“MAKING LIFE WITH 25 CENTS.”

POVERTY AS STATE OF MIND

Growing up as an only child, I had a happy childhood largely centered around home and school related activities. The day after school closed for any holiday, I was on a bus heading for the country, either Clarendon or Portland. This meant days of fun with cousins, from river to seaside, from football to cricket. It was in retrospect that I came to realize that we were poor. Growing up I was not aware that for me to be able to go on a class trip my mother would have to forgo lunch for sometimes up to two weeks. Preparing for back-to-school would mean a no-frills life for her for the entire summer. None of this was shared with nor imposed on me as a child. This concept is well captured by Jamaica’s premier songwriter Ernie Smith in his song ‘I never knew we were poor’.

 

VALUING EDUCATION

From as early as I can remember my mother made it very clear that she had no money nor land to give me. One thing she would do is to ensure that I got a good education. This was my only option. As early as I can recall I had ‘extra lessons’ every day during Primary school. This kept me out of trouble, but it also meant no playing and long days at school. My mother’s admonition was that once I got home from school I should ‘Sit in di room and do yuh homework’. (We lived in one room). She made it clear that no one in the yard should call my name for any reason.

 

‘If is not you, is you; if is you, is double you.’

 

In addition, from about age 4 I spent every Saturday at the Junior library where they offered special programmes around books for children. This initiated and cemented my love for reading. Any unfamiliar words or ideas that I would encounter during the school week, I would make note of and research when I got to the library on Saturday. This put my vocabulary way ahead of my peers.

 

This all culminated in a Government Scholarship to Kingston College at age 10. This totally funded my secondary education. We received money for books, lunch, clothes, and transportation. Here I was an outstanding student. I placed first or second in my class every year. At Fifth Form I did very well at O’Levels and was ready to take on the two years of Sixth Form. My mother who had migrated to the US when I was in 3rd Form rewarded me with a visit to New York for 3 weeks that summer. She was then working as a domestic helper for a psychiatrist who lived and worked on Central Park West in Manhattan. Dr. Anne Applebaum insisted that she should take me to work with her in the days, and I could spend the time in her library. This was a wonderful summer. Again, I was immersed in the exciting world of books. On my return to Jamaica, I entered Lower

 

Six and started to actively contemplate my future. It became clear to me that the following year would be the end of the education road for me because there was no way that we could afford university tuition in Jamaica. After much contemplation, a great idea came to me.

 

THE BIG APPLE

I informed my mother that I was not going to complete Upper Sixth Form, as that would be pointless. I would come to New York, get a job, work, and pay for my college education. I do not remember her objecting. I arrived in New York on Saturday August 2, 1969. My mother presented me with an application form for Bronx Community College. She informed me that in two years I could be a Medical Technologist. My mother said that this was the best that she could do for me. I thanked her for all that she had done to date and handed the form back to her telling her that ‘I would take it from here.’

 

The next morning, I asked my mother for money to buy a newspaper in order to begin my job search. She gave me twenty-five cents. (This was the last time that I asked her for money). I saw one job in the newspaper for a Chemical Lab Technician. The main requirements were high school Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics, all of which I had. I sent out this one application and applied for this job on the Monday. I got called for an interview on the Wednesday. I got an offer on Friday and started working the next Monday.

 

MAKING A LIFE

We lived at 161st Street in The Bronx so the closest college was City College of New York. I began my research regarding admission and cost. My application to the evening programme was successful and I started in September 1969, taking just two classes per term. After about two years I was able to get employment on campus and increase the number of courses that I could take each term. It took me five years to complete my BSc. in Psychology (cum laude) with honors. I did very well in the GRE Exams and got full support for my MSc. and PhD in Psychology at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. I also was fortunate to receive pre and post-doctoral fellowships from Educational Testing Service in Princeton, New Jersey. My next step was a post as Assistant Professor at The College of Human Ecology, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.

 

Many years later I overheard my mother talking to a friend about her son who took twenty-five cents and made life. At the time I did not see it that way. Today, that is my narrative.

 

Dr Leahcim Semaj

Above or Beyond Incorporated

 

Quantum Transformation Psychologist & Management Consultant

Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Kingston, Jamaica

Office: 1-888- 725-9503, (876) 948-5627

Mobile: (876) 383-5627, (954) 701-5208

EMail: Semaj@AboveorBeyondJM.com Website: www.AboveorBeyondJM.com