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We are the champions!

Published:Sunday | April 11, 2010 | 12:00 AM
(From left) Rexandrew Wright, Jahvane Reid and Kemar McKenzie, three members of St Jago's winning 2010 Schools' Challenge Quiz team. - Photos by Robert Lalah

Robert Lalah, Assistant Editor - Features

When the final buzzer sounded and the scores tallied at the end of this year's Schools' Challenge Quiz competition, it was an unlikely quartet of boys from Monk Street in Spanish Town who were declared winners. Unlikely, not because they hadn't earned the victory, nor was it because the school they represented wasn't accustomed to winning. Instead, their win was unlikely because, at times, it seemed all odds were stacked against them,making a completely different outcome, that much more probable.

But it was, in the end, the team from St Jago High School that lifted the trophy in triumph. They managed to withstand a strong challenge from defending champions Kingston College, a school unfamiliar with losing, in a hard-fought final match that was as exciting as they come.

The win would have been a feather in the cap for any of the teams that entered the competition. Schools' Challenge Quiz, after all, is widely regarded as the national championship of high school academia. But for the four boys who make up St Jago's 2010 winning team, the victory meant more, a lot more. For them, emerging victors of the contest is a passport to a better life.

Drive for success

Last week, as The Sunday Gleaner visited the school to spend time with three of St Jago's quiz team members; Jahvane Reid, Rexandrew Wright and Kemar McKenzie, (the fourth member, also named Kemar McKenzie was unavailable) it quickly became clear that their drive for success has only now begun.

"It changed our lives forever. After this, and all the sacrifices we made to get to the end, we realise there isn't anything we can't do," said a smiling Jahvane Reid.

Sacrifice may be an understatement. All four boys come from families battling financial difficulties, so just getting to and from school during the week, and on weekends for practice sessions,posed a challenge. The solution the boys came up with was to move in to school.

"We all decided we would set up a camp here, so we've been living here in a classroom since December," said Reid, casually.

Sleeping at school

So on four tiny mattresses placed strategically on the concrete floor of a sixth form classroom, the boys slept almost every night since last December. They had no television set, no video game, no radio. What they had, was an uncanny determination to win.

"None of that mattered to us. Yes, there were times we thought about abandoning our preparations and just going home, but we wanted, no, we needed to win and we saw this as our road to winning, so we didn't give up," said McKenzie.

Principal Sandra Swyer-Watson often worried about the boys. "Some nights I would be at school late, even up to nine or 10 o'clock and I would see them still studying for the quiz," she said. "I would tell them and their coaches it was time for them to rest and they would all tell me no, there were things they had to get right before they could put the books away."

Swyer-Watson pulled a few all-nighters at the school herself. "Sometimes I felt guilty at home so I spent some nights at school with them."

Each morning the boys would get up at dawn, put away the mattresses and clean the classroom. They would then get dressed and attend classes as usual. At the end of the schoolday, they would practise for the quiz until close to midnight.

"We were driven to win, so even though it seems really hard, looking back at it, we were determined so it felt good," said Wright.

Past students got involved and helped make life comfortable for the boys in different ways. Some cooked meals for them while others donated cash to buy food for the team. One old boy volunteered for the job of washing the boys' clothes. He would pick them up one day each week, get them laundered then take them back to the boys.

The team members' drive to win was born of a strong school spirit and a sincere desire to have their school claim the glory spot. But, as the boys explained, they also wanted to win because they saw in victory, the opportunity to make life better. "I honestly first thought about entering the competition because I want to attend University and the scholarship (one of the prizes for the winning team) will make that possible," said McKenzie. The winning team also received computers, an expensive tool McKenzie knew he would need for school, but could not easily afford.

"I wanted that computer because at University I know most other students will have, and I will need it too. It will really help me," McKenzie said.

"The boys are all so humble and they really wanted to make their school proud. Their reasons for working so hard were pure," said Swyer-Watson.

"As the competition progressed, I wanted the victory, not for myself or the school, but for them. I prayed very hard and the school chaplain worked closely with them. They wanted victory for the school, and the school wanted it for them," she said.

Commitment to win

Varying circumstances caused the group to change coaches three times during preparations, threatening the team's shot at winning. Eventually, though, the winning formula was discovered with the team securing the coaching services of Frank Weise and Shane Edwards, both teachers at the school who got no extra pay for their work with the team. The commitment to win ,therefore, was shared by all involved.

Swyer-Watson, herself a past student of St Jago, declared she was proud of the team even before the final match. "They showed that they were willing to work for what they wanted. I told them often that what was important was not if they won or lost, but how they played the game, and they played the game the right way."

And the work continues. All four boys are currently putting in extra hours of schoolwork to catch up on lessons they might have missed during quiz preparations. Teachers at the school have volunteered their time to work with the boys to get them back on track. The lessons started the day after the team's big win.

Perhaps, someday, when McKenzie is a well-paid chemical engineer; Wright a prize-winning journalist; and Reid a family doctor, the events leading up to their win in the 2010 Schools' Challenge Quiz contest will fade to little more than a distant memory. Maybe they'll lose contact with each other and go on on to lead completely separate lives. But one thing is sure, the dedication, patience, commitment and grit these four teenagers displayed during these past few months will inevitably lead them to become winners in any field they choose.