Now that don’t kill me
Can only make me stronger
I need you to hurry up now
Cause I can’t wait much longer
I know I got to be right now
Cause I can’t get much wronger
Man I’ve been waitin’ all night now
That’s how long I’ve been on you
Stronger, Kanye West
On a hot day in a school in Laventille, I am reasoning with a student. This beautiful young woman of 17 years or so. I say to her, what do you want to be? She laughs and says a stripper.
Her classmates laugh too, because to them it is a joke, as funny as their lives being lived out in predictable boxes.
On a hot day in a school in Laventille painted in colours disturbingly similar to the wall around the Royal Gaol, this beautiful young woman sums up the totality of her potential in saying that she wants to be a stripper.
I am not amused. I am also not surprised that she doesn’t hesitate to respond in the negative. I fight the urge to run from the room screaming and crying because she is living proof that you can build buildings but if you don’t build the people, your social fabric will crumble and then what is the point of phallic concrete edifices in you city?
I suggest to her that she creates her own reality. I suggest to her that words have power and if you call yourself a whore enough, the ease of the words on your tongue will numb you to the dread reality of your actions.
I ask her again what she wants to be. She says that what she wants for herself is not what other people want for her.
She says she wants to be a hairdresser and a singer. And I wonder who has told her that she can’t be anything she puts her mind to.
And because I’ve been spending hours a night online watching with a mixture of hope and exasperation the countdown to the US election, I can tell her that Sarah Palin’s make up and hair consultations came up to $41,000. I can tell her that my friends who do hair for a living make a lot more than I ever could on my chosen profession of word peddler.
I tell her about days travelling through China and Europe when I wished I could ‘do hair’ to make a little extra money.
Her classmates get the point. They get that I’m not kicksing with them. That I’m not another motivational speaker type trying to shove some cheesy sunshine ideology down their already jaded throats. Two want to be nurses, one girl wants to be an architect. The fellars are going for trades.
In my mind I replay lots of discussions I’ve had with grown-ups who think de youts an dem not up to anything much. But in this room of 17 and 18 year olds I see a future that we are deliberately dampening.
That there are so many programmes out there that no-one is taking advantage of. And there is much truth to that, but how do we get to the point where people can’t even see themselves as anything else but at the bottom. How do we get young people out of their feelings of worthlessness that create this immobilization and/or inclination towards criminality.
I ask them what they think the rest of the country says about them. They say what I hear. That they will die young. That they won’t amount to much. And because I’m indulging in an escapist fantasy like everyone else who is watching the US elections but can’t vote, I say to them that they can be anything they put their minds to.
For those of my generation who have always lived in a time when our leaders look like us but have never managed to capture even one percent of our hope, dreams or aspirations unless they involved rum, roti or a free jersey and bus ride, we are madly hopeful.
So I say to these 17 and 18 year olds that their role for the next five or so years is to defy the expectations this society has of them. To live outside of a box or live in a box of their own making.
Because if a man called Barrack Hussein Obama can have a reasonable shot at being the President of the United States of America then by ShangoAllahShivaJesus, anything is possible.
I want to apologise to them for raising them to doubt themselves. For raising them to think that asking for a hand-out from the government is the way to survive.
These have been a most bizarre few months full of ridiculous hope, when I didn’t even want to entertain the possibility that a man like Barack Obama would be nominated, let alone live through a campaign.
We can only indulge in escapist fantasies about what it would be like to actually feel motivated by a politician. But whatever the result on November 4, a 17 year old girl doesn’t have to be a stripper and the boy sitting next to her doesn’t have to be a shotta.
Things are possible if you choose to believe in your capacity to make them happen. That basic principle of survival is easy to forget in a national chorus of accusation. So much so, that you begin to doubt that you were ever good. The role of those who know better is to serve as a constant reminder of our goodness and our beauty and our potential.