At this time of of the Olympics when all our hearts and minds are with our athletes, I thought that I'd share with you an excerpt from Island Princess in Brooklyn. Princess' class has been asked to write about something in their lives before they came to that school or to America, which means a lot to them. Princess writes about watching Jamaicans racing. She is astounded when the teacher asks her to read her piece aloud to the class. I think you will be able to feel exactly what Princess's describes.
Then without any warning she said, “Princess wrote about an event from an unusual point of view. It was very interesting and I’d like her to share it with us. Please read it for the class, Princess, and then the rest of you can comment on it.”
I did not think I had heard correctly. Why had she picked on me?
I took the assignment from her and remained pasted to my seat. There was silence in the room, a ‘holding your breath’ silence. I don’t know if it was my imagination, but I suspected that the other students were actually sympathetic. My mouth felt dry, as if it were filled with really tight balls of cotton that had sucked up all the moisture. I struggled to get out the words, “Read . . . read . . . it?”
Then somebody, Jamal, of course, whispered rather loudly, “You go, Island Princess!” Chuckles from all over the place.
And I knew then I had to read it. My life might be over at this school after I read it, but if I didn’t, they would think I was a coward. No life anyway.
I took out my water bottle and tried to wash away the cotton balls. Then I turned around and facing the class, I read my assignment, looking up every now and then like Sister taught us, but making sure not to make eye-contact with anyone.
I read the title: Jamaicans Racing. I paused, then I continued.
I thought of how it is to watch Jamaican athletes run an important international race like at the Olympics. People gather together at each other’s houses. While they are waiting for the race to begin there is joking, or walking up and down like they’re not worried or anxious. But everybody is really so nervous they don’t know what to do with themselves. Some people are holding onto each other, some people are wringing their hands, some people are hugging themselves.
And then it is time for the race to start. The men having drinks put the glasses down. People are sitting forward in their seats as if they would jump into the TV. Some can’t bear to sit. And just before the race is to start, plenty of people suddenly remember who they didn’t think to call before. So cell phones come out and people say, “You watching?” “You watching?” “You watching?” Just these two words over and over again into the cell-phones. And you know, you just know that in the whole island everybody is watching TV. In every valley, on every mountain top, everybody is watching; in every village and town, uptown in big houses and in the inner city areas, everybody is watching; in every bank, supermarket and office everybody is watching. Everything in Jamaica has stopped, for a few minutes; everybody is in one place, in one mind.
Then the race starts. Silence! Nobody moves. Cousin Esther and I are holding hands tight, tight. Granny has her hands on her head. Miss Annie, Granny’s friend, has her hand on her heart, as if she has to do that to keep it in her body. Everybody is holding their breath.
Slowly the one breath begins to let go as Jamaica is in the lead. Some people begin to scream softly and this becomes louder and louder. “Run! Run!” we scream. People are jumping up and down.
Then we win. “Gold medal!” One shout starts in our house, in the neighbour’s house, echoing all around, and all around the whole island breathes again and the breath turns into a shout. “Gold medal!”
Granny says, “Thank, you Jesus, Lord!” Miss Annie says, “Praises be to God!” Esther and I are hugging up each other. Everybody is laughing and crying. Big men wipe their eyes and faces like they’re perspiring and not crying. People who don’t even like each other much are hugging up. And for that time, in that moment we are truly one.
And after that for a little, we are quiet, and I know that we are praying for our athletes and giving thanks, even those who don’t usually pray or give thanks. And again we are one. And then we go back to normal life.
I sat down abruptly. Miss O’Reilly said, “You write well, Princess. Any comments, students?”