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Boy with a Water Gun in his School Bag (A novel excerpt)

Bookends

By Marcia Douglas

Sunday, December 29, 2013    

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See me here standing at the bus stop and I don't really want to go to school because I was too hungry last night to study my seven times, and today Miss going to make us recite it. Government say not to beat us, but Miss have a ruler and sometimes if you don't careful, you feel it sting your shoulder. I have a play-play gun in my school bag. It look real, and come recess, I going to shoot myself with it.

Anyway, I standing at the bus stop thinking on the gun, when a man bend down and start clean my shoes; quick-time I move and say, What yu doing? And he say, Just cool. And he take out a brush and start shine the shoes, same-so, like is that he born for. He look up at me and say, Seven is a number in Jahrithmetic. And is like he read my mind and know all my worries, just like that. The brush have some bristles that massage under my skin, and he shine and shine and I don't want him stop for each time him move the brush is like me make from the number seven, every little bit of me come in sevens.

Seven is the number of greatness, him say. And me feel the number seven justa multiply inside me, pass seven times everyting - and is like me going on too, the numbers can't stop. No end to the number seven, no end to my greatness, an ever-sound that tremble like an electric guitar string. Seven is the number of greatness, the man say again. You feel how great you is?

And the greatness don't stop. It justa multiply and multiply, and it go all the way out to a place don't have no edge, and that make from the same thing that sound make from. Where belly-laugh come from, and music, and baby-cry. I start to cry too and the cry turn into a laugh and the laugh can't stop, it just multiply like the sevens. The man have on two earsring shape like Africa, and when he finish shine my shoes, the little earsmaps go jing-a-ling, on and on like a dub ting; and he say, That's how great you is.

I late, but I go to school in time for Miss and her seven times drill. Miss call on everybody one-one and when she get to me, she point with her ruler and say, Seven times seven? And I say, Forty-nine, Miss. Miss, do you know the number seven is the number of greatness? For by now, I can carry seven to the place of Jahrithmetic. For is like I fill with more than stars in the sky. And is like, the good thing I fill with can't stop; it go on and on and I know all the numbers; I just counting them like Lucky Jack sevens. My uncle is a Seventh Day Adventist, but their seven don't multiply; it stop and start, stop and start again. This seven go on and on like a cup of water that have no bottom; like shine tings in the sky that can't count; like a pomegranate that can never run out of seeds, every time you spit one out, you find more; like playing in soap water and the bubbles coming up, coming up. I get to find - me is the number seven, multiplied over and over, no end to me, no stopping me, and no matter what Miss ask, is me the number, me the factor, me the product, is me the answer. Miss sevens only go to eighty-four, but I pass that now; I pass that now.

So Miss coming back down the row of desks and when she get to me again she say, Seven times twelve? And I say, Eighty-four. Then I look at her and say, But Miss, eighty-four really too small for how great I am and how great you is. And Miss look at me like she want faint and she say, But Jesus.

Last week's Bookends featured Douglas, a recent recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) US$25,000 Creative Writing Fellowship in Prose. She is the author of the novels, Madam Fate and Notes from a Writer's Book of Cures and Spells, as well as the poetry collection, Electricity Comes to Cocoa Bottom.

Born in Kingston, she attended Holy Childhood High before migrating to the US shortly after graduating. She received a BA from Oakwood College in 1990; an MFA in Creative Writing from Ohio State University in 1993; and a PhD in English with Literature of the African Diaspora and Creative Writing emphasis from Binghamton University in 1997.

Douglas was awarded the fellowship based on the manuscript submitted in the application and reviewed through an anonymous process in which the only criteria for review are artistic excellence and artistic merit. Her submission consisted of two prose pieces, Kingston Zion Train and Seven Kingston Ringtunes, which explore the voices of Jamaican youth.

Marcia Douglas is a professor of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Memoir:

IF IT'S GARDEN DAY, IT MUST BE THURSDAY [pic: bench]

By Orville Green

"Miss D burs'! Miss D burs'!" The spindly-legged boy shouted from his post at the side of the school building, then started running towards the school garden, repeating his ominous warning that announced the anticipated but unpredictable and unappreciated approach of the headmistress. Breathlessly repeating the warning several more times he darted, wide-eyed, into the garden. His mates quickly busied themselves with their assigned duties. Seconds later, Mrs Marion Donaldson - brandishing her trusty cane, her 'rod of correction' - hustled into view.

By the time our revered headmistress arrived, the garden was a veritable beehive of activity, as the recently lollygagging boys busied themselves with tools that only a few moments earlier were merely props on which to lean. Energetic hoeing and strenuous forking of the dry earth to remove weeds elicited approving nods from Miss D; but she was evidently not pleased with the unsuccessful effort to produce straight-edged beds. With an admonition here and a compliment there, like a whirlwind she scurried away just as rapidly as she had arrived.

It was Thursday afternoon at Jones Town Primary School, the day when our thoughts and activities turned from academics to practical pursuits. The boys were assigned to the garden to learn and practise a variety of techniques necessary to produce vegetables, as well as the finer points of budding, grafting and tending rose plants; meanwhile, the girls were tutored in sewing. Thursday was the favourite day of the week for us pupils, except for Friday. Friday was "press book" day, when the special, dark-blue, thick-covered exercise books were removed from the teachers' presses, or cupboards. Each pupil was given his/her assigned book to practise penmanship by transcribing sentences/passages written on the blackboard.

I began attending the school at age six, after stints at some other academic institutions: beginning with my Aunt Evelyn's 'private' school when my eyes were at my knees under the tamarind tree in our yard at Myers Street; then on to the YWCA "Play Centre" on North Street, at the foot of Kingston Gardens; and All Saints Infant School on Matthew's Lane, a stone's throw from Kingston Public Hospital's back wall on Charles Street. The latter two provided some special excitement in my tender years, as I was transported there by my father's bicycle on what I considered long journeys away from home. However, attending Jones Town Primary School afforded advantages from living only one street away: I could delay my departure from home until just a few minutes before 'bell ring'; I could go home for lunch; and it was also convenient, eventually, to dash home after school for a quick bite before returning to the academic harness of extra lessons.

The school's demographics were a microcosm of Jamaica's racial spectrum, even including a family of Africans who had only recently come to the island. More interesting, however, was that students came from as far afield as Greenwich Farm, Waltham Park Road, Delacree Road and Hagley Park Road. Most of them trudged to school after leaving home quite early, arriving at the iron gates on Price Street sweaty and tired.

The L-shaped, bungalow-style school building had a verandah on the Price Street side - the main entrance to the building - and another on the Crook Street side. The unpaved school yard was entirely surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, bounded on the north by Love Street, where the formal entrance to the headmistress' "cottage" - including a drive-in gate - was located. A small side gate from the residence afforded access to the school yard. The school garden was adjacent to the back of the headmistress' home and the school building. (As the southern end of the garden bordered Crook Street, there were occasional sales of callaloo and other crop yields over that fence, clandestine affairs aided by its distance from Mrs Donaldson's Fourth Class room.) A large "casha" tree at the front gate, another on the Crook Street side of the building - outside Mrs Mendez's Third Class verandah - and yet another on the Love Street side, provided some shade on the premises.

Although I was the first child of my generation in my family to attend the school, I had been preceded by my father's two sisters and brother, whom he had been preceded as one of the early students soon after the school was established in 1913, under the legendary head, Teacher Ricketts. (It is a matter of record that my father and Teacher Ricketts's two sons went on to represent the school admirably as outstanding students at St George's College, and later to bring honour to St George's as top performers in the island's Senior Cambridge examination results.) Other Jones Town students over the years have continued the tradition of outstanding performance that pointedly demonstrate the academic foundation laid there.

My time at Jones Town Primary School spanned Second to Fourth classes, in an era when someone desiring to learn a child's level in the primary education system would likely ask, "Suh, what book yuh reading in now?" Some of the best-known teachers of that period were the aforementioned headmistress, Mrs Donaldson, ably assisted by Mrs Vie Mendez, Mrs Constance Dean, Miss Blanda Rose, Mrs Alice Grey, Miss Myrtle Brown, Mrs Ivy Pinnock, and Miss Gladys Stewart, among others. For those children who attended the Jones Town Baptist Church and Sunday School, there was an extra burden on us to be good - both academically and in our deportment - due to the fact that Miss Brown and Miss Stewart (a leader of the Cub Pack, in which I was) were members of the church and Sunday School teachers, while Mrs Donaldson was a deacon as well as Sunday School superintendent!

Having long-since mastered the challenges of the West Indian Reader text book (Mr Joe Builds a House; Mr Joe and Miss Tibbs; Mr Dan Arrives; Mother Hen Loses a Chick; Percy the Chick Has a Fall; Miss Tibbs Finds Mother Hen; Mr Dan Arrives; Mr Joe Buys a Donkey, etc), I was placed in Second Class, which went by so quickly that I have almost no recollection of that experience. Third class, however, was a different story because there's no way one could pass through Mrs Mendez's jurisdiction without coming out with some vivid memories. In fact, not only was she my class teacher but also a friend of my family's. Further, my father, in his wisdom, chose her to provide extra lessons for me. In her wisdom, she put me with mature students who had finished elementary school and were studying for the Jamaica Pupil Teacher's Second Year exam!

The stress on me to keep up was so great that one afternoon, when we were scheduled to have a test, I went home after school for my usual break but decided to duck the class. I craftily sought refuge in the latrine - while my unsuspecting mother thought I had returned to extra lessons - and remained there until I calculated that it was too late to attend the class. When my father arrived home that evening, I complained bitterly about the stomach problem that had caused me to miss extra lessons. I persuaded him to provide a written excuse to be presented to Mrs Mendez the next day, which he did.

The no-nonsense Mrs Mendez had earned the reputation as a disciplinarian, such that even Mrs Donaldson seemed almost an angel by comparison. Her implement of choice was a broad, brown leather strap, most often seen draped over her left shoulder. She had mastered a Western-style quick draw with her right hand, snatching the front end of the strap that hung just above the waist of her hobble skirt and whipping the instrument into action with blinding speed. The lethal strap would come down on the back of an unfortunate pupil whose sums calculations were on the wrong track, or who was otherwise engaged in some unauthorised activity. In a more prosaic scenario, the pupil would be called to the front of the class and ordered to present one hand, then the other, repeatedly, for a lesson in applied chastisement. Frequently, while the class was engaged in quiet work, she stalked the rows between the seats, quietly whistling a tune and looking for reasons to apply her disciplinary acumen.

Yet she could be a barrel of fun, her eyes crinkling at the corners as she laughed at something amusing that originated within the class or at herself. At other times, her actions amused the class. One memorable instance involved two girls, bench mates, who were close-enough friends to share each other's maccafat (only very, very good friends would take turns sucking on that small, succulent fruit for minutes or hours at a time). The occasion was a quiet classwork time, shortly after Mrs Mendez had announced Mrs Donaldson's invitation for students to perform in an upcoming concert. Mrs Mendez was also engaged in some matter at her desk on the raised platform at the front of the class, as the girls, *Molly and Joy, whispered together about the concert. Suddenly Molly got up, approached the platform and, loud enough for the roomful of pupils to hear, addressed our teacher: "Pleathe Mith, pleathe if me and Joy can hock a play?" Mrs Mendez looked up slowly from her work, fixed the girl with a withering glare and replied equally loudly, "Just hock yuhself back to yuh seat!" Embarrassed, Molly hung her head and did as instructed, while the class snickered, amused at the request to perform a skit and at the teacher's response.

Moving up to Fourth Class and being directly under Mrs Donaldson's tutelage was a major event for me, as it indicated my proximity to leaving Junior school and heading to a 'big' school outside the community. As in several of the other classrooms, Fourth Class room was adorned with inspiring quotations affixed to the walls, just below the open ventilation space below the ceiling, with its exposed beams. Among them were such memory gems as: "Hitch your wagon to a star"; "Aim high"; "Giant oaks from little acorns grow"; and "Reading maketh the full man."

Mrs Donaldson's regard for outstanding former pupils was well known, and she frequently mentioned the importance of doing well not only academically but in general. She made us want to make her proud of having influenced the kind of individuals we would become, and of having attended Jones Town Primary School. She would grasp any opportunity to display to current students a past student with whom she was well pleased.

One such student was Earl Thames (real name), who had won a Government Scholarship to Wolmer's Boys' School. While we were busy working in class one day, Miss D spied Earl walking down Price Street - secondary schools let out before primary schools. (He had already been home on Septimus Street and was now on his way to piano lessons with my Aunt Inez at Myers Street.) Mrs Donaldson hurried to the verandah, from which she hailed her former prize pupil and summoned him to her room. Introducing him as a shining example of what we could become, she quickly persuaded him to demonstrate his skill as an outstanding elocutionist. He elected to entertain the class with a poem titled Sensemaya (a mysterious text alluding to a ceremony in which a poisonous snake is killed, ostensibly with an axe, but also by singing).

Classwork was suspended, and we sat in rapt attention to hear words from the mouth of someone whom we hoped to emulate... someday. As he stood before us, on the teacher's platform, bedecked in his khaki uniform (with long pants) and the Wolmer's maroon and gold epaulettes, we were overcome by paroxysms of laughter from the very opening lines of the poem.

Mayombe-bombe-mayombé!

Mayombe-bombe-mayombé!

Mayombe-bombe-mayombé!

But Earl was unperturbed, pressing on with his recitation like the trooper he was, seemingly oblivious of the pupils' outrageous guffaws and Mrs Donaldson's plaintive appeals for order. The next few lines evoked less amusement, so we listened more keenly:

The snake has eyes of glass;

The snake coils on a stick;

With his eyes of glass on a stick,

With his eyes of glass.

The snake can move without feet;

The snake can hide in the grass;

Crawling he hides in the grass,

Moving without feet.

Then, with all the emotive skill he could summon, Earl launched once more into the laughter-provoking line:

Mayombe-bombe-mayombe!

And so the scene continued: lulled and attentive pupils during the more placid parts of the intriguing tale; then the abrupt outbursts of laughter with every return of the rib-tickling refrain: Mayombe-bombe-mayombe! The pace of the recitation quickened toward its conclusion, and we were utterly uncontrollable.

Mayombe-bombe-mayombé!

Sensemayá, the snake . . .

Mayombe-bombe-mayombé!

Sensemayá, does not move . . .

Mayombe-bombe-mayombé!

Sensemayá, the snake

Mayombe-bombe-mayombé!

Sensemayá, he died!

Ending with a crescendo, Earl then stood in a brief trancelike state, and the class outdid itself in applause and laughter. Mrs Donaldson must have been so overwhelmed with pride by the performance that she did not make any further attempt to quell the exuberant audience. Having regained his breath, Earl beamed in appreciation, bowed delicately and took his leave.

Orville Green grew up in Jones Town in the 1940s and '50s

Soweto

By Jean Goulbourne

Soweto crawls.

The trail of the snake

Moves across the soil

Like a dream,

History screams.

The leaves gather dust,

the dew becomes mud.

The hut

listens.

Thud of animal hooves

as the policeman passes.

History reams

its pages in the faces

of children.

The wrinkles

of the paper face

crumbles.

The snake crawls

its trail

across the dew-bitten grass.

The infant screams.

Soweto!

Listen, Soweto,

your gods do not come

from the ocean.

Seas do not lie

in your pathway.

Your gods are in your souls.

Your minds web the passing

of history

from the spider

to the now.

The fly is not caught

without wings.

Yet its wings

Are its freedom.

Scream, Soweto!

Like the infant,

you wallow in the dust

of an imminent womb.

Birth is but a moment's day-

Dream...

The Story of a Ghetto Priest's Life

Candles in the Dark: The Authorised Biography of Fr Richard Ho Lung and the Missionaries of the Poor by Joseph Pearce

The book of 260 pages was published by Saint Benedict Press, Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2013. The author, Joseph Pearce, in the 24 chapters of the book tells the exciting history of Fr Ho Lung and the Missionaries of the Poor. He captures the warmth, magnetism, charisma, exuberance, courage, sacrifice and innovative achievements of this very remarkable man. Scholar that he is, Fr Ho Lung embraced much of the Jamaican culture and music, so much so that he came initially to be known as the Reggae Priest, who brought his remarkable gifts in total commitment to the service of the poor and dispossessed. He was also the brilliant musician who used his talents for God and made his musical partner Winton Williams a friend for life. He moved from being seen as the Reggae Priest to the Ghetto Priest, but the driving force of his over 30 years as head of the Missionaries of the Poor (MOP) was how to expand the ministry of Christ to the outcasts of society. Father Ho Lung brought to his operations a sense of excitement and his capacity to motivate professionals, friends, music lovers and many others to contribute to his many musical stage shows which won many awards. Fr Ho Lung has an infectious sense of humour and the author catches an example. His call to the political leaders of the day to bury their differences saw Manley and Seaga paying little heed, but rather seeking to bury the hatchet in each other's head!

The book captures how Fr Ho Lung embraced with greater understanding the suffering poor, the outcast and dregs of society as a true servant and follower of Jesus.

The book moves the reader forward in the organisational development of the Missionaries of the Poor. Fr Ho Lung born, Sept 17, 1939; Ordained a Jesuit Priest July 4, 1071; Founded the Brothers of the Poor as they were then called in 1981; later renamed the Missionaries of the Poor. Fr Ho Lung's work expanded in a number of ways. Firstly, with the establishment of more centres for the poor and destitute in the ghettos of Kingston. Secondly, he looked overseas to find recruits (Vocations) for the Mission. He successfully recruited new brothers from India and the Philippines. Thirdly, some 30 years on, the Missionaries of the Poor have established brother missions in Jamaica, Haiti, Uganda, Kenya, India, the Philippines and the United States. With these developments came many national, international and papal honours.

* His Chinese parents initially quiet Buddhists before converting to the Catholic faith, gave Richard the principle of "committing yourself to people for who they are".

* His musical gifts became well known when the record single, Sinner became No 3 on the charts. This led to him being labelled the Reggae Priest. He branched out with many other musicals as Father Ho Lung and Friends, which had good audience support and provided funds for the work.

* He clashed with the Jesuits who he found had become intensely materialistic in some of their views. He pressed on when some 'higher ups' tried to block his early moves with the poor. He had been enrolled as a trainee for the priesthood at Boston College, where he clashed with the college establishment and his mentor and counsellor Father William Burke remarked that he might have to leave the Jesuits in order to survive spiritually.

* The chapter on the Ghetto Priest records a defining moment in his career. Music and dealing with the slum area of Mona Common near the University of the West Indies was his life. However, it was his experience at the Eventide Home, a public alms house which got to his heart in a real way. The appalling circumstances he saw and experienced challenged his soul and shortly afterwards there was a devastating fire, during which over 150 elderly women died. Fr Ho Lung had reached a defining moment in which "henceforth the ghetto priest would live the life of the Cross in brotherhood with the poor".

* The book is replete with awful stories of people rescued from the streets. In one example, old Jeremiah Brown when the brothers rescued him was reduced to nothing but skin and skeleton. Abandoned by his family now living abroad, crawling on the streets like a dog and drinking water from the gutter, the ravages of starvation had taken such a toll that he only survived a few days after he was rescued. There are many other stories in the book of a similar nature of human tragedy rescued by love and care. One hard-nosed atheistic and cynical journalist, following an interview with Fr Ho Lung, remarked that "cynicism simply evaporates in the presence of Richard Ho Lung".

* Father Ho Lung also had to contend with the gunmen of the ghetto and the criminal and ruthless posses. Sixteen-year-old Roland was wakened from sleep and when threatened, climbed under the bed. As he was dragged out he faced the gunman who asked the boy, "Why you don't answer when big man talk to you?" the man placed the gun to his ear and shot him in cold blood. A further abyss of pain occurred when a lone gunman shot two of the Brothers, one an Indian and the other a Philippine, while they were washing dishes in a community centre. One died immediately, the other shortly after. Were the brothers to forsake the ghetto? An emphatic no was the answer. The next day they walked through the streets and the funeral later brought out their commitment to the poor. This incident was seen as martyrdom and a test of faith and commitment to the ghetto. Right after this tragedy the Mission grew by leaps and bounds.

Fr Richard Ho Lung is fearless and deeply committed to cases of injustice, and issues that he regards as morally reprehensible. Some of the major issues were the following. Two were challenges to the political establishment Fr Ho Lung published a book of Eventide Home with photographs to raise money for the home. A JLP minister was outraged and called for a ban on the book which he said had embarrassed the country. Ho Lung stood his ground, the press supported him and Prime Minister Edward Seaga later announced plans to build a new Golden Age Home. The poor and the destitute would not be so easily forgotten in the future.

The other political case involved PNP minister Winston Spaulding, who was challenged at the hypocrisy and injustice of the situation where 1,500 young men who had not committed murder would be locked behind bars for the rest of their lives unless the Gun Court Law was repealed and their cases reviewed. The minister eventually acted on the matter.

The final and ongoing challenge is the famous pro-life/pro-choice issue on abortion rights. Fr Ho Lung has led a determined fight against the pro-abortion lobby. The issue remains undefined in Jamaica and Fr Ho Lung has challenged the international aid agencies for their hypocritical stance in seeking to tie development aid to abortion rights while at the same time advocating the abolition of the death penalty for murder. The creation of the Holy Innocents Centre is testimony to Fr Ho Lung's position on the sanctity of the life of the unborn child.

Candles in the Dark will keep you awake and be a challenge as you read about this wonderful servant of God.

— Alfred Sangster

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