What a month is has been! It has been an absolute whirlwind of teaching, cultural discoveries, new friends, new landscapes and rainy October downpours. Despite the consuming teaching schedule, I’ve been able to absorb different aspects of Jamaica bit by bit. From the breathtaking views of mountainous junglescapes, to stunning sunsets, to torrential thunderstorms, the natural beauty is both staggeringly vivid and refreshingly wild.
But, it’s a place of extremes and contradictions. The downtown area in which I teach five days a week is definitely tough and worlds away from the well-guarded mansions that dot the mountain-sides above the city. One of the schools, St. Andrews Technical High School, is bordered by a maximum security prison and several violent ghettos. There is a constant turf war in these neighborhoods as rival gang-lords called “dons” battle for control. The police have very little power in these areas and there’s no telling when violence will erupt. Because the dons have so much influence, local politicians have been arming their gangs in exchange for political support. It’s a terrifying situation. It’s even more frightening to imagine children growing up in such an environment. In fact, some days the kids won’t risk coming to school because of a possible threat of violence in the neighborhood.
For every sobering facts about life in Kingston, there is something beautiful and life-affirming. There is a wonderfully infectious energy and a love of life, especially among my students. They are certainly an unruly bunch of kids, perhaps due to their schooling or lack of parental involvement, but they are full of life and have lots of spunky attitude. It’s easy to tell that they’re accustomed to disorder, but the encouraging thing is that they in fact crave order, structure and clear standards. Over the last month, I’ve noticed a marked difference in their classroom behavior as they’ve grown accustomed to my rules and expectations. Also, the more comfortable they become with the repertoire I’ve arranged, the more I realize how passionately musical the kids are.
A few recent experiences stick out and I’ll try to recap them briefly. One day, I was standing talking to some of my colleagues after class, when a girl sprinted past me, her school uniform completely covered in flour. A second later, I was accidentally pelted with flour as her pursuers aimed and missed. Confused, I asked the Jamaican violin teacher what on earth was going on. It turns out that on your birthday, you get “floured”, which means getting completely showered with flour by friends.
Our first day exploring our new backyard, we discovered that in fact every tree, bush, plant had some kind of fruit, both familiar and extremely foreign. There’s the familiar mango, banana, lime and coconut trees, but there’s also the breadfruit (cantaloupe-sized fruit that you bake and fry and that tastes like a potato) and ackee (a bizarre lemon-sized fruit that opens naturally to reveal three prongs of egg-colored fruit). After cautiously eyeing these unfamiliar fruits for a few days, we’ve started picking, preparing and eating them. I still haven’t decided whether I like them or not.
Working with an El Sistema program is very challenging. It is good work, very hard, but very satisfying too. I suppose the most complicated obstacle for any Sistema program, and ours is no exception, is how to balance ideas of social justice with concrete standards of musical excellence. How do you use after-school music as a healing force, while also setting high standards? How do you use music as something fun and positive to do after school instead of getting involved with a gang, while also making no concessions for students based on their background, family, or financial situation? It’s a huge issue and most problems circle back to it somehow. But it’s an interesting and worthwhile challenge, and grappling with it has helped me to develop principles I believe in and can stick to.
Thanks for reading, more soon!