Kirlew wrote her first book Awakened By A Dream which she says serves to inspire and empower young women to know that they are worthy, deserving and capable of doing great things.
TEACHING foreign languages in the United States, her students call her miss, señorita or miss, and it’s something that warms her heart.
Jonnea Kirlew said it was a testament that she was no longer a little rose surrounded by the thorns of gunfire ringing out, shaking her zinc fences.
Coming from humble beginnings, Kirlew, 25, from The Valley, a community in Mount Salem, St James, becomes emotional as she reflects on the years that have passed.
Kirlew, also an author, grew up with his parents and two younger brothers in a “big yard.” She shared a room with her parents until she had one for herself, and later she had to share this room with her brothers. She told the Jamaica Observer that from an early age she was determined to become a “woman of worth”.
“Some days it still doesn’t feel real. I’m very proud because there was a time when everything negative was attached to young inner city girls, and so many of those names hurt our promising lives. So, instead, we should talk about grace, purpose, and life in the lives of all children. I spent more than 18 years of my life with my parents and two younger brothers, with dreams and aspirations in search of a better future,” she said.
“Truly, I didn’t want to conform to what was expected of inner-city girls. Yet I was no stranger to certain societal factors – including crime, violence and poverty which for many of us are very difficult to overcome because everywhere you turn, it is up to you. I learned to control the narrative of my life from an early age when I discovered the art of dreaming, which is to create a state of mind in which you think big and achieve big. she shares.
Kirlew told the Sunday Observer that her world was first “enlightened” when she began attending Praise Chapel Kindergarten, where she was dubbed “a big, big bundle of potential.” She then moved on to Mount Salem Primary and Junior High, which was renamed Mount Salem Primary, as her parents could not afford Praise Chapel Preparatory.
Then she moved on to Rusea High School.
“Here, I can definitely say that I was hungry for success; I needed more than zinc fences and gunshots. I worked extremely hard to ensure that I was always one of the best students in my class and in my school. I graduated from high school with the eight subjects I took at CSTC [Caribbean Secondary Examination Certificate]“, she recalls.
Crime also fueled his fire to excel and get out of the community.
“I could have died many times, looking through gun nozzles and having knives held at the waist by unidentified people,” she said.
After graduating, she went to sixth form where she passed four units of CAPE [Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination] topics. Kirlew told the Sunday Observer that she then made the boldest and best decision of her life, and was attending Shortwood Teachers’ College to pursue a Bachelor of Education, not knowing exactly how the fees would be paid.
“It was a shock to my family because it was never a topic of discussion, but it was enough to give hope and ignite conversations. It was a dream, a dream that would eliminate my problems and provide blocks to build a stronger foundation to break family cycles. I just knew that I had to be able to take care of my family, especially my two brothers. Divinely, and through the efforts of my parents, I became a first generation to attend university.
She graduated with top first class honors.
“This experience ripened so many opportunities, including a mandatory immersion program in Panama. I made sure to take full advantage of the program by practicing my Spanish skills.
Kirlew recalls several occasions when she tried to get help from a ‘esteemed person’, but the many calls were ‘put on hold in hopes of returning and the letter was never answered. “Naturally, we’re busy, but I want to shine a light on the bright minds of downtown as they exist. We too deserve a fighting chance, a listening ear, awards and grants.”
Poverty, she says, is a debilitating factor in trying inner city kids.
“I took care of my brothers and sisters while my parents worked. I remember saving my lunch money so I could buy them something to eat until my parents got home. There were also days when I gladly took the fare only and went to school and sometimes received PATH [Programme of Advancement through Health and Education] advantages. And days when the pan with a butter knife was my best friend,” she said.
“I say these things not to invoke sadness, but to show real situations with real little humans in a real place, and to inspire everyone reading this that there is so much more to life and that your greater self is waiting for you. I overcame my situation because I wanted… there is no guide, there is nothing special. All it takes is a child who wants more and is willing to identify their strengths and actively pursue them.
Kirlew got her first real job at Ardenne High while still in college, which sometimes saw her going back and forth between Ardenne and Shortwood.
She suffered from fainting spells and when she regained consciousness, she had no memory of anything before, causing her to miss a few months of college and not finish her exams.
“After college, I decided to broaden my horizons by accepting a position in France, which was strongly encouraged by the modern language department at Shortwood. France had been the country of my dreams since the age of 16. I lived and worked in France for almost a year, during which time I had the opportunity to travel to other countries such as Spain and Belgium, and lived life in a beautiful way,” Kirlew told the Sunday Observer.
After the year, she returned to Jamaica to help raise her brothers and teach for two years. She said throughout this period: “My heart cared about the young girls I saw on the streets. This led to the writing of my first book, Awakened by a dream. It is a mirror of my life aimed at inspiring and empowering young women to know that they are worthy, deserving and capable of achieving great things.
Kirlew added that she plans to start a foundation to help inner-city girls, create a scholarship in her name, give back to student teachers, and earn her master’s and doctoral degrees in the near future.
Kirlew, originally from The Valley, a community located in Mount Salem, St James, currently teaches Spanish and French in the United States.
Jonnea Kirlew graduated from Shortwood Teachers’ College in 2018 with first class honours.