Making Magic

This past January (2014), when we were just returning to school from Christmas break, the Grade Two teacher approached me to talk about a student in her class. “He’s not following along,” she told me, “and he’s already very far behind. Can you work with him?”

photo 3I agreed to take on the extra student and we began lessons immediately. Since he already knew the all letters and their sounds, we started with two-letter words, and grouped them into families who share the same endings. Words like, me, be, we, he, and she. Then we built on to those words by adding another letter, or learning new families all together. Words like, cat, rat, sat, hat, and that, or pen, hen, and men. Before long, I had him reading simple sentences on the board with the words that he knew.

Now, in Grade Three, and with over two dozen private lessons behind us, this kid is reading like a champ! Sure, he’s still got a long way to go before he will catch up to his grade level, but the momentum is there, and he’s making me very proud. So proud, in fact, that I made sure to tell his teacher, the school principal, and his mother!

I also called my Program Manager with PC to tell her, and in turn, I’ve been asked to submit what’s known as a Success Story. A collection of these stories – submitted by other PCVs as well – will be shared with future volunteers who may serve in Jamaica.

But I’m not writing this post to exemplify the accomplishments of my student, nor do I wish to boast about my own. Rather, I write to bring attention to the underlying factors the contributed to our success. Things like passion, and the willingness to learn.

DSCN1438To be a successful teacher, one must be fully invested in the education of his or her students. Because children are like sponges with alarmingly high levels of absorbency, it’s important to establish a positive and stimulating learning environment. A person who’s passionate about a child’s education will do just that. It’s also likely she’ll go to great lengths to prepare lessons specifically catered to the strengths and weaknesses of her students. These are just some of things that I did, and without my passion, I don’t think I would have put in nearly as much effort.

The willingness to learn was provided by the student. This little boy always puts in 110% and is excited about expanding his reading vocabulary. Often, our class sessions would go over by ten or fifteen minutes because he never wants to stop. He’ll come running to me at lunch time, waving a piece of paper on which he’s written his words, just to show me he’s trying. Last week, he wrote the word red on the board and asked if we can learn the families for words that end with D.

photo 4His enthusiasm was met with my own, and together, we made magic. But like all good things, there were some bumps along the way, which brings me to another factor worth noting: perseverance. Students who are less willing to learn, and teachers who are less willing to teach, tend not to go as far. The progress we’ve made together is the direct result of two people who refused to give up. I knew from the start that he was a bright boy, and I wouldn’t allow him to quit when he grew frustrated with a new word. Likewise, he was determined to bring himself to the same reading level as his classmates, and that personal commitment to his education is what allowed him to work through twenty-seven challenging class sessions without shedding a single tear.

Patience also played a key role in his advancement. For most students, learning to read is hard enough, and for a student like mine, it’s even more of an obstacle. It requires patience on my part and his to ensure his success. For example, I had to recognize that he is a slow learner, and in turn, remember to instruct lessons that move at his pace. I also had to keep my own frustrations in check when he still couldn’t remember the words by or the, even though he’s been looking at them from day one. The student’s patience is often tested too, when he has his off-days and doesn’t want to read his sentences, or can’t sit still.

But the most important factor worth mentioning – the biggest key contributor – is openness. A few years back, a very wise and influential person told me that being open was the healthiest thing I could do to improve my life and the outlooks I had on it. But first, I had to learn how, and once I did, I saw that she was right. Like a blossoming flower, I opened myself to new ideas and welcomed new perspectives; and the more open I became, the more I began to connect with people. This receptiveness has carried me through my Peace Corps service, allowing me to adapt to the cultures of my host country, and succeed in my endeavors to teach the students. And just like my mentor predicted, when one open person meets with another open person, they connect on a deep, heart-felt level. That is exactly what’s happened between this child and me.

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As my remaining time in Jamaica grows shorter, I can’t help but reflect on the impact I’ve made with my students – not just this one, but all of them. Every single one of my kids has improved in some way; whether it be a jump in their reading level, their ability to sound out words they don’t recognize, their comprehension skills, their writing ability, or even their self-esteem. I also see the impact I’ve made with some of the teachers, who have implemented incentive charts in their classrooms, or have modeled my “chunking” approach when reading new words.

The most significant impact, however, is the one that Jamaica has made on me. Within myself, I unleashed a potential that I didn’t even know was there, and I too gained copious boosts in self-confidence. I’ve learned to be patient, accepting, and adaptable. By embracing a new culture, I developed several new perspectives about my familiar, American one. I no longer feel anxious when approaching new territory, and I finally have a solid idea of what kind of life I want to lead when I return to my native world.

My life in Jamaica will soon come to an end, but I think that as long as I live, I’ll continue to look back and gain more insights. I’m also positive that for as long as my students live, they’ll never forget the Whitey to came to teach at their school. And just like my little Grade Three boy, with whom our combined efforts and positive attitude made his success possible, the incredible feats accomplished by all my students was made possible by keeping themselves open to… well, just about anything!

Jacardi

*Note: For safety and security’s sake, my descriptions in this post need to be vague, but also clear enough that my readers can understand. So I’ll be renaming some key places that might otherwise give away too much information. Bear with me.
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Our majestic neighbor looms over us.

My community rests on a hillside with a road that zigzags its way to the top. On your way up from Morant Bay, some great distance behind you, you eventually arrive in my sweet mountaintop town. You’ll know you’ve reached it when you pass the church bearing its name.

As you continue driving up, you eventually pass my workplace, Amazingly Awesome Primary School. But the road doesn’t stop there. Bumping along, you’ll soon arrive at A Most Important Place, where the road wraps around the building sharply, and continues the zigzag upward. A little further ways, and you will reach my house in Sweet Jamaican Home Town.

Like most of the PCVs in Jamaica, I walk to and from work every day. But relatively speaking, compared to most PCVs, my worksite is a fair distance away from my home. And with my transportation situation – which could definitely be improved – trying to catch a taxi could take an over hour. Obviously, this might pose a big hassle for me…

But wait! There’s a shortcut?

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That’s right, ladies and gentlemen. Please allow me to introduce you to “Jacardi.” It’s the more common nickname for the all-natural shortcut that allows me to travel from Sweet Jamaican Home Town to Amazingly Awesome Primary School, keeping me off the main road and bypassing A Most Important Place altogether. This route saves me approximately thirty minutes each way and has become my primary source of exercise.

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Almost everyone uses this path, and it’s been in the community for generations. Most days, when I walk, I’m in the company of students. I’ve grown to love the mornings when my ears can pick up the sound of their distant chatter, or catch snippets of a conversation in a language I’m still learning to understand.

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My favorite part of walking, if I ever find myself alone, is to pause in the middle, and just listen to the sounds of nature. It’s a great way to start my day.

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And it’s got a great view!

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The building located right in the middle of the picture is A Most Important Place

 

My Short Lived Career As A Corporate Executive

DSCN1273In my classroom, I keep an incentive chart on the wall and give stars for good behavior. The students really respond to it. It gives them a chance to visibly track their progress and see how close they are to earning a reward. Bad behavior, they understand, means they don’t get a star that day, and if their behavior is really appalling, that I might even take one away.

The idea was modeled after a similar system that I remember using as a child, and it was something I set up and implemented on Day One of last year. For my Jamaican students, this Americanized system of rewards and consequences was new to them, but it didn’t take long for them to catch on. Within days of school starting, my students would come pouring into my classroom every chance they got to count their stars.

A success, I carried over my incentive chart for Year Two of my service, but with a few small modifications. Last year, when the students reached ten stars on their chart, they got a reward, and at fifteen, another reward, this time a little bigger. I continued upward in increments of five – the ultimate prize being fifteen minutes of computer games. But this year, I scrapped the idea of automatic rewards, and instead, opened what I’m calling my Star Store.

This is shaping up to be both a brilliant idea, and a mad one.

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The Star Store is open on Fridays during lunch, and its merchandise includes things like a candy (in Jamaica, they call them sweeties), stickers, cool pencils and erasers. I’ve also got some silly bandz, an option to eat lunch and color with me one day, and of course, the ever coveted, fifteen minutes of computer games.

I started each student off with thirty stars and encouraged them to spend wisely. I also explained that computer games, while on the list of purchasable items, would not go on sale until December 1st. “If you know you want to spend your stars on computer time, then save them. That way when December 1st comes around, you already have enough and you can buy it!”

I had three primary objectives when opening the Star Store. The first was that I wanted to help teach children how to spend or save their “money.” Some students, I knew, wouldn’t be able to save their stars, while others would demonstrate patience, and earn themselves a bigger prize for it. I also thought it would be nice for the students to be able to pick and choose what kind of rewards they wanted for their good behavior. I reasoned that if I gave them more control, it would ultimately lead to more responsibility.

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So far, so good! The store has been open for four consecutive Fridays, and I’m very pleased with the results. As predicted, some students spent their stars immediately, and came back the next week unable to understand why didn’t have any left. Others have spent a little bit here and little bit there, and decided to save the rest. Some students I haven’t seen at all! One inquisitive fifth grader asked, if he saves his stars and gets sixty, can he buy 30 minutes of computer games? I told him of course!

But the downside to my Star Store is that my Friday lunches are not my own. My classroom has easily become the most popular destination for the school to congregate. Noise level aside, this is particularly difficult to deal with, because the students that aren’t in my pull-out groups want to buy things too, and are willing to pay with money. Naturally, I refuse, and have to send them on their way in an effort to keep things at a manageable level.

My students are having challenges of their own too. They first need to master the impossible task of forming a straight line, and understanding that I can only help one customer at a time. They also need to work on leaving my classroom after they’ve made their purchase. These procedures will take a couple more Fridays to master, but they’ll get it. In the meantime, helping some of my students to understand the way “money” works will take a little more effort.

DSCN1272The last challenge I’m facing with my Star Store is the way stars are being tracked. Operationally speaking, I add stars to the chart for good behavior, but I’m not removing any after they’ve been spent. This causes great confusion when students come to count their stars. And while its easy enough to do some quick math for someone standing in front of me, it’s going to be much more difficult if I’m doing that for everyone while the store is open. I’m currently brainstorming some alternative methods for balancing their star-accounts.

Overall, I love this idea! I’m excited to see my students excited, and it’s going to be a lot of fun to see how this plays out the rest of the year. I’ve inspired some of the teachers too, and they’re now doing star charts in their classrooms. Positive reinforcement works, and if a teacher can weave in a lifelong lesson in the process, that’s even better. Opening a store and giving them stars for money will provide a foundational comprehension of how the monetary system works, and will drive home the idea that hard work pays off.

So for now, I can toss my personal sanity on Fridays aside, and become a teacher who doubles as a landlord, a storeowner, a bank manager, and an employer. I feel a little bit like this guy:

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Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting With The Stove

To say that I can’t cook is putting it mildly. If truth be told, I possess the rare the ability to turn any attempt at food preparation into a scarcely edible concoction that barely passes as a meal. (Except for macaroni & cheese.) I went into the Peace Corps knowing this – but also understanding that if I was to survive as a functioning adult in this world, I’d eventually have to learn. It was now or never, and the Peace Corps was ripe with opportunity.

If my life were a movie, then I’d be able to proudly announce that I conquered the kitchen, overcame my weaknesses, and am on my way to becoming an excellent chef. But this isn’t Hollywood – my life is much less climactic.

In the eighteen months I’ve been here, I’ve learned how to prepare a few meals, and I still count myself lucky if I don’t burn them.

Below, you’ll find the recipes for the only two dishes I can manage without mishap.

 Vegetable Teriyaki

 Materials:
1 Medium Saucepan w/lid
Vegetable Oil (or coconut oil, or water)
1 Large Onion
1 Large Carrot
2 Medium Tomatoes
½ Sweet Pepper
½ Cup Broccoli and/or Cauliflower (Optional)
Veggie Chunks or Chicken (Optional)
¼ Cup of Lawry’s Teriyaki Sauce

Procedure:

  1. In saucepan, combine sliced onions, sliced carrot, and oil/water. Turn the burner on medium-low and let the onions and carrot soften, stirring occasionally. → As a PCV, and being inept in the kitchen, I use water instead of oil, and I let the water boil out. Once a majority of the water is gone, I move on to the next step. If I’m using chicken, I cut it into bite-size pieces and add it to the pan once the water is boiling.
  2. Add quartered tomatoes and sliced sweet pepper to pan, and lower heat. Recover and let sit for 1-2 minutes. → If I’m using veggie chunks, I’ve already hydrated them in hot water for half an hour. Now, I drain and add them to the saucepan. If I have broccoli or cauliflower, I would also add them now.
  3. Remove cover; add teriyaki sauce, stir, and recover. Let sit on low heat for 1-2 minutes.
  4. Serve a la carte, or over rice & peas.

*This recipe can also be followed using tomato sauce, instead of teriyaki. Just leave the rice out of the equation.

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Rambunctious Ramen

Materials:
1 Large Cook pot
1 Small or Medium Cook pot
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1 Cabbage head
2 Onions
1 Large Carrot
1 Sweet Pepper
Garlic & Onion Seasoning
1 Tbsp Butter
½ Cup Veggie Chunks
1 Cup (Boiling) Water
1 Pack of Ramen Noodles

Procedures:

Steamed Cabbage

  1. Thinly shred cabbage, and slice onions, carrots and sweet pepper.
  2. Combine ingredients into the large cook pot with butter (at the bottom) and season with Garlic & Onion.
  3. Place on stovetop and set heat to the lowest it will go.
  4. Let sit for 15-25 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Veggie Chunks

  1. Using a microwave safe bowl, combine veggie chunks and water.
  2. Set cook-time to 2 minutes, wait ten minutes, and then 2 minutes again.
  3. Wait another ten minutes, then drain chunks and set aside.

OR

  1. Using a microwave safe bowl, combine veggie chunks and boiling water.
  2. Let sit for 25-30 minutes.
  3. Drain water when finished.

Ramen

In small or medium pot, make some ramen. Everyone has their own way of doing it, so any which way will work.

Combining Ingredients

  1. In a bowl, mix veggie chunks, your desired amount of steamed cabbage, and ramen without broth.
  2. Enjoy!

My Little Monster

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I’ve got this friend – he’s furry, and has whiskers and a tail. His name is Bowser, and without him, I’d probably go insane.

The last time I wrote about Bowser, he was a kitten of ten weeks. He was too skittish to let me hold him, wasn’t quite litter trained, and was only starting to adjust to his life as a domestic house cat. In honor of his first birthday, I’ve decided to provide a feline update. So much has changed!

Bowser’s my little buddy. He follows me from room to room throughout the house, and loves talking to me. Anyone who’s been on the phone can testify that he’s quite the chatterbox! He’ll announce his presence, or demand my attention with a persistent and boisterous meow. As a kitten, he didn’t like to be held or pet, but now he can’t seem to get enough. A well-placed scratch behind the ear, or under his chin, will make him weak in the knees, and he’ll brush up against my legs if he wants to be held. In the afternoons, he can usually be found napping on his favorite pillow, or in my lap.

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We’ve also learned how to communicate; or rather, I’ve finally learned to understand him. The litter box is a hot topic, and at least once a day, he sits by his box and meows until I scoop his poops and give him some fresh sand. In the mornings when he wants more food, he’ll jump on my bed, walk over to my head, and meow loudly in my ear. If that doesn’t work, he’ll bring his toys on the bed, and when all else fails, he’ll resort to attacking my hands and arms until I get up.

Speaking of toys, this little monster will play with anything! Although his favorites are his mousie and his catnip dolphin, he’ll always be able to find something on my desk or my dresser to bat around and then run off with. He’s also prone to locating random objects around the house and carrying them in. I’ve caught him with scraps of fabric, a small, stuffed teddy bear that he stole from my host-mom’s shelf, and a plastic fork that he played with for weeks. But he has a tendency to hide his toys, and then forgets where he put them. After several months without his jingle ball, he found it behind the wardrobe, and promptly misplaced it a day later.

He must have known I was writing about him.
He must have known I was writing about him.

Bowser’s a great hunter too. In the evenings, he spends his time in the kitchen stalking moths or hunting lizards. At night, while I sleep, he protects me from cockroaches and spiders. All too frequently do I visit the bathroom to find my rug crumpled and a dead roach hidden within the folds. Sometimes, I don’t even find the roach – all I see are its little legs and antenna bits. Last week, Bowser took out a duppy bat!

 

A duppy bat is a large, black moth. Jamaican superstition states that duppy bats protect the house from spirits (duppies)

 

When I last wrote about Bowser, I also said I wasn’t sure if I’d be bringing him home after my service. I wanted to give him a chance to adjust to his new life as a pet, and then make a decision. Shortly afterward, the bond between us solidified, and the idea of leaving him in Jamaica became unimaginable. Now, there is no question. This cat is my best friend. He keeps me on my toes and is an endless source of entertainment. When feelings of isolation set in, Bowser is always there to pick me up. And he’s so full of spunk and personality, that I often forget he’s a feline!

Some of my goals for Year Two include making various phone calls to veterinarian offices and airlines to determine what needs to be done in order to bring him home. He’s already been neutered, and is in good health. He likes to stay inside, so he’s free of fleas and ticks. I give him heartworm medication once a month, and I already have an “airline appropriate” carrying cage. I suppose the next big obstacle (and perhaps the next time I write about him) will be when he returns to Miami with me, and I introduce him to my other beloved baby: Emma.

All whopping 15lbs of Emma
All whopping 15lbs of Emma

 

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Mi A Go Bay

I shift a little in my seat – a wooden bench outside of the shop by the Square – crossing one leg over the other and leaning back into the shade. From inside the shop, the radio plays a reggae version of Adele’s Don’t You Remember, followed by a news brief announcing Tessanne Chin’s advancement in America’s popular reality TV show, The Voice.

“Mawnin’ Miss Teach. Wah gwan?”

“Mi dey ah,” I reply, looking up at a man whose name I can never remember, but recognize as the guy who rides around on his motor-scooter selling eggs. “Mi a jus’ wait ‘pon taxi.”

“Arrite, summpin’ soon come.”

“Yeah mon.” I don’t bother to mention that I’ve already been waiting forty minutes.

It’s Saturday, nearly eleven a.m., and my stomach rumbles. I think about that Jamaican patti I’ve promised myself when I get down to the Bay (Morant Bay), and shift in my seat again.

A dog wanders into my vision, sniffing the ground for scraps before curling up in the shade across the road. A barefoot man carrying bananas on his head slowly makes his way past the shop. A woman with her baby sits down beside me. The cool breeze sweeps in from the valley and offers me a brief reprieve from the heat. Finally, a taxi arrives.

A Honda model from the late 90’s, with a white license plate and ripped seat cushions, the driver reaches over and opens the passenger door from the inside, then behind him to open the backseat door. I allow the mother and her child to sit in the front, so they wont have to small up, and I settle down in the back. A few minutes later, another larger woman joins me in the backseat, then a farmer carrying a machete, the blade wrapped in newspaper.

We start down the road, winding around blind curves before making another stop for a teenager with a school bag. He opens my door and climbs in beside me, forcing the three of us to shift closer and make room. This is what’s known in Jamaica as smalling up, and it’s something I’ve become very accustomed to. Rarely does one travel publically without experiencing this type of close encounter.

With an hour’s car ride ahead of us, I lean back and allow the people on either side of me to absorb the sways and bumps of the vehicle, as we wind around curves, dodging potholes and goats.

While we make our descent from Cedar Valley, I keep my eyes fixed on the passing scenery. We drive through several neighboring communities, past sugar cane fields, cow pastures, and Serge Island Dairy Factory. Meanwhile, the road continually alternates between patchy concrete riddled with potholes, or a sand or dirt path. Though the windows are down, I feel sweat gathering at the base of my hairline, beneath my arms, and between my legs. Just a few more minutes, I think, recognizing my surroundings and smelling the sea air.

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Morant Bay is a flurry of activity. Even before our vehicle stops, we pass men walking around selling hair combs, kitchen knives, fly swatters, bag juice and chips. Taxi men call out their destinations, looking for more passengers to fill their vehicles. “Town! Town!” That’s Kingston. “Town, baby?” I’m asked the moment I exit my car.

“Nuh, me nuh go Town.”

“Yallahs, baby?”

“Nuh Yallahs.”

From the main road, I walk uphill to get into the shopping area of Morant Bay. I pass vendors under canopies and street carts. People shout out to promote their product. I hear calls for movies, maxi dresses, juicy watermelons and pineapples.

The cat-calls begin here too. In Jamaican culture, men often like to woo the women, and as a white female, I’m exceptionally exotic. This is a big adjustment that many of us PCJ ladies find infuriating. After a year of it, most of the remarks I hear fall on deaf ears.

“Pssst! Hey baby, lookin nice, ya?”

I nod to him and keep walking.

“Snowflake, mi can go wid you?”

I ignore that one.

“Wow! Whitey lookin so beautiful today!”

“Psst! Come here!”

“Yaa look so fine, mi wan’ fi be yuh friend.”

Finally, I reach Queen’s Street, which runs through the heart of the Bay. Along the roadside is an NCB bank, the Digicel store, Tastee Patti, Lee’s Books, St. Thomas Parish Library, Scotia Bank ATMs and so much more. Famished, I duck into Tastee and join the long line. Once I’ve sated my hunger, grocery shopping is next on the agenda. Hoping to avoid the hustle-bustle of peddlers and cheesy pick-up lines, I move quickly toward the corner and turn down a side street.

About fifty feet in, past more street vendors and pushcarts, is Joong’s Supermarket. Inside, the store is busy, and despite large ceiling fans on high speed, it’s still only slightly cooler than outside. Picking up a basket, I slip through the turn style and start down the isles. The shelves aren’t too different from what I’m used to back home. While there certainly isn’t as much brand variety, I can find almost all of the same things. I also usually have my choice between a Jamaican brand, and an American one.

I grab some Charmin toilet paper. On my PC budget, it’s easily the most expensive item on my list, but to me, it’s worth it. I also pick up a bag of cat food for Bowser. Then I stroll down the isles collecting various food items. I reach for the veggie chunks, a Jamaican product made mostly from soy and packaged in dehydrated form. They make a great substitute for meatballs in your spaghetti, or a tasty addition to your chicken-flavored Ramen. I also like to use them in my weekly Teriyaki Vegetable Stir-Fry; a meal I’ve proudly learned and perfected during my service. Other items on my shopping list include pasta, milk (in a powdered form, to be mixed with water), tang, wheat crackers, granola bars, and my other cherished splurge: Honey Nut Cheerios. I grab a snack-sized package of Oreos on my way to the cash registers.

ShoppingBagD20110215WSThe last thing I do before the leave the store is pull out my MegaMart bag and transfer my groceries. MegaMart – just so we’re on the same page – is a little like a Costco. It’s located in three major Jamaican cities, but none of them are in St. Thomas. While Group 84 was training in Kingston, we discovered that you can buy a MegaMart reusable shopping bag for $100 (or $1 USD), and that they’re a great way to carry multiple or heavy items more comfortably. Almost every volunteer on island has one, and apparently, so do the Jamaicans! With my MegaMart bag in hand, I blend right in.

“April!”

But I’ve been spotted.

I recognize my friend Warren’s* voice. A Rasta man with shoulder length dreadlocks and a star-spangled wetsuit hurries over to me. He’s holding a spear gun in one hand, and a dozen colorful fish and lobster on a fishing line in the other. Spear fishing is one of the many ways Jamaicans bring sea-life to the markets. I greet him enthusiastically.

About a year ago, when I first got to St. Thomas, Warren approached me to say hello. Like most of the people in the Bay – cat call boys aside – he just wanted to know who I am. After all, I’m not the only volunteer in this parish, and all of us come into the Bay to shop. Wanting to earn some integration points, I took the time to talk to him, and after a few short months, he had become a good friend.

“Warren, mi like your fish.”

“Yeah? The water was so cool today,” he tells me, in Patwa of course. “But I dove too deep and popped my ear.” He shakes his head and blinks his eyes a little. “Anyway, you are looking so nice today. Wey yaa go now?” Where are you going now?

“To the market,” I tell him, gathering my bag and starting back toward Queen’s Street.

“Oh, I’m going there too to drop off these fish. Then I’m going back diving again.”

“Please be careful. You could really hurt yourself if you go too deep.”

“I know! Last week I went too deep and had to stay in bed for three days.”

“Warren!”

He winked at me. “I like that you care. See you around!”

Warren disappears into the crowded market place. Under a mismatched roof of tin and blue tarp, Morant Bay Market is easily the busiest place in the Bay. It’s hot, with rows and rows of tables and carts; merchants selling everything from kitchen utensils, flatware, clothing, shoes, belts, wallets, jewelry, hair accessories, fish, meat, fruits, and vegetables. A maze at times, I wind through the isles, duck under low hanging tarps, wrinkle my nose as I pass the fishery quarter, and make my way to the Southeast corner of the market. There, I step into a ray of sunshine, take a breath of fresh air, then walk under another blue tarp to find Brenda.* Hailing from Cedar Valley, and the mother of one of my students, I always like to buy my vegetables from her.

Brenda’s round face lights up when she sees me. “Miss April! What can I get for you today?”

“My usual please.”

She holds out her hand impatiently. “Give me your list.”

Laughing, I reach into my shoulder bag and produce a small piece of paper. After a year with Brenda, she’s learned by now that I always make a shopping list, and she’s quick to snatch it from my fingers. She glances at it, then with lightning hands, fills a scandal bag with onions, carrots, sweet peppers, tomatoes, and one head of cabbage. “Pen.”

I reluctantly hand over my pen, knowing full well that I won’t be getting it back. She writes down the prices of each item on the back of my shopping list, adds up the total, and I pay her. “I can keep your pen?” she asks me. “Mine all dried up.”

“Every time, Brenda,” I tease.

“Arrite, arrite. Here.” She holds up a sweet potato and drops it in the bag. “Brawta,” she tells me, which is a Jamaican term for freebie.

“Thanks. See you next time.”

Finally, I’m finished. It’s a relatively quick trip today, since I had no plans with other volunteers, no need to visit the ATM, and no bills due for another week. I feel a bead of sweat roll down the crease of my spine and settle in the waistline of my pants. Placing my vegetables in my MegaMart bag, I steel myself for one last trek in the hot sun through the Bay.

“Yallahs, baby? Seaforth?”

“Yuh bags heavy, mi can help you?”

“Hey Sunshine, you can carry me in yuh bag too?”

“Callaloo! Pumpkin! Hey baby, let me sell you some callaloo.”

“Psst! Whitey!”

Cars are honking. I hear a baby crying. Another bead of sweat rolls down the side of my face as I tighten my grip on the handle of my bag and continue along the road and back to the taxi stand. Once I reach, I set my bag down and look around. I see a couple of taxis for my surrounding communities, but nothing for Cedar Valley. Typical. Then I begin looking at the people, and recognize a few from up the mountain. A student from my school smiles at me, then whispers in her mom’s ear and points. I smile politely.

A few minutes later, a mini bus with a faded paint job and a red license plate pulls up; Kevin’s* bus. He gets out of the driver’s seat and opens the sliding door. While we – about ten of us – load into the vehicle, Kevin expertly arranges our packages under our seats and between our legs. More Cedar Valleyians arrive and more bags and people are packed in. I can’t help but marvel as the skillful way Jamaicans can load a vehicle. It’s the same sense of awe I experience when watching my Mom load the dishwasher back at home. Like Tetris, I think.

I’m sticky, and my skin feels grimy. My mouth is dry and my hair is wet with sweat. I’m exhausted, and want nothing more than to jump into a swimming pool. I suppose I’ll have to settle for a cold shower. As the last person – and perhaps one too many – squeezes himself into the bus, the sliding door slams shut and Kevin returns to his seat. The engine protests at first, then sputters and starts. With a jerk, we pull out of the taxi stand and make our way back up to the mountain to Cedar Valley.

* All names have been changed to protect their identities.

Beauty & Body Image: A Jamaican Perspective

During my first six months in Jamaica, I put on twenty pounds. I would be lying if I said that hasn’t bothered me immensely. The growth of two pant sizes resided in the back of my mind, interfering with every decision I made, from what to eat – or if I’d eat at all – to whether I’d go swimming with my friends at the beach. I grimaced at my reflection when I dressed every morning, and felt my self-esteem slip lower and lower.

Debenhams_Look4_057cflatAt the same time, I began to witness a movement among women on the Internet. It was becoming more common for girls to discuss their distaste with their bodies, in the hopes that they might inspire change. Upworthy.com hosts a slew of videos covering this topic, ranging from the damaging effects that flawlessness in advertising has on young girls, to inspirational messages about loving yourself regardless of your size or body type. A department store in the UK recently put out a catalogue featuring regular women (as opposed to size zero models), and Dove is constantly pushing for natural beauty.

More importantly, my friends were talking. It was becoming easier for them to accept who they are – body image and all – and were pushing for all girls come to this same understanding. They shared stunning videos of women reciting slam poetry, or time lapsed images of what photo editing can really do to a model before getting plastered on a billboard. In my newly acquired pant size, I joined the fight.

As I tried to come to terms with my new weight, I began looking at the women around me. In good company, Jamaica is a country where their women are preferred a little thicker, and where, generally speaking, women don’t have body image concerns. In fact, when caught complaining about my additional weight, I was often told that I was too skinny when I first arrived.


My favorite line came from a robust woman who heard me whine that everything I eat goes to my rear, and that I wish I could lose some of its roundness. Her response? “No no, if you lose that, you lose everything!”


Then a few weeks ago, a miracle happened; I lost weight! Suddenly, my pants were all a little loser on me, and I wasn’t so repulsed with my reflection. I was elated. Ecstatic. There was a new spring to my step. I felt a little more like me again. And I realized…

How wrong was that!? I’ve been me the whole time, but only at a certain weight did I feel good about myself. Never mind my intelligence; never mind my altruistic commitment as a Peace Corps Volunteer. The only thing that seemed to matter was that I was down a pant size. And then I thought… what would the women in Jamaica think if they heard my self-debasing mantra?

So I asked them.

Over the last three weeks, I spoke to as many women as I could about this “trend” in America and other consumerist countries. I explained how companies that sell beauty products or clothes use photo-editing techniques on their models before they publish images on billboard, magazines, and commercials. I detailed the ways in which this image of flawlessness is being pushed on women of all ages, and I discussed the haunting fact that girls as young as twelve are ending up in the hospital, malnourished, with eating disorders, and despising their bodies.

I then asked them what they felt when they heard this, and what they would want to say to these young teenagers. If they had a daughter, I asked them to consider how they would react if it was their child who suffered from this kind of personal debasement.

Many of the women said they were appalled, but mostly sad. They lamented that it’s not fair what the industry is doing to them. My Supervisor, a mother to three boys, commented that girls at twelve are impressionable, and if she’d had daughters, she’d urge them to love themselves for who they are.

The three most common responses included:

  • “You need to love yourself for who you are.”
  •  “It’s more important to be healthy than beautiful on the outside. Real beauty comes from within.”
  •  “God made you this way for a reason.”

Then I shared this image.

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Loud and outspoken by nature, these Jamaican women hollered! There were whoops, and cries, and, “Laad almighty, why dem so skinny???” I talked to fifteen women and every single one of them said they’d like to feed the Victoria Secret models. After they got over how scrawny the models were, they admitted the girls also looked sickly and ill, like “air-brushed cancer patients,” as one woman put it. Certainly not healthy, which is what they thought when they looked at the Dove women.

Finally, when the shock of the picture had worn off and their exclamations noted, I asked them what their final thoughts were. The general consensus was that beauty comes from within, and that it’s more important to be healthy than skinny. A few said they would pray for the twelve-year-olds with eating disorders, and those without children promised that if they ever did have a daughter, she would be raised to believe that she is beautiful, regardless of her outward appearance.

I consider myself a sensible individual, one that often doesn’t buy into something as trivial as a number on a scale. But even hearing these things – the respected opinions of these Jamaican women – isn’t enough to change my attitude of my self-image. It is not an easy fix. Decades upon decades of strategic marketing, promoting an image of flawlessness that is impossible to achieve, has engrained in women of all ages a self-fulfilling prophecy of personal discontent.

We live in a revolutionary new world; one where technology and Internet communications allows us to join forces and fight battles we otherwise never dreamed of fighting. The idea of positive self-worth is certainly one that should be high on our list. If we’d all just take a moment to look around, we’d see that evidence of manipulation is insurmountable. We’re at the mercy of fashion tycoons. They dictate how we feel about ourselves by force-feeding us a standard of perfection we could never attain. And they’re single handedly destroying generations of females.

Consider this: if children learn by observing their parents, and their mothers regularly shame themselves, then what kind of message are those mothers sending to their granddaughters?

How can we save ourselves?

I believe that we can take a cue from some wise Jamaican women, and we can treat ourselves with the love and respect we deserve, and teach our daughters to do the same.


5 Inspiring Videos that have been April-Approved

Amy Poehler on Body Image:

Girls & Body Image on Common Sense Media:

Dove Real Beauty Sketches:

TED Talk with model Cameron Russell:

Slam Poetry – Fat Poem: