Fri | Sep 20, 2019

Teaching in the line of fire

Published:Monday | March 5, 2018 | 12:00 AMSaran Stewart/Contributor
Police at a crime scene in August Town, St Andrew, last month, after several persons were shot, one fatally.
A policeman holds on tightly to a suspect in the shooting of five persons in August Town, St Andrew on February19.
A Jamaica Defence Force armoured vehicle patrolling the streets in August Town after five persons were shot, one fatally in the community on February19.
Police on patrol in the troubled August Town, St Andrew community in January, following the fatal shooting of four persons.
Residents in August Town in St Andrew march while celebrating peace in their community last year.
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Teaching in the line fire has become the norm for some educators working in volatile communities at the primary or secondary level as well as professors who lecture students from these communities at the tertiary level. Religiously, teachers provide their service in these communities and are at risk daily as they seek to protect their students and shield them from bullets.The continuous crime and violence plaguing our nation today, impacts the daily lives of children and students living within these communities where teachers are forced to be the source of solution within their classrooms.

Approximately 8:23 a.m. on Monday, February 19, 2018, there was sustained gunfire in the August Town area, killing one person, injuring others. Moments after, the media reported on the incident and that "residents, including students, reportedly dashed for cover as the gunfire lasting some five minutes disrupted activities". There have been gunshots every week since the start of the new year and it is no secret as headlines report 'Double shooting', 'Quadruple killings', 'One man killed', 'Curfew in August Town'. Living and teaching within earshot of August Town, these titles do not do justice to the trauma witnessed and felt by the surviving children, residents and those who will bury their kin. Gunfire is heard ringing throughout the nights as a familiar sound of terror. In the early weeks of January, you could predict the start of gunshots anywhere between midnight and 3 a.m., then the shots became unpredictable, starting as early as 10:30 p.m. Towards the end of January, shots were heard during the afternoon, and among the viral photos circulating were pictures of the community's primary-school children crying under their desks, sheltering from stray bullets.

The rampant murders have not only been taking place in August Town, but also across the entire Jamaica, as we see in the headlines daily in the country's newspapers. This issue of crime and violence has escalated to a point where the Government of Jamaica has called a state of emergency in St James. How many states of emergency do we need before the bloodshed ends? How many more weeping students do teachers need to console? How many more bodies do we need to see, and how many more schools do we need to close before peace can be manifested throughout our nation?

 

... Futile focus on philosophies of education

 

It is now month three of the new year and the shots have left the dead of night and ring loudly in the peak morning time when children are still walking to school. Our educators teach in the line of fire and not only in the community of August Town, but also Denham Town, Flankers, Norwood, Cambridge and Rose Heights, just to name a few. In these communities gunmen trade bullets for the simplest necessity, such as a tin of mackerel, and barter lives for a 'bills' ($100). I have taught numerous students from volatile communities, whether they were born and raised there or currently boarding. Trying to centre their minds about the philosophies of education becomes futile when my students learn first-hand the ideologies of gun violence. As an educator, I have had to drift from the standard course outline and include students' lived experiences as a mechanism to navigate their realities and consciously re-centre the course around their true learning environments. There are students who write their papers in the shell of their bathrooms by candlelight as it is the safest concrete box in the house. When

the Jamaica Urban Transit Company (JUTC) suspends bus services, how do children leave those said communities to go to school? As educators, we try to find ways for students to unlearn what they perceive as standard, normal activity such as seeing mourning, orphan children, weekly funeral gatherings, yellow 'caution' tape, bullet holes, blood stains, smelling gun powder, and reading WhatsApp messages stating, "Daddy dead".

 

... A student's life: Expressing emotions, lived experiences

 

In January 2018, I received a WhatsApp message from one of my students, Cavia, indicating that a family member was shot dead and as suc,h the assignment would be submitted late. I called, and after some counsel, I asked the student to change the paper and instead document the raw emotions. Below is a section of that students' work (with permission to share):

 

'VIOLENCE HAS BECOME MY NORM'

 

Over 20 years of blood shed! Has violence become my norm? Without thinking about my answer to this question, I would immediately say 'yes', crime and violence has become my norm. Born and raised in the community of August Town, nestled in a valley in the parish of St Andrew, surrounded by hills, the Hope River and in close proximity to two universities, this is my community.

Crime, murder and violence have become synonymous with my community's name. There is never a dull moment, as the sounds of heavy machines and bullets pass by zinc fences and walls bounded by crime scene yellow tape and the stench of bodies piling up year after year.

Bodies? Whose? These are bodies of my family members, friends and criminals too; however, far too many to count. Gunshots and sirens become a recurring, looping audio replay, where little children have stopped asking, "What's that, Mommy?" The image of police and law-enforcement officers patrolling and taking away young males on the corner is permanently imprinted in my mind. I rush home before sundown as there is sometimes curfew, others have to walk home when JUTC suspends bus routes and other times, there is complete lockdown.

Two decades of tears, heartaches, nine-nights, funerals, burials, peace marches, broken families, motherless and fatherless children. Living in this environment for years has certainly hardened my heart, taught me to be tough on the outside even when I am hurting. Loss of life has become inevitable and if it were by an illness, I would be at peace; sadly, it is always by gunfire. And I know it is not just my community, but it feels like we in August Town are the only ones who hear the bullets, as there is no protest, outrage in the media, demanding that the youth of August Town celebrate their birthdays.

Witnessing poverty and living in poverty, I oftentimes wonder, isn't a gun expensive? Are we sure that August Town is a poor community? How can there be so much ammunition when each day persons can barely make ends meet and provide for their families? So, who is to be blamed? Is it the politicians, the law-enforcement officers, the Government, the unjust system of oppression and illiteracy? I could point fingers, but then I would be next.

We are silenced by violence, dreams shattered, disappointments, pain and trauma in the midst of your name on the murder list. Innocent children in schools, learning and living in fear, running for cover under their desks and chairs, as the sound of bullets echoes in the valley. Parents have hardened their hearts and are only able to give their children tough love. No 'I love you's or the guarantee of seeing them tomorrow, that is not the norm in the garrison. The norm is to wipe your tears and toughen up. I am often told, "Superstar, you have to be tough, okay?" Sometimes I certainly feel like a helpless soul rather than a 'superstar'.

Sleepless nights and bad dreams become the order of the day. Completing assignments and studying "dodge-the-bullet" lessons become the norm.

- Cavia is a former student at the University of the West Indies. To protect the identity of the individual, the former student's actual name is not used.

 

... A call to action

 

After reading my student's paper, gunshots continue to light up the night and disturb the quiet of the valley. On Wednesday, February 14, 2018, most Jamaicans would have read and seen all the images of the mass school shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people. On social media outlets, most persons expressed disbelief, anger, pain and a call for action to prevent further mass shootings. Since January, there have been more than 200 murders in Jamaica.

Have we in Jamaica become so numb to shootings, violence and murders that we do not demand more? Or is it not in the 'right' backyard? What if this violence occurred in Norbrook or Cherry Gardens?

A lasting solution is a formidable challenge and one that requires a social movement, not just from the people but from organisations like the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica, the Council of Churches, and the universities, to name a few: a campaign for #100%Jamaican employment (not underemployment). As educators, we contemplate our students' predicament and struggle with how to prepare our lessons for class as we continue to teach in the line of fire. First, I salute the teachers who work daily in educational institutions located within volatile communities, who teach while dodging bullets and provide safety for our children. Beyond my utmost respect for you, I (selfishly) plead with you to continue to protect our children as "The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility" (Hooks, 1994). In that possibility, we need to develop and teach revolutionaries - not those armed with guns, but armed with their minds. Second, our classrooms need to become the spaces of freedom and safety, where we meet our children's demands to excel and be excellent. Third, within the classrooms, our children should be taught to activate their voices and not silence them - classrooms are sometimes the only space they have in a day to speak.

 

PUSHING BOUNDARIES FORCHANGE

 

Lastly, it is important that as educators we centre the lives of the students within the curriculum and that the classroom pushes the boundaries for societal change. To the teachers, you may think these are lofty requests, given the severity of your working environment, but the student who wrote the paper above is one of many examples of students that survived the gunshots in those very basic and primary schools and labours to change the community, today.

When I asked my students, what is the solution to cease the gunfire, they said the following:

"Doc, they need to be re-socialised, consciously educated. They are killing for turf and superficial power. They need jobs, skills training and basic needs such as food."

This issue of crime and violence is a multifaceted one, deeply rooted in our culture. Our people cannot continue to live in fear, and at the very least, our children deserve a chance to simply be.

"It's not the violence of the few that scares me, it's the silence of the many" - Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

- Saran Stewart, PhD, is a senior lecturer in the School of Education at the University of the West Indies, Mona.