J’Voughnn Blake: The boy wonder making masterful strides
Growing up in one of Kingston’s toughest neighbourhoods, Waterhouse, 19-year-old Jamaica College honour student J’Voughnn Blake has defied every stereotype of young people born in such communities, blazing a glorious trail in both the sporting and academic arenas.
Several superlatives readily come to mind when his peers, coaches, teachers, relatives and admirers think of the youngster with bold ambitions – and rightly so.
First, he has 19 subjects under his belt – 13 at the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) level and six units in the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examinations (CAPE). Flying out of the blocks early, by the end of third form, he secured his first CSEC subject, placing ninth in the region. Two more were attained in fourth form and another 10 in fifth form – all grade ones –while maintaining an impressive athletics career with the 800m and 1500m his pet events.
In his first year of sixth form, J’Voughnn copped six CAPE units – five ones and a two – and is on the final lap looking to bag another six units in a few weeks.
With a GPA over 4.0, he has secured a full scholarship to pursue undergraduate studies in molecular and cellular biology at Dartmouth College in the United States. Coach and mentor Duane Johnson helped him to comb through the numerous offers before settling on the Hanover-based Ivy League research university in New Hampshire.
“I was inundated with offers. It was overwhelming, so I asked my coach to help,” he admitted as he sat with The Sunday Gleaner last Tuesday in the company of the mentor he clearly loves and who loves him right back.
They are split on his running distance of focus for the future. J’Voughnn wants to keep blazing the track in the 800m after his Class One record-equalling 1:48.58 seconds at the 2022 ISSA/GraceKennedy Boys’ Athletics Championships last month. Johnson is for the 1500m.
“I don’t like the 1500m. I am okay with 800m,” said the well-mannered youngster.
“The 1500m has been kinder to him during his career, more than the 800m,” Johnson interjected.
“But, this young man can go anything he sets his mind to. The longer distances require more 5000m running, and it’s three and a half times around the track, compared to two times, but I believe he will make a world-class 1500m runner or 800m, whichever he chooses,” the Jamaica College middle-distance coach said confidently of his young charge.
“No, no, no. I will stick to the 800m,” J’Voughnn insisted.
Hailed as a “boy wonder” and a “gem” by many, J’Voughnn said that he was inspired to begin studies in the branch of biology that seeks to understand the interaction between biological and cellular activities in the body after the mother of one of his teachers died from breast cancer. He wants to know more about cell interaction and possibly find a cure for the deadly affliction. A doctorate in the area will not be too far to go.
Reflecting on his journey so far, he told The Sunday Gleaner that it was important for youngsters such as himself to have mentors, noting that he was blessed to have such persons in his life and parents who made the right choices for him.
Though not a professional teacher, his strict mom ensured he developed a fondness for studies very early, teaching him from a young age.
His father is a government employee and both parents sheltered him as he blossomed into a young man with bright prospects despite the unhinged nature of gun violence in inner-city communities like Waterhouse.
Conscious that sporadic violence in the St Andrew community could at times endanger him as he made his way to or from school, they enrolled him at Jamaica College’s boarding facility, where he further honed his athletic skills and fed his voracious appetite for knowledge.
“I have high ambitions. I am prideful,” he said unapologetically. “I don’t know how I developed that. I guess kinda because of my curiosity at a very young age. I was always into the sciences, always into doing something different and uplifting myself and my family. So I think that’s what helped.”
His parents’ efforts to shield him from harmful influences are not lost on him.
“There are times when my mom was dead real with me. I was protected from probably the outside, but at the same time, I was taught how to live with it (violence) and how to balance, and go through with it and to be better,” he explained.
“If I could carry 13 subjects into sixth form easily, I would have [managed living in that environment]. I love learning new stuff,” he said, beaming with confidence as he wondered aloud whether he is spoilt. He concluded that he is – but in a good way.
LEADERSHIP IN HIS VEINS
Some time ago, a young J’Voughnn had set his eyes on becoming the prime minister of Jamaica, admiring the awesome power of that office in working for the greater good of the society, especially the underclass.
It didn’t take long for him to become “deeply disappointed” with politics, turned off by the “hypocrisy and lies” which have come to define the local political arena.
“As I was learning a bit more about politics, touching the eighth, ninth grade, I loved it, and I thought I could be the prime minister of Jamaica, you know, to get into that to help a lot of people,” he told The Sunday Gleaner.
“But maturing into it and seeing the news and all of what’s going on in Jamaican politics, I just don’t wan’t to any more,” he said with great disappointment.
“The lies and the hypocrisy – and the protection of those lies and hypocrisy – I am not like that. I just don’t think I could survive. I think for many reasons, it would either force me to become something I am not or it would force me out,” he said further.
“ ... Anyone who has not lost hope should consider politics because we have to have a starting point. It’s just that I think that I would suffer, and I don’t want to break myself,” reflected the articulate young man, clearly wise beyond his years.
“I am really disappointed and really angry, too, with politics and sometimes it makes me want to not be here,” added J’Voughnn.
And never one to doubt the youngster’s potential, Coach Johnson intervened: “I tell him, he still has time to be prime minister.”
Leadership, undoubtedly, is in his veins. It is something school administrators were cognisant of when they appointed J’Voughnn as Jamaica College’s athletics captain for two years.
With pluck and verve, he devised a strategy to mirror his foray into athletics with his success in academics and has become a model of success in both.
“I was forced into track, but I grew to love it. I was doing well in academics at the time, and so I wasn’t going to let my academics suffer, while at the same time, I was not going to come in track – with all these expectations put on me, with your coach feeding you that you are doing this well, you can do this well – I was not going to let that down either. So there were times I had to be a student and an athlete. I did not forget that I was either,” J’Voughnn said.
He is not a nerd and his friends are not all athletes either, but he is a consummate goal-setter.
“I can’t say it enough. I say it to my boys every week that you need to firstly set goals. Then you need to get somebody to help you to maintain that and to drill that with you. Coach and I, we set goals at the start of every year, and in training, he would remind me of those goals,” he told The Sunday Gleaner.
With sage-like wisdom, he said that all individuals are mentally strong to a point, and whenever they reach that point, someone is needed to remind them that the journey is unfinished.
This reality makes him aware of the need for more guidance and counselling for students as many have returned to school demotivated after two years of a COVID-19 disruption in studies and social life.
“Students are not the first persons to seek help unless something comes up and we find out after. We have a lot of students like that now, even more than before, and given COVID. Unless we get to a lot of them, it’s gonna take a long while before we can recover, for education and schools and students overall,” he said of the learning loss caused by the pandemic.
He urged young people to listen to their parents and teachers as they realise the very best of themselves.
While it may be too clichéd to say the sky is the limit for J’Voughnn as he sets off in August to start a new chapter, it is clear that his horizon is limitless.