Schools for scoundrels

A few weeks ago, Jamaica’s Education Minister put his teaching community into a tail spin over a report on Crime and Education. The basic point was that certain schools were associated with a significant number of criminals in prison. The matter was botched in my view, not least by some loose language by the Minister and in the media that pointed the blame at schools as if they were factories, turning out hoodlums by the dozen. Naturally, that offended many teachers, who see themselves trying hard to shape children into good citizens, often in circumstances where the basic supports of life barely exist. They are struggling against some heavy odds.

However, the more-than-a-grain of truth is that many criminals in Jamaica were failures at school. Testimony to that came in a current affairs discussion last night on TVJ’s “All Angles”. They failed at school? Schools failed them? They wasted their time? Schools lost patience with them? Discipline issues. This is a chicken and egg topic. But the bottom line is that many criminals dropped out of school or came away with a much lesser grasp of many rudimentary skills. They are persons just not well-equipped to do many things, other than basic labouring work. Fast forward. Crime as an occupation then becomes an easy option, especially if the ‘skill’ needed is brute force and callousness. The attendant dangers to personal well-being are then taken as one of the risks of the trade. Maybe, people talk themselves into walking away from that life, but it rarely happens.

We can’t turn Jamaica around in a very short time, because the flow of potential criminals–if we take the failures in the education system as a proxy–continues unabated. But, can we manage the situation better? I want to be optimistic and say “Yes”. We know that various programs exist to put more resources into communities that have been plagued by crime. A lot of human time and effort is geared towards direct help. It’s not enough. Those communities often have little that will attract people or investors, so are condemned to ‘more of the same’. Life is so dire that little differences in opportunities can seem enormous, by comparison. If one street gets something a little better than the next, it may seem that the whole world has changed. That, too, can be the source of more rivalry–call it petty jealousy–over which people are not reluctant to take up arms.

But, one element eludes many of these communities–jobs. Most people are brought up with the mantra of hard work being important. But, when you cannot find work to do, hard, or easy, many struggle to know what to do with themselves. People who are better educated or have other skills can make things happen. If you are lacking in either or both, you will struggle.

Much airtime is being given to what Jamaica needs to move forward. A phrase that keeps haunting us is that the 21st century demands much higher levels of learning. We are in an era of fast-moving technologies. Jamaican politicians are sitting on the coat tails of a potential logistics hub development, but have not been very forthcoming about the type of jobs that will be generated and the kind of jobs Jamaicans are likely to get. They may not know. Or, if they know, dare not say. I’ll go there.

Just last summer, we read about the ‘mass’ exodus of skilled port workers from Jamaica to Canada. Concern was voiced about loss of technicians, but a training programme and new equipment would help keep customers. Ironically, Jamaica was becoming a ‘technological university’ for the Canadian market. Target skills had been those trained in the maintenance exercises of the mobile equipment, such as the big straddle carriers, trucks and big container lifters. But also crane operators and heavy-equipment operators. The only thing working against this high demand was ‘indiscipline of some truckers when they go to Canada’.

So, Jamaica has skills for the basic port work, but they are dwindling in response to the country’s fragile economic situation. Could they be brought back if the logistics hub works out? Probably not. Opportunities in Canada are far more attractive–harsh winter weather, notwithstanding. So, could we train enough people to do the work? We have time. But, the stock of people from whom trainees will likely come is unlikely to include many or any from crime-infected communities.

Many people without work naturally get excited at the prospect of new jobs coming their way, even if they do not have skills to take advantage of the opportunities. Truth is, they are likely to still be stuck on the corner, hoping.

If politicians can be honest about the prospects they see for their population, can they be honest about the potential disappointment that lays ahead for many striving for something to do? If they are, they know they will face questions about “What are you doing for us?” (leaving aside the dependency problem). Do nothing and keep watching what happens to crime.

Jamaica’s crime problem is not unique in the Caribbean. Islands that have had a history of performing much better have seen their crime problems grow–The Bahamas, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago–even surpassing Jamaica in some unenviable categories, on a per head basis. The common elements have been drugs, gangs, and unemployment, with a familiar base of low educational levels. The region’s teachers used to be one of the aspects that set us apart from other developing areas. We lost many to migration, but kept a good many, too. The reasons for failing education are many, but some of the results are clear. It’s an area we need to fix, at a national and a regional levels, and fix fast.

A day in the asylum

Sometimes, the mistake made is to try to put structure onto things that don’t really have it. Life is often just a jumble of events and making sense of it is not possible. Today has been one of those day when so many thoughts have gone through my mind that I can understand easily why many people wander around bewildered–about their own lives and about the lives of those around them. So, with no attempt to structure the thoughts, they will flow.

Murder most heinous: beheading, like an animal butchered; chopped many times about the head; shot through the window of her car; kidnapped, raped and mutilated, the body strewn to be found by whoever came across it. Find the killers. Burn them. Burn their houses. Hurl stones at them. Hit them with iron pipes, till their blood spills and runs on the road like rain. Vengeance! Police! Police! Help! What a hope that would be. People who may be useful with enquiries. Hide, before they see that you are an informer. You’ll be killed as quick as you speak. Hide your head. Then, enough. March. March. Pray. March. Pray. Beg for help. Beg for deliverance.

Civil war within your midst, but you never chose sides. An enemy lurks in shadows and on street corners. Sitting in cars, gun on the belt; gun in the hand. Passing by, then bullets fly. ‘Gang-related’ we hear about nearly 2 of every three killings. So many gangs, how can they get recruits who are ready to die. Civil war being waged. But, one side has no arms, no soldiers. The other, coming trampling like the original Thugees; living amongst the people, like ordinary neighbours, but just waiting to kill to gain control.

Imagine, your house, your home, becoming a commodity for which you have to pay in order to continue living as if it’s your home. So offensive an idea. Reminds me of the way that invading soldiers during the Second World War would commandeer property and take over lives.

Nazi soldiers show who is in control of occupied country.
Nazi soldiers show who is in control of occupied country.

They had the force, so they had the rights. Come, pay homage! ‘Big man’, ‘Don’, ‘Capo’, ‘Godfather’. Pay respects: one for me, half for you; two for me, half for you; three for me, half for you. Squeeze! Survival? That’s your problem, poor wretch. Uneducated. Uninformed. Dependent. Always the victims. Always.

“Don’t drive through Mountain View; it’s a volatile area. But, all of east Kingston is volatile. How do people who need to go to St. Thomas reach there? Take a boat, and bypass? How do travellers to the Norman Manley International Airport get there? Take helicopter. Those people have enough money. They are the ones who take the food from the poor. Clichés. Need someone to blame.

Kiss the ring of The Godfather

How many children do you have? Five, sir. All the same father? No, sir; five different fathers. Are any of the fathers living with you? No, sir: all of them are in prison. It’s just me to look after the children. I have no job, sir, but I hustle downtown, selling cigarettes and sweeties. Let’s tie your tubes and stop you having any more children. You’re a burden. They’re a burden. The fathers are a burden.  You’re living lives that make no sense. Chinese investors will be our hope and answer all our prayers. We should learn from how they reached where they are.

One child policy
One child policy

You are getting what you deserve. A wretched life, for a wretched people. Did you vote? I did. I didn’t. Half cared enough. Half were scared. Half didn’t see the point. Half hoped to get work for voting–politicians promised us jobs. Well, no jobs. There’s a world recession. Haven’t you heard? Half didn’t need to; they have friends and friends of friends, and good friends and good school friends, and college friends. Everyone’s so friendly in Jamaica. Don’t it?

A learnèd professor tells us that one million Jamaicans have personality disorders. No kidding! Hold on. How many? We have a population of just under three million. So…about one-in-three persons is a little off their rockers? More or less. It all starts to make sense now. We’re in a mental asylum. The cuckoo’s nest. Some of us get to walk around the gardens and smell the flowers. Go to play cards and other games with our friends. We sit at meals alone or with some people we see, barely recognizing some, thinking we recognize others. Babbling to be heard as the orderly throws some slops in our direction. No one knows what they did to get placed here, but that’s what is happening. It’s just a big madhouse.

All the talk we hear are voices in our heads. Close your ears. “War against crime…” “Community policing…” “Increasing resources…” “Street patrols…” “We will find the killers…” The noise! They make no sense. The voices. La-la-la-la. Can’t hear you!

Houdini in his strait jacket
Houdini in his strait jacket

“Tommy? Can you hear me? You’re sweating. Were you having a nightmare?” You look up at the face of the nurse and doctor. Hypodermic needle in hand. You see the serum. Will it be calming? Take away the pain? “Relax. It will be alright.” That’s all they ever say.