Monday, May 3, 2010
Alpha: the power of one
Mother Claver, nee Jessie Ripoll, founder of Alpha
Sister Mary Bernadette Little who helped her students to dream big dreams ... and realise them!
It is difficult to imagine. A middle-class Jamaican lady, moved by the poverty around her, cleans out her bank account, asks her friends for contributions, seeks support from the church, and buys 43 acres of land to start a ministry for the poor.
But this is no fairy tale. This is the true story of young Jessie Ripoll who bought the land at South Camp Road for £800 in 1880, and taking in the first orphan on May 1 of that year, created Alpha. As her orphanage grew and friends joined her project, the Catholic Church suggested that the Mercy Sisters be invited to expand the mission. Jessie became Sister Mary Claver.
A few years later, the Alpha Boys' Music Programme was started, and a galaxy of stars has continued to emerge to this day. Several schools sprang up around the convent and chapel - Alpha Infant, Primary, Academy, the recently closed Commercial College and the latest addition, an excellent primary school bearing Jessie's name.
On a television feature in 2005 to celebrate Alpha’s 125th anniversary, we were treated to an account of the school’s history uniquely told against the strains of the Alpha Boys' Band. The crew marvelled at the poise and grace of the legendary principal of Alpha Academy and a graduate of the school, Sister Mary Bernadette, who has served as a Mercy sister for over 60 years. Then there was Aggrey Irons who happened to be my classmate at the now closed Alpha Prep School (to this day, he still pulls my hair).
I confess to becoming misty-eyed when I listened to past students Sister Marie Chin and Lorna Bell, executive director of the Special Olympics Association. These women of excellence remembered the feeling of family we had at Alpha as well as the quality of the curriculum.
Best of all were the performances of the current Alpha students - the band, the angelic dancers from the Jessie Ripoll School, as well as performers from the Primary School and the Academy. Sister Susan Frazer, Sister Shirley Chung and Sister Marie Goretti hovered over their charges with the focus and dedication that has nurtured tens of thousands of Jamaican children.
The Alpha Boys' School became so famous that the celebrated trumpeter Johnny "Dizzy" Moore of the Skatalites confessed to "acting up" as a child, just to be sent to Alpha Boys' School. Lennie Hibbert, Tommy McCook, Rico Rodriguez, Sparrow Martin, Don Drummond, Dwight Richards, Yellow Man, Leroy Smart all came out of Alpha Boys' School as do the majority of musicians in our military and constabulary bands.
Few can forget the motherly love of Sister Ignatius who was never short of visitors as she continued to counsel her graduates years after they had left school. The Alpha way of taking care of the young with love and understanding should be a standard for children's homes in our island.
When our parents deposited us in Alpha's lap each day, they were sure that we would be guided and disciplined without fear or favour - and with a good deal of fervour! During my years at the prep and high schools, I experienced a unique comfort level with classmates of all colours and addresses. I cannot help but think that, in seeing a woman of colour - the distinguished, elegant Sister Bernadette, so emphatically in charge of the institution, we all became aware of our possibilities.
The memory of Jessie Ripoll reminds us of the power of one. We are so used to blaming "them" that we forget that in the human equation, multiples of "me" equals "them".
There are too few Jessies, and too many jesters, acquiring without requiring from themselves a responsibility to this troubled society. We know this is a great country with fantastic potential, but we are driving drunk, putting many lives, including our own, in danger. As I contemplate the simplicity of the lives of Alpha's sisters and their wonderful joie de vivre, it is obvious that those of us who think we have so much are really depriving ourselves of the best, a service-oriented life.
My classmate Natalie Thompson, who owns the brilliant film production house Cinecom, wants to do a documentary on our class. One day when we were playing the fool, Sister Bernadette brought us up short and told us, "You are a powerful class." We seem to have digested those words well, as several of us now run successful businesses, five are doctors, one is the principal of a leading Florida high school, and most are serving their respective communities.
But our sad national statistics tell us that we are simply not doing enough to replace fear with faith. We should be getting as spiritually fit as possible to reach our young people, before they are held in the deadly grip of crime and violence. In 1880, without car, phone or internet, Jessie Ripoll did it. Why, then, are we doing so much less when we have so much more?