Poor boy with no food and shoes rises to the top

BY INGRID BROWN Associate Editor - Special Assignment browni@jamaicaobserver.com

Saturday, August 01, 2015

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GROWING up with his grandmother in rural St Elizabeth, Lennox Rowe could not attend school more than three days a week as he had to stay home to work in the field and accompany the elderly woman to the market.

But despite his poor attendance at primary school and sometimes going to bed without dinner, Rowe not only passed the Common Entrance examinations to gain a place at Munro College, but has risen from being a poor boy with only one pair of uniform and no shoes to having a doctorate in education.

"I never dreamt that one day Lennox Rowe would have a doctorate in front of my name, and I am so humbled by this accomplishment," said Dr Rowe, who is getting ready to pen his biography which he intends to title From Poverty to PhD.

Rowe, an advance chemistry teacher at Nassau Christian Academy in The Bahamas, said failure was not an option as he knew the only way out of poverty would be education, since he had no hope of an inheritance.

"Because of the condition in which I grew up, there was always a drive to ensure that I would never continue like this and I recognised the importance of education as social mobility," Rowe said.

His journey began in the deep rural community of Bantin in Mountainside when his mother gave him to his paternal grandmother, despite his father not initially acknowledging him as his son. According to Rowe, his father had given his mother the wrong information, resulting in him being registered in a different name.

Rowe said he grew up thinking his mother did not want him, and with his father providing only a small stipend towards his upkeep, his grandmother had to work hard, making and selling woven baskets and mats, to make ends meet for both of them.

Life was tough, as they lived in a one-room house. But his grandmother loved him as if he were her own son.

As the only child in the home, he had to help with the chores from
an early age; this included
plaiting straws to make the craft items for sale.

Owning only one pair of uniform and needing to help the elderly woman with everything around the home, Rowe said he would only get to go to school three days of the week.

"On Thursdays I had to go to
the garden (the field) to work
there and on Fridays I would be kept out of school because I had to go with her to the market to carry her basket," he explained.

And even on the days he went to school, Rowe said he had to feed the animals and prepare wood for the fire before heading out for the day.

But although his attendance was not perfect, that did not stop Rowe from attaining first place in all his classes throughout primary school.

"It was just an innate ability to do well," Rowe said of his academic achievements.

"My grandmother never set foot in a classroom and so, when she had money, she ensured that I had to go to school, even if at times we went to bed without food," he explained, adding that it was the many fruit trees in the community that helped to ease his hunger many days.

But despite a very rough life, Rowe was the only child who passed the Common Entrance from his district that year, gaining a place at the prestigious Munro College in the parish.

"No one was expecting me to pass, let alone pass for Munro, because of how poorly I attended school. So I remember I didn't even check the papers when results came out," he explained.

But Rowe did not have much time to bask in his success, as he was immediately confronted with the reality that if his grandmother could hardly afford to send him to the nearby primary school, how much more difficult would it be to board at Munro.

However, his elated grandmother was adamant that his father needed to help. His father's stepchild was also attending Munro at the time, and Rowe recalled that that was how he would sometimes get a ride to the school, when the stepchild was home visiting his grandmother.

Those early years in high school were extremely challenging for Rowe, who said it was difficult adjusting to a study schedule since he was not accustomed to attending school regularly. However, he had some very good teachers, such as Hermine Lewis, who taught math and who would always encourage him.

Being from such a poor background and boarding in high school also meant that he did not have many of the other things that his peers had, making it extremely hard for him to fit in at first.

"I did not have a tuck box like the other boys because I had no food to put in it," he said of the wooden boxes in which his schoolmates would keep their snacks.

But the cooking abilities he picked up from his grandmother helped him tremendously at boarding school, as the boys who could afford it would buy the food and he was responsible for preparing it, although this was prohibited by the school authorities.

"At Munro we used to cook in a cheddar cheese pan, and we used to go and buy flour and corned beef and cook it, and so they used to call me dumpling," he said, recalling the day he was caught by school administrators but was fortunately let off with only a reprimand.

At the end of five years at Munro, Rowe said his father warned him to get whatever subjects he could as sixth form would not be an option for him.

However, having graduated with four subjects and no prospects of further education, Rowe needed to find employment to help himself and his frail grandmother with whom he was still sharing the one room. He got a three-month stint at Alpart as plant operator, and when that ended he was left with no option but to accept a handyman job at a hardware.

"I remember people began to talk about me and say 'look at di bwoy wey guh Munro and come out a lift cement bag off a truck'," he said, but added that he had to do what was necessary to help his grandmother.

But the turning point came one day while on his way home from work at the hardware. He ran into a cousin who gave him new hope.

Recalling the conversation that day that changed his life caused Rowe's eyes to swell with tears which streamed down his face.

"This cousin on my mother's side was a teacher and she said, 'Why don't you try teacher's college?' and I said 'I couldn't do it'. But she started to encourage me and urged me to try," he recalled.

Rowe said he went home and completed a handwritten application, and with no money in his pocket he hitched a ride to Bethlehem Teachers' College in the parish to drop the application off.

He received a provisional acceptance into the teacher education programme, on the grounds that he had to sit and pass English in one year.

Getting accepted into college was one thing, but finding the money was an uphill battle as Rowe said he did not have as much as the first year's fee.

With absolutely nobody to turn to, Rowe turned to farming to get his first year's college fee. That year he sat and passed all his courses, but was again faced with finding the second-year fee. He was determined to find employment and was fortunate to receive a summer job at a bank to computerise manual data. Determined to save every cent towards his tuition, Rowe said he would often hitch a ride to work to save money. Again, he passed all his exams, and when it was time to vote for college president he was the most likely candidate.

"Because the failure rate was high, they had to vote for the person most likely to pass, so they voted me president," he explained. But while he was sure to pass all his courses, Rowe said he again had no idea where he would be able to find the final year fees. Luck, though, was on his side. He got a summer job at Alpart as a press operator, and this, again, was enough to see him through the final year.

After graduating from Bethlehem Teachers' College as valedictorian in 1990, he began teaching physics at Hampton School. While working to make enough money to care for his grandmother, Rowe said he saw an ad in the newspaper requesting math and science teachers with two years' experience and a first degree to work in The Bahamas.

Despite not having the two years' experience or a first degree, Rowe said he applied nontheless and was very surprised when he received a response indicating his application was being considered.

In preparation for a possible acceptance, he started the application process for a passport but ran into yet another obstacle on discovering he didn't even own a birth certificate.

"It was not until the day that I was leaving for the airport that I was able to collect the passport," he said.

In The Bahamas, Rowe said he knew no one, but immediately set about making a name for himself as a math teacher. A few years later he completed a first degree in management studies through the University of the West Indies (UWI) satellite campus, graduating with honours. Shortly after, he completed his MBA through distance learning from Heriott Watt University in Scotland and then a master's of education in teacher education from UWI. That same year he began his PhD in education, majoring in curriculum and instruction at Northern Caribbean University.

His professional career include being a curriculum co-ordinator and head of
the Maths and Science Department at Nassau Christian Academy, and
part-time lecturer at Atlantic College.

"In Nassau I am like a household name because I also teach maths and science privately," he explained.

Rowe, who recently addressed students at a graduation ceremony at his primary school, said he encouraged them to remain focused and to set their respective goals in life.

"I tell them don't let anybody tell you you can't attain those goals, and once you set those goals the Lord will always make a way," said Rowe, who is now a Christian.

He said he is now seeking to return to Jamaica so he can give back to the education sector, but is disappointed that his application for principal's position was turned down because he has not been working in the local sector for a minimum of two years.

"I don't understand why this should be a stipulation because my degrees are from Jamaican universities, yet I am being discriminated against," he said.

But Rowe said he is not giving up on his dream, as he believes his experience will assist him in helping students going through similar financial struggles.


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