Erica Virtue, Senior Gleaner Writer
Anger boils. Fear freezes. But they are determined to learn and teach, pushing against the odds in an atmosphere not conducive to lessons.
Persistent violence is taking its toll, but the teachers at Denham Town Primary School are determined to press on and the children are ready to learn, at least when the criminals give them a chance to attend school.
The sound of the school bell at an unusual time signals the routine for children and teachers to rush to designated safe areas.
It signals to the entire school another outbreak of violence near the institution located inside the war-torn west Kingston community.
"Any unusual ringing of the bell during lunchtime, but before lunchtime is finished, the students all return to their classrooms immediately.
"Teachers immediately end lunch and go to designated areas," said Janet Williams, grade-six class coordinator at the school.
"They (the children) know the signal, they know the signs," added Williams, as she pointed to the long-standing security system put in place by the school's administrators to safeguard the little ones under their care.
That is the condition under which these six-to-12-year-olds are expected to learn, and it has worsened in recent months as a bloody gang feud grips the community.
Now police personnel and soldiers patrol the streets of the community daily, and the children have to pass checkpoints to get to the relative safety of the school compound.
Last Wednesday, two grade-five girls reported to their form teacher that female cops searched their bags in the morning as they headed to school.
The school's young watchman said he is searched twice per day by security forces.
"Going out and coming
in dem search me. Violence nuh good fi nobody," the young man said sadly.
"I suppose the security forces are acting on intelligence they have. My business is with the school and the children under our care. Let the security forces do their work," principal Venus Scott-Harrison told The Sunday Gleaner.
"The experience at Denham Town Primary School has never been, and will never be, all about academics. No evaluation can measure or quantify the toll violence takes on the teachers and students. For those of us who are here, we may never know the mental toll until we retire," said Scott-Harrison, who has been the school's principal for the last three years.
"For the children, you see the effects. They act it out," added Scott-Harrison, whose passion for her students burns bright like the orange-coloured blouse of the girls' uniform.
Scott-Harrison is one of four teachers currently on staff who were there during the reign of long-serving retired principal, Clover Thompson.
She has spent her entire teaching career of 36 years at the school, located in the community currently blanketed by members of the security forces.
Sections of the area are under curfew as security officials search for members of rival gangs.
The sight of the ever-present vehicles with heavily armed police and soldiers is unnerving for visitors not used to the situation.
For the children, however, it is another day at school and they make the best of their day, until the bell rings.
More than 50 per cent of the school's population, it is estimated, have seen, or known someone who died violently, or were/are victims of violence.
According to grade-six class teacher Shernette Scott-Tomlinson, the children are often concerned about their mothers while they are at school and get reports of violence in the adjoining communities.
"One of the first things the children will ask is for the teachers to call their mothers to make sure they are okay."
Scott-Tomlinson is one of four teachers with sixth-graders preparing for the secondary school placement exam, the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT).
Last week, she was teaching students to write short letters of apology, a requirement by the GSAT examiners.
"There are no free passes for our students. No matter what, they must sit the GSAT and they are expected to compete for places at the top secondary schools, like the Campions and Immaculates. So when we get a student to an Ardenne High, for example, it is a huge celebration," said Scott-Tomlinson.
The school's guidance and counselling department shoulders the burden of helping the children to deal with the incidents of violence they are exposed to.
Guidance counsellor Mahalia Dennis-Edwards sometimes hates the school breaks which cause some children to regress.
"You make so much progress during school term, but they get holidays and come back and you see the regression," said Dennis-Edwards, as she noted that some of the children return to the school immune to the violence and hardened.
"It's my job to help them, and we do that every day. Every teacher here is a guidance counsellor. We must shape their minds in a positive way, irrespective of their circumstances," stated Dennis-Edwards.
Although it's her job, there are some things she said she wished she wasn't told.
"Boy, oh boy! The ministry (of education) talks about performance pay, they couldn't pay us for what we have to do in situations like these," declared Edwards.
A deadly gang war is now playing out in sections of west Kingston, with thugs fighting for control of the still-lucrative extortion racket.