October 22, 2008

Old Boy Pride: Jamaica College

Jamaica CollegeDuring the nineties when I made regular trips to Jamaica, I'd usually visit my alma mater, Jamaica College, and invariably, I'd be disappointed by the physical appearance of the buildings and the rowdiness of the boys. Not that when I was in high school my friends and I weren't a bit rowdy. But this was rowdiness to the point of being rude. The line between personal and communal behaviors seemed to have been blurred, and whereas we were cautious about crossing social barriers, these boys didn't even recognize the limits and barged through with reckless abandon.

Last year, however, I visited Jamaica College and noticed a visible change. The buildings were painted and the boys seemed less uncouth. They were even courteous. This was a welcome change, and for the first in a long time, I felt proud to be a JC Old Boy.

It was quite a strange feeling because I've always had a quixotic relationship with Jamaica College, which I've written about in my novel Benjamin, my son and in some of the stories in my latest collection, Who's Your Daddy? and Other Stories. The time I spent at Jamaica College meant a lot to me, and I'm being precise when I say it was my alma mater--nourishing mother.

As a young man growing up in an all boys' school during the seventies, Jamaica College provided me with space to think about my relationships with parents, friends, and community. It was a time of enormous change, and every relationship, every assumption behind every relationship was scrutinized. This scrutiny extended into social and gender/sexual arenas.

And because Jamaica College, besides being known for its intellectual tradition, was also known as a "battyman" school, it was difficult to balance the decency and tolerance that were the cornerstones of the education that I received from JC Old Boys and teachers such as Dennis Scott and Jimmy Carnegie, while at the same time reconciling the idea of being a Jamaican gentleman, exemplified by JC Old Boy and then Prime Minister, Michael Manley, with the rise of feminism and the homophobia of Jamaican society.

I was also born during the generation that could remember the lowering of the Union Jack and the raising of the Jamaican flag, so the question presented itself: What does it mean to be a Jamaican gentleman in postcolonial Jamaica?

Growing up in colonial Jamaica, many of the previous old Boys had a clear idea of a Jamaican gentleman: white, Oxbridge accent and a sneering contempt for the masses--VS Naipaul sans melanin. However, after we gained our independence from Britain, the clarity was lost as new dimensions were added to the conception of our identity: Africa, Rastafari, feminism. Rastafari and feminism forced us to ask ourselves: How do men and women behave toward each other without invoking the legacy of paternalism, colonialism, race, and class privilege?

Reggae and Rastafari were also transforming Jamaican culture and language and therefore the lens through which we interpreted the world with words such as dawta, I-dren, and sistren.

To all these questions, I got mixed answers. So what's a boy to do?

Well, we must act and the behavior of this young man, a current Jamaica College student, seems to be just right:

He was just another Jamaica College student; she, from Ardenne Preparatory. They could have been siblings, or cousins. Yet something about them pulled my attention away from the other students nearby who were chattering noisily… It sang to me in the almost fatherly way in which he instructed her to position herself so that she could hold on to one of the bus seats for stability…

He was no longer just another high school student. He was that little girl’s protector, her rock.

And he became the hope I clenched tightly in my heart for the future of our young men.

There didn't seem to be any condescension of the young man's part, just genuine care for a younger sistren. He could be strong even in the knowledge that there are predatory men out there who would seek to exploit the sistren's vulnerability. In that moment, he was her "protector"--he was being chivalrous in the truest sense of the word, for there was nothing to be gained. He acted truly and he was on his way. And that's what being a gentleman--in any culture--is all about.

This young man acted in a way that affirmed the rich tradition of Jamaica and my alma mater. And after reading about him, I have one more reason to say proudly, "Yes, is there I come from."



FSJL said...

That's a wonderful little essay, Geoffrey. I think that all the older, and more prestigious Jamaican boy's schools have been tarred as homosexual forcing-houses. The rumour was certainly rampant about Munro.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Give thanks, Fragano. And many boys lived under the threat of being beaten and some were actually brutalized at JC for "battymanism."

I don't know what has caused and continues the homophobia in Jamaica, but it lessens us in our desire to be a civil society.

FSJL said...

I suspect the homophobia is a result of a combination of secular cultural elements that valorise masculinity combined with good old Victorian Xtianity and its heavily masculinist cultural set.

Certainly when I was at STETHS there was a lot of cultural pressure to fit a particular mode of masculine behaviour -- which was impossible for me because my father's strictness meant that I couldn't go out at night and pursue the opposite sex, and very glad I am now that I couldn't. At the same time, it was no fun being told 'Half yu life gaan' all the time. When I was in sixth form at Munro (at the same time I was in National Youth Service, so I was attending sixth form two days a week and doing Youth Service the other three)that pressure was absent, but there was constant talk about girls and who was doing what to which girl which got boring fast.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Fragano, I grew up under s similar set of circumstances, and around the football players and the musicians the talk got boring real fast.

Unfortunately, the ways of defining manhood in Jamaica have not changed much and many of the older Jamaican Old Boys have chosen not to exert/speak out on these issues.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post, Mr. P. Thanks for the link love. :)

BTW, I went to St. Andrew High for Girls, so that makes you my "brother". :D


Geoffrey Philp said...

You are most welcome, JD. It was your post that got me thinking!

BTW, my sister also went to St. Andrew's!


J.M said...

So that's what alma mater means! Thanks. I enjoyed that post from JD as well. It's a good thing when you can feel a sense of pride about where you come from.

Dancehall, in addition to christianity (an interesting mix), helps to define the cultural sets Fragano mentioned. Right now the archetypal male of dancehall seems to be the quintessential hooligan, gallist, shotta.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Jack Mandora, if what you say is true, then Jam-down is in a bad space.


J.M said...

Yeah, we're a little mixed up about what behaviours we want to glorify, and the casualties are both the children and the future. It's alarming, but as JD says, every now and then you see a little thing that retores your hope. Also, the undesreable aspects of dancehall gets plenty of attention because its so loud, similarly the uncouth get noticed more readily, because, well they know how to hog the stage, but if we should really check it out, there's plenty of positives going on that don't get celebrated. Any Jamaican out there looking for a theme to blog about? Blog this, The Uncelebrated Life. Walk good nuh.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Jack Mandora, I think that is a wonderful idea!
Yeah, I'd link to it in a heartbeat.