I knew that trying to teach children in Jamaica to read was going to be a difficult task, especially when those children are five Bosco Boys between the ages of 14 and 17. I look at these boys, some of them taller than me, halfway to manhood and it breaks my heart to know my ten year old sister can read better than them. It’s hard enough to teach someone the fundamentals of reading, but when that person is already halfway to adulthood, it complicates things. They are reading at the level 5-7 year olds would be. Someone said to me “It’s easy to bend a tree when it’s small but hard to bend a tree when it’s tall.” This I found to be very true.
Each week I say to myself that I wish I would have gotten to these boys sooner. There are days when I almost break down and cry, like when I ask Jonathan, 14, to read the word “boy” and he tells me it’s “you”. He gets so nervous and embarrassed that as soon as he recognizes one letter in the word, he says any word he can think of with that letter. The other boys laugh at him and I gently remind them that they are all here for the same reason.
Or days like those when Dwayne tells me he’s not coming and tries to make me chase him around the playfield. He tells me he hates reading class and that he doesn’t need it. It would be easy to say “Okay Dwayne if you don’t want to learn then I’m not going to help you.” But I know deep down that’s not what he wants, that’s just what everyone has told him in the past. This time I’m going to make sure things are different for him.
But then there are the days when I know that I’m making a difference, like yesterday when I gave the boys a spelling test of fifty words that we have been working with over the past month and they got all of them right! Or when I see them on the playfield and they ask over and over if we are going to have reading and if I have flashcards today. Odane, 16, finally realized the fruits of his labor when I rewarded him with Hershey kisses after an excellent day in class. Since then, he has been working even harder, trying to make every sentence perfect and pushing himself to read outside of class.
I know that it is silly to think that I’m going to teach these boys to read Shakespeare by the time the year is over, but I hope that the time I do spend with them will help them to mature in their classes and at least have the basic reading and language skills they will need to function in the workplace someday. In America, we know how important literacy is to leading a productive life; in Jamaica, however, being illiterate is a way of life for some. I will do everything I can to make sure that it’s not a way of life for my five.
Natalie is a Passionist Volunteer International currently serving in Mandeville, Jamaica, West Indies