Classmate: “Where you live?”
Me: “I live Bovoni.”
Classmate: “In deh projects??’
Classmate: “Dah mean you rough den but you don’t act like a Bovoni man at all, you different.”
Me: “I don’t understand how I should act.”
Exchanges like this happened often when I was growing up, and today, it’s not possible to ignore how those encounters laid the groundwork for my adulthood. I won’t deny that I was a rough child, like many of my friends growing up in the same neighborhood. We destroyed playgrounds for fun and still found ways to make use of the broken stuff.
This isn’t to say that I fought constantly or repeatedly engaged in verbal pissing matches with others, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t capable of doing those things gracefully — and it intimidated many people. Because it meant that challenging you with the same ruggedness that existed in my environment was simply, ghetto.
My vocabulary was massive for my age and it was the only weapon I needed to survive many times.
To be considered smart and ghetto at the same time was an oxymoron. What made matters worse was my handwriting. Writing letters with a pen was something I could barely do. My handwriting was so atrocious that I almost failed penmanship in primary school several times and could barely decipher my own words after a few days passed. Many times, I was forced to stay behind, missing recess with my friends to practice.
It would hurt, the act of writing. I was articulate but physically writing was painful, my hands hurt and no one could read what I was trying to say anyway. As the years passed, my handwriting only grew worse, even in high school. Teachers would sometimes phone home to my mother to chide her about my penmanship because it was affecting my grades.
If teachers couldn’t read what I was writing, how could I receive a fair grade? I observed as I aced English and vocabulary tests, sometimes even leading insightful class discussions while struggling to complete written assignments. I eventually learned that my brain and hands were simply not in agreement.
Grades on essays and creative projects always scared me because I knew my poor handwriting would be the defining factor. At a young age, I was exposed to so many things.
Quite honestly, if you didn’t grow up in Bovoni, you missed out on an unforgettable childhood. The community center located in the center of the neighborhood was filled with volunteer tutors, a library of books and stimulating board games and countless programs that kept children engaged and out of trouble every single month of the year.
Special events also created a magical feeling. Peering out of my back window from the fourth floor, I always had the option to watch the sunrise over Mangrove Lagoon — the largest mangrove forest on St. Thomas. And it looked massive from where I stood.
Admittedly, I didn’t know what I was looking at for many years, I could only describe it as paradise. To its right, was a mountain of trash — the Bovoni landfill. Friends that visited our home for the first time would say, “oh my gosh, I didn’t know you guys had such an amazing view!” Followed by, “is that the dump??”
In school, for as long as I can recall, it wasn’t unusual to be teased by laughing classmates saying, “you live Bovoni dump!” To which I would reply calmly, “meen care.” Lol, this kind of ridicule honestly was a thing, even while enrolled at Ivanna Eudora Kean High School.
I didn’t care because many of them had never stepped foot in Bovoni before and couldn’t seem to face up to the fact that they were scared for their safety.
Black Santa Clause came every year to give out gifts and he always looked like me. Many of us would gaze out of our windows just below the horizon, waiting on him to arrive on a shiny, red fire truck. Listen, living in Bovoni was so bad, that one year while waiting for Santa a helicopter hovered in the distance, and lowered him down onto a firetruck near the Lima corner store before Gas Works II was built.
He didn’t slide down a chimney on Christmas day and it was the most ghetto, authentically amazing thing I can recall from my childhood memory. Kids always flooded the streets to chase the truck as the siren blared coming up the road.
My classmates probably didn’t have a childhood so unexpectedly wonderful and it always made their teasing pointless.
By age 15, my mother had purchased a used computer and it unclocked a world of possibilities at home after all the afterschool programs and community events had dried up in Bovoni. To date, there are none left. Then a printer came next and I began playing with words in ways I couldn’t before.
I printed dozens of rules and placed them on my bedroom door that would readout similar to contracts or terms of agreement before you could enter. If you broke a rule, I banned you and if your behavior was unsavory, I would update the rules and alert you about the new changes.
Looking back, I think my style of writing and storytelling was developed out of my infatuation with documentaries and nature books — just about all of them. The art of explanation became clearer. By high school, a number of teachers marked my papers in red ink without any corrections, using the splash word — plagiarism.
Because my handwriting was so poor, it was hard to compare my classroom essays with the essays I had completed at home. The argument was that I was using two different voices and admittedly I was.
Writing with a pen = lazy writer
Writing with a computer = introspective caligraphy
I frequently stood up to teachers that tried to force me to rewrite my work, often taking a zero on the assignments out of protest. My grades suffered but it built my confidence. I picked essay topics that could help me make sense of bad dreams, nature, and just about anything that needed more explanation in my own little world.
I would also refuse to comply with detention, where I would be forced to write a new essay to prove that I could write. I would simply walk out of class because I couldn’t bear to punish myself for a crime I didn’t commit. Some of my classmates got people to write their essays and got away with it but I was always the one being punished for completing outstanding works of writing.
With time, teachers began to chatter about my writing and some apologized and upgraded my grades, which improved in the semesters that would follow. I never took any advanced placement classes because they were designed to stress you out in preparation for life in college. Just before my senior year, I purchased my first computer with the money I had been saving from my summer jobs. Before the school year started, I wrote a note to all of my teachers and asked my mother to sign it.
The note asked for teachers to allow me to use my computer during class to keep up with my classmates, who would often finish their essays before me and score higher on written assignments. My browsing was restricted using the school’s WiFi but my computer served as an excellent writing tool that I could also use to research things I needed more clarity on.
I would email my teachers my assignments while in class and they would simply send it back with edits to complete my final draft.
I didn’t take classes like art, home economics or gym as electives. Instead, I stacked up on language courses. In one school year alone, I had voluntarily completed English 12, English Composition I, English Composition II, Speech, Journalism 101, Drama and an afterschool Choir class. I had been doing this since the 10th grade and my classmates thought I was nuts.
Many times I wrestled with my counselor to get these classes on my schedule and would threaten to bring my mom to school if she didn’t allow me to build a schedule that could determine my own academic success. It created friction but it allowed me to navigate a system that always seemed to choose your destiny for you. Writing became easier and easier as the years passed and I learned to express myself without apologizing for it.
Learning how to become a stronger writer was something I chose to pursue to make up for years of illegible essays and assignments. Today, I encourage everyone to practice writing in a way that liberates their spirit, even if you never publish a single word of it. In return, you learn more about yourself and what you struggle with in life and quite naturally, your pursuit becomes that much more intentional.
Equipped with the right tools and an environment that offers choice, students and even adults in the Virgin Islands can showcase their brilliance in ways we could never imagine if given the opportunity.
If you’re reading this, thank you to all of the educators that helped me hone my writing skills. Happy Liberty Day!