Updated: Jul 23, 2018
When I was twelve years old, I sat for what was then known as the Common Entrance (CE) exam. While waiting for publication of the results in our local newspaper, I was overcome with abject fear of failing and how that would be viewed by my family and the people in our small poor community. This scholarship was my ticket to a better future.
On the morning of the announcement, my friends and I crowded around The Gleaner, frantically searching for our names and the school we would attend that September.
And there it was. Donna Pinnock. Westwood High School. I was ecstatic.
Perched on a hilltop and nestled in the hills of Stewart Town in Trelawny, Westwood was one of the most distinguished all-female boarding schools in Jamaica, West Indies.
I had entered an unfamiliar zone of rules, indoor plumbing, discipline, electricity and tradition. The most prominent indicator of control was the constant ringing of bells, an aural practice that dominated the next two years of my life. It doled out fractions of the day in slices - for waking, classes, meals, studying, breaks, showers, etc. I welcomed the penultimate ring in the evenings that would herald that another school day was over. We would submissively make our way to our dormitories to prepare for bed until the “lights out” and final clang.
Early Sunday mornings, a bell would signal that it was time to line up in pairs for the organized one-mile walk down the steep hill, through the town and towards the Anglican church. We were usually a spectacle for the townsfolk who would peer from their windows, gawk from the sidewalks or their cars as we filed past. A regimented line of dozens of girls meandering through the parish, dressed in our signature navy blue tunics, white shirts, navy blue socks, black penny loafers and straw hats encircled with navy blue ribbons.
Those walks quietly highlighted how I felt in the company of my fellow students. Like an impostor. Despite the fact that I had passed the same test which gave me the right to fall in line with them every Sunday, I felt inferior and misplaced. I was very poor. I wasn’t pretty. I wasn’t popular. My clothes weren’t fancy. My language wasn’t “proper”. I was a country girl with low self-esteem. It didn’t help that my dorm mates were a striking Chinese girl with the shiniest hair I had ever seen, a star athlete, and the sister Miss Jamaica.
During my second year, we went on a class trip to Dunns River Falls, a popular tourist attraction on the northern coast of the island in Ocho Rios. It was a place I had always dreamt of visiting, but we were dirt poor, living from hand to mouth and such extravagance was out of the question.
On the morning of the trip, while my dorm mates were still asleep, I quietly climbed off my top bunk and got ready in the dark. I was dressed in my eggshell-colored two-pieced bathing suit with scalloped edges long before the “wake up” bell announced a new day.
Dunns River Falls was majestic and even more magical than I had imagined. We spent the morning frolicking and giggling with delight as we pushed against the cool water flow to climb the rugged and slippery terrain. After we reached the top, the tour guide took us on a sightseeing excursion to shop for cheap trinkets. Lunch was served on the bus on our way back to Westwood as we showcased our souvenirs and chatted incessantly about our scary and exciting climb up the waterfalls. That is one of my favorite childhood memories.
In June of this year, and over forty years later, I returned to Jamaica and the Falls. I climbed as a fifty six year old, a life coach, a survivor of abuse, an actor, a divorcee, a mother, a writer, an executive, a lifestyle model, an entrepreneur, a sister, a fighter.
As had been done on that morning over forty years earlier, a handholding human chain was formed before we ascended the giant nature-made stairs. It was still uneven. It was still slippery. It was still scary.
At times we broke the link to grab a rock, support someone who was struggling or get on all fours to steady ourselves. For a little over an hour, we became a community of strangers helping strangers, playing the role of anchor and supporter to each other as we moved cautiously up Dunns River Falls.
Some were overcome by either fear, exhaustion or both, and exited the falls midway.
I was tempted to do the same multiple times, but I teetered and shuffled my way to the top instead.
As I gazed down at the droves of hand-holding tourists meandering under the shade of the lush green vegetation, I was jolted by a powerful wave of sheer nostalgia.
Her two-piece eggshell-colored bathing suit with the scalloped edges moved among them. I heard her squeals of wonderment. She is innocent. She is unafraid. She is vulnerable. She is undamaged.
In that moment, I wished that I could go back in time and down the falls to meet my twelve year self. I wished that I could take her hand in mine, hold her close and tell her what she needed to know as the powerful water rushed by to empty into the Caribbean Sea.
I would whisper secrets in her ear. Words she needed to carry in her soul like a shield. Something I learned the hard way...
You are the only person that you will ever need to be good enough for. You. Only. You.