Lincoln Thomson returns to Key West

Lincoln Thompson is the husband of Camiel West, she being the principal of Brampton Primary. He is one of my best friends. Which is good since we work together so closely on this project. 😉 Anyhow, Lincoln after nearly six months back in Jamaica, Lincoln has returned to Key West.

His brother, Clive, incidentally, accomplished his US citizenship this past week. Good times (and congratulations, Clive)!

Now that the project has become so established I am considering creating a not-for-profit. We shall see. At this point, one of the main advantages of our program is that it is small and personal and no business or company has any claim on the generosity of these computers being sent over; they are 100% free of “strings”.

In the meantime, we continue on. It is amazing still to me how one community, Key West, can make such a big difference in one other community, Brampton. Key West and Brampton are connected forever now. And that is a blessed thing.

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Computers Get To Jamaica!

Computer Room Saturday
[Click for slideshow]

It’s been a while since I got back from Jamaica. I am ashamed it has taken me this long to post. But my resources are limited, I have been working to make ends meet, and it is somewhat embarrassing to say so. The trip pretty much knocked out my summer savings yet here I am scrapping funds together as I get ready to return on December 12th. I stress over how it is going to work out.

So if it is such a strain why am I doing it?

Pretty much because, well, the ten days I spent with a school of students in Jamaica was the best ten days of my life. I’m embarrassed to say that, as well. I’m 43. I should already know who I am. Yet by Day Two I was questioning my purpose in life. Never had I seen so many young minds so grateful for the gifts I was meagerly able to manage. In this regard, I am flat-out humbled.

Allow me to re-cap the events which led up to the present.

In June, after repairing some computers on Key Haven, on my way to my next computer repair appointment, I stopped at Conch Town Cafe in Bahama Village for a $3 fruit smoothie. Owner Clive Thompson’s brother Lincoln was there, and he and I casually began talking about how I was bothered by the fact that there were all these “extra” unused computers around Key West. Some were in people’s homes collecting dust, others were being put streetside to be thrown away when a new computer arrived. “It’s such a waste,” I told Lincoln.

To which he now famously (at least to me) replies, “Why don’t we send them to Jamaica?”

At first I looked at him to see if he was serious. When I saw he was, I said, “Why Jamaica? Kids could use them here.” What he then explained took me completely off-guard.

“Here in Key West, computers are everywhere. At people’s homes, school, the library. There are computers all over the place. Where I am from my wife is a teacher, and they have no computers.” I asked him what he meant by “no computers.”

“Well,” Lincoln explained, “there is a man who has a laptop. He comes sometimes. But when he leaves, he takes the computer with him.”

It was then I understood he meant no computers.

To me, a computerhead, that was beyond belief. For me, life without computers is drudgery. No google? The thought makes me weak. Now that I have it, I wouldn’t give it up for the world. So, imagining life without google….

“Okay,” I then famously (at least to me) replied, “We can do that.”

And so began a summer campaign to collect computers, monitors, and peripherals. You may have heard about it. I emailed everyone I know in Key West about it.

That was June. By September, Lincoln and I had booked tickets to where the computers were heading—Brampton Primary, Trelawny, Jamaica—and I had learned very little about the place. There was literally nothing about it anywhere on the internet! It was as if it didn’t exist. I knew it was about an hour East of Montego Bay, and then an hour in from the Coast. I learned it was in the mountains. And I learned that Lincoln’s wife, Cameil West-Thompson, was more than a teacher, she was the principal of the school.

At the beginning of September we shipped the computers by container from Miami: 14 fully-functional workstations (along with a smattering of peripherals and software). Then, at the end of the month, from Ft Lauderdale I got on a jet with Lincoln and we took off to Jamaica. From that moment forward, I had no idea what to expect.

When we arrived in the Montego Bay airport, there were two lines. One line led to waiting escorts and busses and shuttles to upscale, gated beachside resorts. The other led out of the airport and to a Jamaica that fewer people have the opportunity to see or experience. That’s where we went and where I got to go.

We were met at the airport by a friend of Lincoln’s who drives for a living. He was driving Lincoln’s car and in the car was Lincoln’s four-year old daughter.

Lincoln has children! That was news to me! To me, this is just a good guy I know from around the block whose brother owns Conch Town Cafe where I have been eating pretty much since I was “a kid.” (Remember when it was owned by Mr. “B” Johnson? Then by Cheesy?) Yet before my eyes, Lincoln was materializing as a real person with a real history and real story. And he had a daughter.

I could tell you how it was sort of heartwrenching it was to watch Lincoln’s daughter Cameilia ever-so-slowly open up again to her father after his being away for some time but that has more to do with me than it has to with the story.  (Lincoln is on Key West working to provide for his family. This was the first time I had ever seen what its like for a child to endure even temporary separation from a loving parent. Kids grow so I suddenly understood how it’s a very big deal. As it turns out, he also had a 2-year old (Kyrell). And a 14-year old teenager (Shamar). And he lived on an amazing property, one where fruits and vegetables were really grown and helped to feed the family. So much I could tell you. It was amazing.)

We dropped our driver off, and then took the car to the school. What happens next will stick with me for the rest of my life.

I would like to reiterate I had no idea what to expect. In fact, I had no expectations other than 1) there would be a school, and 2) there would be no computers, and 3) a computer room had been built for the computers we had collected, pieced together and shipped. Even in these “expectations,” how was I to know what would be the case (or not)? I was operating on faith.

So we arrive at the school. It is essentially two long rooms connected in an L-shape with very large open broad doorways. It is very open air. Pulling up, Lincoln says, “He we are.” I can see through the doorways the students all sitting and studying, and looking at the car pulling up the drive. He parks and steps from the car. I open the door and step from of the car.

There is a pause here. It lasts approximately two seconds. The kids kind of freeze. Then all at once, as if on cue, they let out an uproarious shout:

WHITE MAN!

Without any hesitation in unison the students abandon the classrooms and pour from the rooms and as one hurl themselve straight to me. And then everyone is touching me, pinching my skin, touching my hair, staring at me, eyes wide open and open-mouths and smiles and laughter. I am a novelty, a lesson, a source of great amusement. And for the first time in my life, I know who I am at least for one moment: I am a person who is also “a man” and also “a white.” I am a white man. At least, that is how others here honestly see me.

It is an insight that was not lost on me during my entire stay. It is a funny thing when looking at one’s self in the morning mirror one experiences a shock for being the the white person. That was me. I was “him.”

I felt perhaps as a person who is albino must feel. No, that’s not right.

What I felt like was a friendly, welcome alien.

My hair was different. My face. My eyes. My lips. My skin. And yet here I was being welcomed. I felt it was quite a responsibility, an additional one. I was representing people. My people? My people are “other” white people?

As George Bush and Dick Cheney were still president and vice-president at the time, I shuddered to think.

No, the people I represented were benevolent and considerate and compassionate and helpful people. I was in Jamaica to bring computers—in representation of everyone who had donated computers—for the benefit of a hencetofore unseen school of students as well as the larger community. So additionally immediately I realized in this small way I represented the visionary and far-sighted, those of us who not only hope for change but actually work for it. And I just happened to be the “me” version of such a people.

Of the next ten days, I worked nine. We picked the computers up in Montego Bay and I learned the hard way that I had done a poor job of packing the computers. Of the 14, only three or four worked; the rest had been either shaken or jarred so hard that they would not even switch on. So I had no choice but to completely strip down the computers into individual components and start from zero. It is worth noting that of the three or four computers that did work, two were Macs. One blueberry and one (key) lime green, 10-year old iMacs.

[To my constant aid was Mr. Clinton Hedmann. It is another one of those mysteries of the success of this operation that someone with as formidable knowledge of ancient computer systems (“Windows 98”) and the arcane make-up of ancient computers just happened to be the husband of one of the teachers and father of one of the students. (Mrs. Hedmann and son Clinton, respectively.) In fact, Mr. Hedmann was able to bring to life a computer that so frustrated me I had named it DEAD in huge black letters while he continued tooling within it. It was this same computer that got renamed LAZARUS when he brought it to life—complete with out (first) running copy of Windows XP. That computer, along with a 56k cel telephone modem, enabled us to light up four others.]

Yet there is another of facet of this story I have yet to elaborate upon. Before my arrival, I was told “a computer room was being built.” Modestly, I conceived that this meant a room at the school was being cleared and re-named as “the computer room.” Never in my wildest imaginings had I believed that an actual room was to have been constructed. And yet…that is precisely what it meant.

I must preface this piece of my recount by saying that it is nearly beyong my imagining that such a person as Mrs. Cameil West-Thompson would happen to be the person who is also wife of Lincoln and principal of Brampton All-Ages School. Such a person seems only found in fairy tales or hollywood films. Here was a believer in the greatness of human beings, someone whose unshakable faith inspired others to reach deep into themselves or beyond our abilities to find unknown or unseen resources in order to accomplish small goals with immense consquences. It was she who drove here husband to seek out things for—another surprise to me—his alma mater, and to give back to that which helped to make the excellent person he is. It was she who found the means to have the computers picked up and delivered and a tiny office and broom closet taken down and rebuilt with safe walls and doors (not to mention finished shelves, and new and improved electrical). She is the one who imported a computer to train the students on for three weeks beofre our promised arrival. And she is the one who deserves the credit for being able to instill her vision so deeply into others that it reached throughout Jamaica and all the way to us in Key West.

The computer room that was designed was perfect, it was amazing, and it was real. What more, from top to bottom, the work that had gone into the construction and development of the computer room not only spoke of a dedicated commitment to and from the community for which it had been constructed to serve, to the students and parents it blazed outwardly like an illuminating beacon. And to me, that beacon brilliantly radiated a message. It says, “This way to our Future.”

While I worked finishing computers, Lincoln worked finishing the computer room. And as soon as I had computers up and running, I had students. We arrived Friday. We got the computers from Montego Bay on Monday. On Tueday, with the switching on of the two blessed Macintosh iMacs, classes began.

To say that I was unable to peel the students off the computer is no exageration. Every moment I was there while school was in, there were groups of students there, too. And they were absorbed in computers that kids here in Key West would most certainly have had reason to shun: They were running Mac OS 8.6 (and later Windows 98), and only had games with names like Velociraptor and Solitaire.

But the most amazing thing is I never showed anyone where anything could be found. I let them find it for themselves. And over and over again, on machines I thought had no games at all, they discovered—and learned—these programs after I gave them but the barest of grasp of what to look for and how to manuever around. Even while it meant I had to keep a close eye on such possible calamities as system files being moved to the trash (this happened more than once), it allowed for a crash course in computing that knew no equal: Crowded together around the computer, me at the shoulder piecing together more computers, we learned together.

We? Yes, we. I learned learning. I saw seeing. And I joined in the joy of every small success as as a group the students “grokked” the computer, and grasped the workings and uses and vulnerablities of this highly unusual and fantastic tool, the personal computer.

Each day was like a part of my soul I was unaware even existed became charged and lighted with the practically crackling electricity of the students’ radically super-charged learning. They were all interested to the exclusion of all else! And yet that is where my presence—as teacher—was called for. “Take turns. Share. No pushing. Relax. It’s okay. Good job.” I was there. I made a difference.

And I realized there was nothing in the world I would rather be doing.

Lincoln and I worked everyday from daybreak to after sundown. Many friends in the community worked alongside us. Teachers made arrangements in their routines. Parents, also. That there was an excitement in the air was obvious. There was an unspoken agreement that what was being done was changing the future, and everyone gave themselves to the task heartily and unselfishly.

In fact, we worked until the night before our departure. That was when the room was finished, the big rebar gate put in place, and the computers installed and booted up. We worked until the last day, and that is when we finished. Then we left.

But not before the students, parents and teachers put on a special program of appreciation to “son of the soil” Lincoln Thompson and “friend to Brampton” Mike Mongo, replete with decorations and dance and song, all in total surprise. In fact, they had to peel Lincoln and I away from our work to get us to show. We had no idea! This is yet another surprise, and one which I would have resisted had I any idea it was to take place, but grateful am I to have experienced such a genuine outpouring of welcome and appreciation.

Yet there remains one more experience on which I feel privileged to report and share.

On Friday, the last day I would have to work with the 78 students of Trelawny Parish’ Brampton Primary School, it was agreed that the top 12 students from the week would be selected and offered the “opportunity” to come into school on Saturday for a special session of computer training. The idea was I would pick the 12 minds who I felt were most interested, most receptive, and most naturally-attuned to wrapping their minds around the idea of a computer. I was to pick 12 out of 78.

However, as soon as it was announced I would be picking out 12, it was like a scramble for the Willie Wonka’s legendary Golden Ticket. And parents were present to, there for a special program. So not only were students clamoring for the opportunity—get this—to come to school on Saturday—but the parents were championing for their sons and daughters, as well! To some degree, I expected this.

What I did not expect is that everyone of the selection of 22 students, ranging in age from five to 12, would show up at 10 AM on a Saturday to go to school. (When some were late and I asked about it, I was told, “They had to walk four miles.”) I am near tears as I write this because it is true.

And getting ready to walk into the their new computer room together and for the very first time, specially set-up prior to its completion solely for this purpose, I stopped the line of all the students together and explained this.

“You are about to enter a sacred shrine. On the outside of this doorway, you are one person but when you pass through this doorway, you will be another. It looks like a regular doorway but on the other side is your future. When you walk through this doorway, you walk into your future.

“Around the world, there are rooms like this, and they all have one thing in common. Inside computer rooms around the world, people are quiet. It is like a sacred place. You will go into computer rooms around the world, and you will see. Inside computer rooms, everyone is quiet. Because we are thinking.

“Of the entire school you were picked to learn these traditions. There is no food, no drinks, no water, no snacks through these doorways. These things you learn today you are to share with your peers, your fellow students. You are the holders of the boulder. Does everyone understand?”

And I had the hearts and minds of 22 young minds right there with me. And together, genuinely solemn and excited we walked through the doorway into the future. And it was like I had accomplished one great thing in my life for certain, and this was it.

With eight working computers, three students of similar ages were set-up at each workstation. At first there was some challenge about who would watch and who would use the computer. Until I explained, “Watching you can learn what to do on someone else’s time. Then when it’s your turn, you don’t have to waste time learning how.” And just like that, they got.

With inside voices, the kind of voices reserved for churches and libraries and computer rooms, 22 students spent two hours on a Saturday at school learning computers. It was better than something you would see on teevee or in the movies. It was real. When it was over, I thanked everyone, congratulated them for their time and attention and exceptional academic skills, and then I made a promise to return.

What more, I promised I would bring more computers. Lots more.

And now I am going back. I am bringing more computers, already shipped, and I hope to bring more software, some RAM (and hopefully a PS2 for the school to raise money at their carnivals), and one more thing:

I am working to bring high-speed internet.

I am working to bring Google.

I have many videos of the occassion. And I will post them soon. But I think of all of them, this one captures best what it is I myself am trying to say.

Thank you, Key West.