Jamaica – Trench Town Week One

Hello from the Jamaica team!

Debate Mate Jamaica Week One:

The blend of excitement and trepidation that I woke up to at 5am on the first morning would stay with me for the rest of the day. Trenchtown’s reputation precedes it, indeed so does Kingston and Jamaica’s more generally. The home of Bob Marley and his wailers is also home to entrenched political, cultural and socioeconomic division. There is no need for the word gang in Trenchtown, everybody is in one or another. There is no need for the word war because that is the default position that the residents of southern Kingston live their life in, and they know no different. Boystown Youth Centre, run by the irrepressible Trevor Spence is an oasis in this otherwise hostile place. 200 kids aged 2-19 are under his wing for 2 weeks of the summer, and we had the pleasure of mentoring half of them for a week. We – Anna, Jess, Scarlett, Max and myself -condensed the 16 week Debate Mate programme into four intense days, battling against language, race and age barriers. Unsurprisingly it was tough but as with any project of this nature, and as with any Debate Mate challenge, after some acclimatisation and a lot of cold water, the kids got really into it, improvement was exponential and some star debaters were born. I shall leave most of the anecdotes and details to my colleagues, but want to share just one story which is emblematic of the power of respect, compassion and the spirit of Debate Mate: Jody-Ann is 18 but looks several years younger. She worked the street for several years, probably from an unthinkably young age. Her father is long gone and her mother is a violent drug addict. She has completed 2 years at Boystown which is the maximum available and Mr. Spence has expressed his fear that it is back to the streets that she will gravitate if left to her own devices. To cut a long story short I didn’t think we were getting anything across past her glazed over eyes, but during the prep session for the second round of the competition – in which she wouldn’t herself participate – she, without prompting, organised the room, dished out paper from her own pad, shushed and cajoled the younger students into concentrating and helped me time keep. She didn’t once look to me for approval or recognition. She seemed to want to help and take part in some way, but wasn’t quite ready to stand up and speak, although she did contribute from the floor, albeit quietly. She later went on to say that she wanted to help younger students after finishing Boystown for good. She followed through with it from the first day of the second week. What more can we ask for?

A brief description of the week:
Day one – we arrived at Boys town at 9am to catch the end of the devotion where the students pray and say thanks for the opportunity to be at the camp this summer. We split the group up into 4 groups. Scarlett and Ben took the older ones (14-16) together, and max, Anna and I took a group each (ages 9-14). The first day was pretty tough – the kids tested us all and everyone was pretty exhausted by break time. We all lifted each others spirits and shared tips. The afternoon was much better – the kids got used to us and we learnt more about the way that they like to learn/work.

Day two – our aim was to do a debate with the students by the end of the day. They were amazing on day two – they had really got into it. Some of the students had to be sent out and disciplined by us but they were better after it as a result. I did a debate on banning facebook while Scarlett and Ben did a debate on banning gambling. Anna and max prepared with their students for a debate the next day.

Day 3 – the behaviour of the students was SO much better and all of us started to notice the students picking up the main skills that our programme teaches. They were desperate to do more debates! We ran half of the competition after lunch which was fantastic – the students loved it! Only thing that we weren’t prepared for the students getting a bit aggressive and violent when they lost. We mediated between them and spoke to them about dealing with loosing. They were all very focused and motivated by the competitive element.

Day 4 – we finished the competition and had a the semi final in front of the whole school. The headteacher and other staff members attended and loved it! The motion was thw ban music with violent lyrics which went down really well. It was a great day and v sad to say goodbye to the pupils at the staff for the weekend.

Ben has really summed up the atmosphere of Boystown. The men with machine guns on the street, and constant “looking over your shoulder” mentality hints more at a conflict zone than an area of Jamaica’s capital. Nevertheless, the kids we were teaching were truly incredible. Tough, violent, and in some cases outright rude. But once you scratch the surface they were just like students we teach everywhere we go – friendly, eager to learn and receptive to the programme. However one thing really stood out. They were all smart. Very smart. Every single one of our students was remarkable. Mr Spence was not surprised when we mentioned this to him. Indeed, his explanation was that the ability to distinguish between a gun shot fired by a police or by a local gangster by 9 years old bred naturally good debaters. I’m inclined to agree.
One of the most memorable moments for me was when 15 year old Rachel – the eldest of 5 girls all with different baby daddies – announced on the third day that she had managed to persuade the police that she shouldn’t be sent to juvenile prison because she was able to use “good” English, explain her point without shouting and listen to the other side before giving her reasons why she shouldn’t be locked away. It was all the more poignant when she said “I was able to use the debating you taught us but my mum wasn’t and just kept shouting at the police”. Her mum was the one who asked the police to lock her away.

I approached our first week working at Boystown with a mixture of apprehension and excitement. I’d heard about Trenchtown’s fraught history and wondered what progress one week could really yield. We arrived as the students were finishing their devotion, a moving daily ritual. As they chanted, they were already sizing us up, eyeing us from a distance. The distance was short-lived; by day two wary stares were replaced by smiles, waves, hands held and hugs freely offered.
The first day posed many challenges. My group was mainly girls ranging from 9 to 13, and I worried the first day that though there were 20 of them, I would not be able to pull a team of 4 for the competition. In our first debating exercise, though two of the older girls spoke with confidence, many of the younger could barely get a word out– one could only manage to stand in front of the room with her hands in her face. Many refused to stand up or speak in any activities at all, though their free chat with one another belied their cries of ‘Miss, I’m shy, I’m shy!”. The classroom was sweltering, with not enough chairs to go around. It served as an entryway to another class, which meant that there was a constant stream of kids in and out of the room. And it housed a stack of books and workbooks that it seemed no child could resist perusing. Patois was definitely a barrier– I think many were embarassed to speak it but afraid to attempt formal English. The day was an exercise in patience and repetition, smiling and nodding, for both me and them.
Remarkably, as the days passed, the group grew more and more willing, listening more attentively to one another, and speaking with a confidence I hadn’t thought possible. Suddenly the lack of chairs mattered less and debating was more appealing than flipping open a workbook. Even at break or lunch, I could hear them chanting ‘Hi! My name is….and I believe that…My arguments are,” etc.
Team Anna eventually sent 2 teams of 4 to the competition. Team 2 included Angel, 9, who 3 days earlie stood in front of the class paralyzed with her hands in her face.

We’ll post about week 2 at Boystown soon…

Follow us on twitter to see live updates of our teaching and photos of the students and staff at @Debate_Mate #dminternational