Our Book Club Pick: Wishing for Wings by Debbie Jacob

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Published by Ian Randle, 2013

“Maybe in the past, a long time ago, I was a criminal but not anymore. I’m just a usual individual right now. I’m going to behave myself and go to plays and learn my work. A tiny, little feeling inside of me says I’m more intelligent than I may think so I’m going to utilise that.”

So says Shawn in an eager letter to his CXC English Language teacher, Debbie Jacob — an unlikely instructor for the task of furnishing several young inmates with the inner workings of the English syllabus, according to Jacob herself. Though the journalist, author and librarian retained misgivings about the quality and consistency of her tutelage, she persevered, incorporating stories, essays and subject material outside of the scope of the often-rigid, unimaginative course matter. The personal stories of the boys under her charge, as shared in Wishing for Wings, are a testament to both her determination, and that of her students.

As Jacob reminds the reader multiple times in clear, unornamented prose, the fates of the boys in remand behind the Youth Training Centre’s forbidding walls are seldom thought of in a positive light. The conditions under which they are mandated to live and function are highly questionable, and in these austere circumstances, it seems hardly likely that hope can flourish. Yet, beneath Jacob’s guidance, the young men she teaches gradually emerge from the shells of their necessary armour, sharing more of their secret aspirations and plans for self-betterment.

In a sense, Jacob’s voice in this narrative is kind yet peripheral: she sidelines her own personal tales to repeatedly let the boys’ contributions — in the form of essays; book reviews; dream sequences and letters — shine through. The end result is a frankly unforgettable journey, one which, by its end, will have you considering these remarkable youths as far more than “inmates”. Their futures will gleam with promise, augmented by the power of flight they’ve earned through unremitting work and their longing for brighter horizons.

Given the rich possibilities for both discussion and inspiration that lie in the pages of Wishing for Wings, it’s no wonder that we’re pleased to select it as our official November Book Club Pick! Here are a few reading circle questions to help get you started: please feel free to share additional ones in the comments section.

Discussion Questions for Wishing for Wings:

  • Much has been made of the famous poem that opens the book: “Dreams”, by Langston Hughes. In what ways is the use of this poem as an epigraph especially suitable for these boys’ stories?
  • The first assignment that Debbie gives her YTC charges asks them to select which animal they would most like to be. If pressed with this question, which animal would you choose, and do you think the choice reveals anything in particular about your character?
  • Jacob often expresses dissatisfaction with the course material assigned to CXC English Language, calling them “boring textbooks filled with irrelevant material.” What do you think of her alternative teaching methods, and do you think they would be successful in a conventional classroom setting?
  • Did you find yourself rooting for one boy above all the others? Which of Jacob’s students did you feel the most for, while reading, and if his future was described towards the book’s end, how did his progress (or lack thereof) make you feel?
  • After finishing Wishing for Wings, were any preconceived notions you held about life at the YTC in Arouca destroyed? What recommendations would you make, to have life behind those gates become a healthier environment for the young prisoners there?
  • During the course of the book, Debbie makes loans and gifts of novels and other reading material to her students, in the interest of broadening their appreciation of the world, and its different inhabitants. If you could recommend just one book to an impressionable young person, which would it be, and why would you select it?
  • “English,” Debbie tells her students, “is about learning how to express yourself.” In response, they inform her that English is about life. Which of these perspectives do you agree with more, and if you agree with neither, how do you define the purpose of an education in English?

Previous Book Club Picks:

Between Bodies Lie by H. M. Blanc

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6 thoughts on “Our Book Club Pick: Wishing for Wings by Debbie Jacob

  1. I really want to read this. It sounds remarkable. Makes me think of the work Wally Lamb did with female inmates in the books Couldn’t Keep It To Myself: Testimonies from Our Imprisoned Sisters and I’ll Fly Away: Further Testimonies from the Women of York Prison. Interesting to note the similarity of titles of the latter book with the book you’ve featured here. Can’t wait to read it.

    • McKinley, we’re so thrilled to hear that you enjoy the sound of Debbie’s book, and we’re proud that the overall response has been glowingly positive.

      Yes, the similarities in book titles you’ve pointed out is perhaps painfully telling — both of the effects incurred in most penal systems, and the desires of those therein incarcerated for more than their present, bleak lot.

  2. I enjoyed Ms Jacob’s book, Wishing for Wings. My own full-length review may appear in the Trinidad Guardian soon. Jacob’s book is an important contribution to the literature of not just CXC English Literary Studies, but should be required reading for persons who interact in any interventionary way with young adults. As a matter of fact, this book is timely. It should be especially beneficial to the Deosoran Prison’s Investigating Committee.

    • Laurel, thank you so much for stopping by and commenting! We’re looking forward to reading your review soon — do let us know when it’s published, and we’ll share the weblink as part of our official post here.

      We couldn’t agree with you more, regarding the timely nature of Wishing for Wings, and we hope to see Jacob’s book used in a significant way on school curricula.

      • Thanks for editing out the misspelling of Deosaran in my original comment, and I believe that ‘prison’s’ ought to have been plural, although the committee was working only at Golden Grove.  And just in case the Trinidad Guardian doesn’t carry my review, I am attaching it to this mail.  I really would like to commend you for picking Ms Jacob’s book.  My own group is also reading it this month.   PS Please disregard the highlight in the copy. I touched a key and couldn’t undo yellowed portion.

          Sincerely, Laurel

  3. Pingback: Our Book Club Pick: As Flies to Whatless Boys by Robert Antoni | Paper Based Bookshop

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