I was brought to this country, which I now call home, on Feb. 25, 1977. It was a miserable winter. I must have cried for a week. Frostbite on the first day of school didn't help, but I was curious about my new surroundings.
That summer, my sister and I were sworn in as Canadians. Motivated by the persistent name-calling, we worked hard to drop our patois, and me, my lisp.
Everywhere we turned, there seemed to be another face with a voice, trying to convince us that we did not belong. I can still remember the names my Ottawa schoolmates called us: Coon, jiggaboo, tar baby, spook and, of course, nigger.
Back then, I didn't understand what racism was. However, I understood what was being done, and was undaunted in my desire to show that I was as good or better than they thought. My desire had to be proven with frequent fist-fights. I took some, but gave a lot.
The fact that we lived in public housing at the bottom of Summerville Avenue for many of my formative years didn't bother me. I didn't realize we were poor. Our parents didn't always get it right. They did their best to provide for us, and kept us sheltered. All I knew was that our living conditions were better than our options back in Jamaica.
Today, I feel a sense of gratitude that I learned enough to go from the bottom of Ottawa's Summerville Avenue to the top of Toronto's Summerhill Avenue. Climbing the hill was quite challenging, but probably not as difficult for me as it had been for Lincoln Alexander and other civil rights leaders, given the changing times.
What do I think, then, of this rising debate about schools for blacks only?
It is about helping individuals who are not achieving to achieve. Let us not, again, reduce this to race.
I don't believe that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale and others died in vain trying to eliminate interposition and nullification. Neither does it make sense that the Little Rock Nine or, more recently, the Jena Six fought for integration so that some could use their right to ask for segregation. These seekers of fairness, justice and equality didn't ask for respect so we could do nothing with it.
If the ''system'' is failing blacks, then how and why? And if it is, then one of two things must be done: Change the system or separate blacks from the system. If an alternate school is established, it would appear that the decision makers believe that it is easier to do the latter. What an admission that would be, and what would the ramifications mean long-term? And, honestly, how severely would such a school and its graduates be judged? It appears that there are more questions than there are answers. History will dictate that such a dilemma will result in little action. This issue will probably not be resolved at any time soon.
I am neither a politician, school administrator nor parent. However, I do have an opinion.
The one tool essential to achievement is confidence. To have it or not have it is neither gender nor race specific. Schools fail students, black and otherwise, by not providing them with the framework to establish the self-esteem that comes with achievement. It is this sense of confidence that we all take with us into the real world. If the public school system is failing students, it is in this area.
My personal recollection of public school is of racial discrimination and of administrative non-support. I can recall apathetic teachers and guidance councillors making ill-founded assumptions, probably based on race, and then advising me to go to trade school instead of to university. I am not opposed to trade work. My father is a very fine cabinet maker. However, I don't believe that he brought me to this country to walk so closely in his footsteps.
Fortunately, there were a few coaches and other teachers who gave me support. My parents also insisted that I excel. Even at an early age, I did not lack self-esteem. Through all the trials I experienced due to racism, I never doubted who I was, nor did I allow others to tell me who I was. However, I can say that sometimes it was challenging. I can see how it would be difficult for those who lack self-confidence and are faced with discrimination to back into a shell.
Would I have been a better student then, or today a better businessman if I had been insulated in an all black school? Would my self-esteem be higher? I don't know. I get the sense that I would not have been better able to deal with the outside world -- then or now.
I believe that the relationships and understandings that I gained from many years of diversified associations have helped me be everything I am today. I wish I could have been exposed to more, and feel fortunate that I had not been hidden from the challenges nor the people who brought them.