AUTHOR: Debbie Jacob
PUBLISHER: Ian Randle Publishers, 2013
‘Voicelessness’ is one of the main concerns of Caribbean adolescents and youth and a major research preoccupation of mine. The identification of effective strategies for youth empowerment has been an on-going challenge, which makes Debbie Jacob’s new novel very intriguing.
Wishing for Wings chronicles the author’s memorable experiences of teaching CXC English to boys resident in the Youth Training Centre (YTC) in Trinidad and Tobago – a juvenile correctional facility. Perhaps Jacob would not consider her work a significant contribution to youth development and youth empowerment literature – after all, there are many other chronicles about “working with youth”. However, in my view, her book falls into that tradition in a unique way because it gives voice to a set of “forgotten boys” who become the reader’s adopted children by the end of the book. The work is empowering for two reasons: firstly, it portrays the challenges facing youth and inspires those who work with young people; secondly, it creates a space in which young people have been afforded the opportunity to write about themselves. It is a story of grasping at freedom and acquiring the wings that many of those boys wished for from the very first day of class.
As chief narrator, Jacob draws us immediately into her world as we find ourselves empathising with her need to “do something” and also agonising with her over which students to choose from an initial group of 27 boys to sit the CXC examinations. The humility with which the account is told makes it easy to relate to her as she shares small victories juxtaposed with feelings of inadequacy or failure.
Jacob’s students join in the narration through their essays, book reports and letters to the teacher which are reproduced in minimally-edited form. The students share heart-wrenching revelations of their lives prior to and during their incarceration in the YTC. The minor grammatical errors, which Jacob deliberately reproduces, reflect the reality of the learning process and do not detract from the creative and often witty expressions of hidden emotions which erupt from the ‘tough guys’ as they reflect on who they are, what they’ve done and their dreams for the future. Any reader will become immersed in their feelings of frustration and fear; as well as their hope and determination for a better life beyond the closed doors of the Centre.
In the 43 brief but gripping “chapters”, Wishing for Wings offers very powerful stories which leave lasting impressions in a few carefully-chosen words. On the one hand, Jacob weaves a single coherent (serious and humorous) story of the struggles and triumphs of teaching and learning. On the other hand, she unravels the stereotypical label of the homogenous “bad boy” of YTC by allowing each of these young male voices to stand out, as individual threads, which tell disparate stories of courage on the cell-block, loyalty, friendship and determination. Jacob’s own distinct story of courage and loyalty to her students is intertwined in surprising ways and through unexpected incidents of apparent role reversal between teacher and student. The sentiments expressed, especially those in the letters exchanged between Jacob and her students, are likely to bring tears to your eyes and a smile to your face as you realise that the honesty and openness of those sentiments paved the way for a strong relationship based on mutual love, care and commitment.
The story is inspiring. The snapshots of humour and pain reinforce three main principles of youth empowerment and serve as a reminder that the simplest strategies are sometimes the most powerful. Firstly, unwavering encouragement is perhaps one of the most important tools in youth empowerment. Debbie’s commitment to speak positive words to each student individually, even when they made mistakes, is instructive as is her commitment to drawing on colleagues, experts and family to boost her reassurances. The boys’ own encouragement to their teacher is a wonderful reward for that investment in them, as the tough guys become carers for their care-giving teacher.
Secondly, love and acceptance cover up a multitude of feelings of uncertainty. Jacob’s desire to see each of the boys succeed beyond passing an exam emerged from a sense of care for them and a hope that they would evolve into young men with a sense of self – the capital “I” which was grammatically problematic in class. Even though she was unsure of the curriculum and the prescribed texts and of the crimes these boys may have committed, her loving approach enabled her to see latent talents in each and build on those by encouraging reading and writing based on interests. Her loving willingness to look beyond the mistakes of their past, enabled them to think differently about themselves and their futures and overflowed into their relationships with her and with each other.
Thirdly, partnership is critical in youth development. One of the most striking themes of the novel is the duality of growth, support, care and giving which is demonstrated by both teacher and students. They give to her as much as she does to them. This partnership in teaching and learning is an important model for working with youth and no doubt the foundation of the natural, unpretentious strategies Jacob employed which truly engaged the young men where they were.
By the end of the novel, it’s easy to see why Jacob proclaims her students to be “the most amazing group of young men I have ever known”. Her dedication of the book to her students reflects her commitment to them – not for the sake of telling her own story of growth but evidently for the sake of letting those boys tell their own stories as well. The ending for some of these amazing young men may surprise you – causing you either to shout for joy or to cry with sadness – but whatever the reaction, you will undoubtedly have been inspired by their stories.
Wishing for Wings is published by Ian Randle Publishers and is highly recommended for youth work students and practitioners. It is also a great read for anyone who wants to learn more about how simple commitment and care for others can bring transformation to complicated life situations.
 Based on the situation analysis of youth aged 10-29 years conducted by the CARICOM Commission on Youth Development.