her in mind if an opening arose.

"I said 'could I call you, sir ,to remind you from time to time about this?" she said.

After spending months at home with nothing to do, as a part of the Kingdom Hall of Jahovah's Witnesses, she decided that she would go out and be a part of the organisation's wayside preaching and teaching programme.

"I just said a prayer. I said, Jehovah, if I am to get a job I know one is there, but if I am not to get one I will just go out there and teach," she said.

She remained calm and not worried. A few days later, a call came and she was again with the Ferncourt High School family.

She was again to fill in for someone on maternity leave. However, when she went in for classes, another teacher from the social studies department resigned. She filled the vacancy and has been with the institution for four years now.

The educator has no regrets and now sees herself doing nothing else but teaching.

"My only regret is that the two persons that I really wanted to make a great impact on had died — my grandmother and my aunt," she said.

However, she is happy that her mother has been able to see her accomplishments and can share in her success.

Woolery-McKenzie said that she would like to motivate others, especially young ladies in women centres.

"I am a people person. I love to help people," she added.

She believes that her life is an example of overcoming the obstacles of life.

Woolery-McKenzie also uses her life experiences to encourage her students.

She explained that as a child she suffered from low self-esteem, and so she always tries to motivate her students.

"I know what it is like to suffer from low self-esteem," she stated, adding that the condition was a major setback for her in high school.

When she was faced with problems and her grades began to fall, no one tried to find out what her problem was and so she is happy for her second chance.

"Not because life throws obstacles along your way, or people themselves, you don't look at that as a deterrent. Even though I was not a career person, I still worked with my son and that was something that also pushed me," she said.

"Persons tried to throw obstacles in my way, however, I was determined to make it.

"Nobody knows your potential, not even you sometimes don't recognise your full potential until you put yourself out there to do it," Woolery-McKenzie stated.

Although she accomplished her dreams at 38, she believes that it was never late, and intends to make a significant contribution to education in Jamaica.

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