Kathryn Keane Discovers “Where I Belong”

Written By Current PVI Kathryn Keane

Shifting the van into second gear, I round the first major bend on the narrow road to the rural town of Somerset, and slow down to begin my search. Scanning the sidewalks for the bright green uniforms of my students from the Somerset Primary School I am helped by their cheers as they spot the car: “Aunty Kee-atrin! Yeah!” Within minutes the car is packed with excited little spirits singing along with the radio or attempting to shout a story to me over the others. We dip and climb our way through the lush mountains and tall grasses leading further and further back into the rural Jamaican “bush”. I can’t help but absorb the raw energy bursting form the children in the car. Crawlling up the last major hill, I turn the radio off and demand silence while we pull into the parking lot.

Everyone is lined up under the speckled shade of the almond trees and ready for morning devotion. I walk over and stand beside the line of squirming, giggly second graders struggling to pay attention to the prayers. With arms fully extended in front and hands pressed together, seven-year-old Douglas, makes-like-a-snake weaving between the backpacks until he breaks free and wraps himself around my waist. “Good morning!” he whispers. He’s followed quickly by the very backpacks he just pushed aside, and I find mysefl struggling to support the weight of the group jostling to greet me. Once devotion is over the second graders who managed to stay in line and walk nicely into the classroom then converge on me wiht glee as I step inside. So begins another non-stop day at Somerset Primary.

On my first day at the school, I had a run in whith a little boy named Jonathan. Pulling him off of another student he was fighting for an eraser. I ordered him to “sit down”. “Sit down!!” he mimicked back as he careened around the room, screeching at the top of his lungs. I stifled the laugh I wanted to let out and tried another approach: “Hey, Jonathan, will you come sit with me and read this book?” Confused by this response he obediently marched over and sat down.

Later, I asked the teacher why Jonathan and a number of students were running around the room without any work to do. She explained plainly that the school has limited materials and is reluctant to entrust them to stduents who might not know what to do with them! I had gone to Somerset Primary that first day to decide if this was one of the schools where I might want to volunteer, from a list of seven schools suggested to me. After the teacher’s explanation however, I knew where I belonged.

I found a spare conference table in the dilapidated “computer” room, and brought all my supplies with me. Now I am teaching the alphabet and introductory phonics to ten second graders, all with a range of learning disabilities. For many of them the concept that each letter makes a sound is novel! For others, letters are random symbols! These second graders test the limits of my patience, frequently amazing me with the creativity of their mischief! Yet at the end of the day, I love them deeply and will do everything I can to help them learn.

PVI Natalie Makes a Difference Teaching Boys to Read at St. John Bosco School in Jamaica

Written by Natalie Crawley

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