The worldwide Augustana College experience

The Alpha Boys

I have an airplane pack of cookies and a small cup of watered down apple juice accompanying my iPad on my fold down airplane tray. As I look out the window trying to figure out how to sum up this past week, the small snowy fields below remind me that I’m not in Jamaica anymore.

I was in Jamaica for twelve days–the longest I’ve ever been away from home/college. Yet somehow, it seemed to be over in the blink of an eye.


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I called Kingston my home for a week. Kingston was much different than the natural beauty I had seen the previous week. While the mountains made for a scenic view in the distance, it was what lied within Kingston that was so different. Billboards and bland looking buildings replaced the open coconut tree fields and colorful quaint homes I had previously known. Kingston was lively to say the least. I couldn’t look out the van window while driving down the street without seeing a packed street corner of children waiting for the bus or a homeless man walking down the middle of the street offering to wash windshields for money. A few days into my journey into Kingston, I even received an e-mail from the US Embassy warning me of violence downtown and telling me to stay away. However, I did learn how diverse Kingston was. To ease the mind of my parents and any other protective individuals reading this, my hotel was in New Kingston–a much “better” part of the city. And to anyone who ever thinks that Jamaica is all paradise and beach relaxation, I dare you to convince me. It won’t work.

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Monday was my first day volunteering at the Alpha Institute. Formerly known as the Alpha Boys School, the Alpha Institute now is made up of about one hundred fifteen to nineteen year old boys from around Kingston. The boys stay at Alpha for only two years, where they take classes in mathematics, English, physical education, and a trade of their choosing. The boys can specialize in trades such as screenprinting, woodworking, and–the one closest to my heart–music.

Teaching at Alpha was one of the biggest eye opening experiences of my life. The doors and windows of each building were covered with bars. Thankfully the buildings were equipped with fans… but that was about it. I served in the music department, and the amount of essential equipment they were lacking was mind blowing. The band program had a total of two music stands to its name. The instruments tended to be extremely beaten up or filled with minor problems. The boys had no access to fundamental music books, causing them just to write little notes to themselves in their notebooks–without sheet music.  The band program had approximately 50 members with one single director. With boys at all ability levels, it was easy to see that the needs of every student simply couldn’t be met.

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One half of my days consisted of helping lead drumline instruction. The school was trying to start a drumline to perform at school and community functions, yet it had little instruction and consisted of almost all beginning players–most of which had never seen or heard a drumline perform. Along with my own band director and a friend, I attempted to learn percussion techniques as quickly as possible to be able to help the boys to my full abilities. I’d be lying if I said teaching these boys was a walk in the park. They challenged me like I had never been challenged before. Some boys refused to participate while others would try their hardest and still seem to get nowhere. By introducing new instructional elements, the boys were more confident than ever by the end of the week, and they had a full cadence completed to be proud of.

The other half of my day was a little more within my comfort zone. I have been playing the clarinet for twelve years and the alto saxophone for eight, and I thankfully was able to assist with the saxophone section. The ability range in the section was remarkable. One student hadn’t even touched a saxophone before my first class while another had been playing for nine years.  One minute, I was celebrating with a boy who had successfully playing a scale and the next, was being corrected by the long-time player on a small articulation in a song.  With these boys, I played.  I taught.  I laughed.  I struggled.  I learned.  I learned so much about myself, my life as an educator, and the life of Jamaican youth in one single week.  Most of these realizations were brought to light during lunch.

During lunch, I learned a lot of what Jamaicans thought about America.  For one thing, no Americans know how to swim and we all walk around life treating people like the cliques in Mean Girls.  What I learned about Jamaica, however, was much more enlightening, and I learned it all through the spirit and conversations of the boys.  None of the students I ate lunch with on the final day lived with both parents.  One said both of his parents had passed away.  Another said he lived with his mother, and his father was in New York working and sending back money to the family.   They told me about their peers involved in gang work, but they also showed me the “cool handshake” that Jamaican teens do when greeting one another.

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The conversation that sums up exactly why I spent my week at Alpha was with a saxophone player named Joven.  Joven was one of the first boys I met at Alpha.  He was eighteen years old and started playing the tenor saxophone only a year earlier.  We talked back and forth about my life in America and his life in Kingston.  Every night after school, he walked all the way home to spend his night playing his saxophone  and playing his PS3.  The thing that sticks out to me most is the last thing he said during that lunch conversation.  When I asked him what he wanted to do with his future, he said to me “I want to be a professional musician.  I practice to get better because I know I can be one.  I came to Alpha for that reason.  When I think Alpha, I think music.  Everyone does.  It’s what I want to be.”

This conversation happened on the first day of teaching.  After we threw our lunch away, Joven put his saxophone together and played some of the most talented playing I had ever heard from a teenager.  In that brief moment, I realized that despite the circumstances–the shootings, the drugs, and the poverty–that these boys chose Alpha to beat the odds.  They are actively choosing to create a good life for themselves.

And that is just how the people of Jamaica live Jamaica.

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