Arnett Gardens' twin pride
Sisters excel academically despite studying in the dark as thugs trade bullets
Amanda (left) and Samanda in their graduation stoles.

Many a time, twin sisters Amanda and Samanda Bradley completed School-Based Assessments (SBAs) and studied in the dark on the floor, using flashlights on their cellular phones while thugs traded bullets outside in their volatile Arnett Gardens community.

The 19-year-old students, who attended the Convent of Mercy Academy 'Alpha' and St Hugh's High School, respectively, have long burnt the "ghetto" script and have been excelling since the primary education level.

In total, both have 20 Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) and eight Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination (CAPE) subjects a source of tremendous pride for their family.

Amanda currently sits on the board of the National Youth Parliament of Jamaica (NYPJ). She told the Jamaica Observer that she sees all the ways in which her environment and socio-economic background have been disadvantages to her. However, she said she wasn't entirely submerged in the notion of her circumstances while growing up.

"I was a very understanding child who did not lack faith and very well knew the power of God. Thus, I remained positive and saw education as my ticket out to achieve upward social mobility. I pride myself on being resilient, as I refuse to conform to the negative connotations society has of a ghetto youth, because as I frequently hear, 'You don't sound, act, or look like you're from Arnett,' evidently postulating that due to your address you're stereotyped," she said.

In the middle of completing university applications, she related that she had always been torn between nursing and law, but due to her family's economic situation she settled with the more "convenient" career nursing. That's what she plans to work towards now that she has finished high school.

"My mother had to pay twice as much for everything, which wasn't easy. I knew that my mother couldn't buy us everything, including materials needed for scholastic advancements, but I also knew that she hardly ever said no. She worked really hard to make ends meet as there were times I hardly ever saw her she was out first thing in the morning and came home late at night and thus, I spent most of my time with my maternal grandmother and I will forever be indebted to these women," she said.

Samanda, who plans to pursue a degree in computer science at the University of Technology, Jamaica (UTech), told the Sunday Observer she, too, views education as a stepping stone.

"Education is actually absolutely important for me. It's actually my number one priority as I believe education is the key to success. It's one of the only ways to achieve social mobility and financial stability. I believe it's absolutely necessary to move forward. My family is proud of my sister and I. They are very encouraging and always encourage us to do our best, and that makes us feel good and try to do our best, as only our best is good enough," she said.

"It's hard some days, but at the end of the day you have to remember why you're doing everything that you're doing and keep pushing. I overcame challenges by simply accepting some of the issues and working around," Samanda added.

The twin sisters spent their formative years living with their mother's side of the family and three other siblings off Maxfield Avenue. Later, they were sent to Arnett Gardens to live with their paternal grandparents for more "options for progress".

They attended Trench Town Primary where Amanda was elected as a monitor. However, they didn't finish at Trench Town, as a teacher had advised their grandmother to transfer them to another school where there would be more opportunities for growth.

They then completed grades five and six at Rollington Primary School where where Amanda was elected deputy head girl, and Samanda, prefect.

When they transitioned to secondary education they were separated for the first time Samanda went off to St Hugh's and Amanda to Alpha.

"Throughout my time at the academy [Alpha], the personal development was unlike any other. It had completely moulded me into this dynamic young lady who embodies the community values of holistic development in a spirit of mercy. However, it honestly took me some time to adjust to the abrupt change from primary to secondary education," Amanda told the Sunday Observer.

In her latter years at Alpha, she was selected to be a part of the early achiever's programme, offering three subjects in CSEC in grade 10, and was successful. In total, she bagged seven grade ones, three grade twos, and a three at the CSEC level. At the CAPE, she earned two grade ones and two grade twos.

"Some days I am immensely proud of myself as at times, I must say, it was rather difficult studying for these exams, as living in an inner-city community persons are not too considerate about others in their surroundings. Many times an event was occurring and the music was so loud it was vibrating throughout the house for hours, ultimately decreasing my level of concentration, which is a constant issue and is rather very frustrating," she continued, noting that she also served as president for the science and environmental clubs, and vice-president for literary and debate society and vice-president for the Jamaica Prefects' Association Region 1.

Samanda bagged nine grade ones at the CSEC level, and two grade ones, one grade two and a three at the CAPE level.

"When I look at where I started and the obstacles that I faced in my life, I guess I am really proud of myself. Therefore, I hold all the little and big things I have achieved dear to my heart. Relatively normal things such as simply graduating from school, succeeding academically. I am proud of myself for the simple things such as having leadership positions at both schools.

"I was a student who always tried to be very involved in high school and not only academically, so I joined multiple clubs and participated in various activities such as beautification projects, pageants, et cetera."

When exams approached, the sisters organised virtual study groups with friends. In the end, the effort was a success, but both detailed how the sessions were plagued by the discomfort of their environment.

"All those who were interested, inclusive of teachers… they could tell you my background was always noisy," Amanda related. "Sometimes I had to remain muted throughout some sessions. I remember some nights when shots were firing and when the gunshots sounded too close, I had to turn off my room light and opted for my phone's flashlight to continue with my studies or finish doing SBAs whilst remaining low."

But even at a very young age, that kind of experience compelled her to go above and beyond.

"Growing up in the garrison added to my drive for success as I was surrounded by realities I had no desire of living, but rather realities I wanted to change for others. My passion for youth advocacy and leadership led me to serve in several leadership roles throughout the years, such as a form leader, student council representative, prefect, and, in my final year, the deputy head girl," Amanda said.

Her sister related similar challenges.

"I remember when I was doing CXC mathematics and I had classes in the afternoon with a teacher that volunteered to help some friends and I; I was actually responsible for hosting those meetings, as sir wasn't exactly tech savvy. But I would always have noise in my background. Some days I could participate in the meetings and some days, I really couldn't as my background was absolutely too noisy as a result of the music that was constantly playing... on Zoom, that's very annoying," Samanda recalled.

"There are many factors that actually affect a lot of students in an inner-city area, and not just myself. Some days it's hard to focus… I must admit. But in the end, you do what you have to do, as what you do now will affect your future. In essence, you do what you have to do and develop strategies to make your situation better as some things are out of your control," she said.

Twin sisters Amanda (left) and Samanda, during their days at Convent of Mercy Academy 'Alpha' and St Hugh's High School, respectively.
Samanda (left) eventually joined her twin sister Amanda at Convent of Mercy Academy 'Alpha', where she completed two years of sixth form, after five years at St Hugh's High School.
Romardo Lyons

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