On Friday, November 11, Sherma Wilson experienced heartfelt joy mixed with relief and tinged with a bit of sadness–the sadness of a mother who knew the pain of her child as he swam for his life against perilous tides; pain that had brought them to that moment.
It was her son's moment and Wilson was not about to deprive him of it.
She joined in as her 28-year-old son Kareem Marcelle embraced the jubilant crowd from his community of Beetham Gardens that had gathered on the steps of the Hall of Justice to help him celebrate his success. Marcelle was one of 196 new attorneys inducted into the law fraternity on November 10 and 11. But his journey had been far different from those of his peers.
“He probably died so many times inside, but he was able to be reborn and return with more strength, so I liken him to the phoenix, rising from the ashes,” Wilson told Sunday Guardian a few days later.
Quick to observe that her son was not the first success story from Beetham Gardens as there were engineers, pharmacists, athletes, and even recently a doctor who originated from the area, the mother of four felt Marcelle's appointment to the bar–a first for Beetham–was worthy of praise.
“They ask why you celebrate. People say everyone goes through problems in life. I understand that everybody has a story to tell, but coming from a place like Beetham it's a great achievement. I think Beetham Gardens is the most stigmatised community in this country...even because of physically where we are situated between a mangrove and a dump site,” she said.
Between hunger pangs, family turmoil and bullets, her son managed to establish himself as a youth activist and leader; the person to go to for help with a work recommendations, employment, and school supplies or to help organise cultural and sporting activities in their troubled community. Through appearances in mainstream and social media, he is known nationally for his social work and activism in which he has been involved since age 12. He has been in the headlines also as the first recipient of the Makandal Daaga Scholarship in Law in 2017 from UWI.
As Marcelle gave, others gave to him. His mother explained that as a single parent for most of his life, she managed to keep him and his three older siblings on an upward course in their hot spot community plagued by poverty, crime and gang warfare through her foundations of strong values from her parents, God's Word, an early childhood course and the support of family and mentors.
Initially stumbling as a strict parent or “tiger mum”, she said along the way, she learnt how to be firm but flexible. She felt parents should involve their children in youth groups, clubs and extra-curricular activities, and suggested that Government put greater emphasis on parenting policies to teach parents how to nurture their children, and on proper safe houses for women and children.
“It takes a village, a community to raise a child and with Kareem, it took a nation. Trinidad and Tobago helped me raise Kareem,” she said.
Wilson has shared her story and message on the Evening Drive as a former radio host alongside the late Sprangalang and the late Marcia Henville at Power 102 FM and also had a Saturday morning segment entitled “Smelling Like a Rose”. She left radio about three years ago and works as a social and community services officer at the Housing Development Corporation. She was also an alderman at the San Juan Regional Corporation from 2013 to 2016, and long before these roles, she had been a community activist.
Wilson would fight for causes, make representation for the people, and help others in her community. She was happy when Marcelle, her last child, showed qualities and interests similar to hers.
“The spirit I had in me, he had in him,” she recalled.
She traced her ties with the Beetham community to her childhood.
The fourth of 13 children, Wilson spent her earliest days with her mother, Hilda Wilson, stepfather, Kenrick Alexis and the first of her siblings in Shanty Town, a hotchpotch of shacks at the northwestern end of what is known today as Beetham Gardens.
Running around the ramshackled neighbourhood and playing by the standpipe, life was carefree for the children. But as Wilson explained, her mother would gather rags from the dump, wash them and sell them to a mop company, while her stepfather would earn money selling bottles. They were poor but her parents taught them values. Her mother was loving and would give her last morsel of food to the neighbours. Her stepfather made sure to take care of his household.
The family happily gained a two-bedroom duplex flat when the Shanty Town community was relocated to a new place called Beetham Gardens south of Laventille and northeast of Sea Lots.
After her first child–a son–Wilson quickly became pregnant with a second and left her parents' home to go higher up Beetham to live in a duplex flat with the children's father who had been displaced from John John when a large fire had gutted the area. With two sons 11 months apart, the men in the area used to say she would be like her mother and make 13. She gave birth to a daughter years later and made sure to “tie” her “tubes” (tubal ligation) after she had Kareem.
After she had her first two boys, Wilson had become qualified as an early childhood educator through SERVOL and ran her own kindergarten in the community for a time.
“I always loved working with children and that formed part of my foundation to become a better parent. I know there's no such thing as a perfect parent. My parents weren't perfect, so from that, my first two sons got the kneeling on the grater with their hands up in the air, you know, the extreme punishment. When I got into early childhood education, I realised there was a better way. So Kareem and his sister were able to get that better form of parenting from me,” Wilson said.
But being the youngest, Marcelle felt the “brunt” of the pain whenever the family faced crises. In his SEA (Secondary Entrance Assessment) year, his father, who had barely helped his mother make ends meet as a market sweeper, left for the US. While the family thought he would go for three months and earn some money to ease their situation, he had been planning to take full advantage of the big streets and bright lights of America offered to him by a woman with whom he had been involved before he had met Wilson. News that he had gotten married to the woman also hit hard.
Wilson tried to be strong, remembering what her own mother had taught her about keeping a brave face.
“But I cried. I really cried for some time. I was only human.”
Desperate to feed her children, she tried selling chicken and chips and running a parlour, but like the kindergarten, the ventures failed. As transportation money was scarce, she had to make the children take turns going to school.
Pushing through SEA, Marcelle passed for the government-subsidised private school Daniel's Community College. He was elated that he had gotten a “college” but his mother did not have the heart to break his enthusiasm.
Still, it seemed that for every disappointment, someone was sent by a higher force to steady Marcelle and keep him going.
Daniel's Community College closed soon after he took up classes there and his former primary school teacher Mr Logan intervened, taking the child to Trinity College in Maraval where Llewellyn “Short Pants” McIntosh was principal. They saw something in him, his mother said. He proved them right, later making the debate club and becoming the National Youth Parliamentarian in 2012.
But another blow to the family came when Marcelle was about to write CSEC and his father was charged with the murder of his American wife. Later, news that he had been sentenced to 30 years to life also shook them.
On Wilson's birthday one year, they had to endure the horror of gunshots raining on their roof and Marcelle running into traffic for his life after coming face to face with gunmen in a case of mistaken identity when he had gone back to help a friend who had stood frozen after everyone else had scampered with the spray of bullets.
Through all his adversity, Marcelle had never given up on his one dream, his mother said. From his Sacred Heart Boys' RC Primary School, he had always watched the capable-looking attorneys in their smart attire at the nearby Director of Public Prosecutions office and longed to be one of them. He tried attending law school, but at the time, the Government Assistance for Tuition Expenses programme (GATE) was under review, and he had to drop out because of the family's financial constraints.
One day before the application deadline, a friend told him about a new scholarship–the Makandal Daaga Scholarship in Law and encouraged him to apply. His impactful community work helped him to beat out other local and regional applicants.
“He called me crying and I couldn't tell that there was joy in the tears. I wanted to know if something had happened to this child,” Wilson said, recalling the day they found out her son had won.
“Kareem is a dreamer, a believer,” she commented more than once, adding that he works and makes things happen.
Her son has worked tirelessly in groups such as the Beetham Gardens Village Council, BEYOND and the Positive Impact Organisation which carry out food drives and offer sports and cultural activities, guidance, academic assistance and supplies to students. An annual Christmas party for children is one of his most rewarding projects.
Advising other parents on nurturing successful charges, Wilson said: “Love your children unconditionally but don't let that cloud your parenting, be consistent. Know them as individuals because sometimes parents compare their children. I started off doing that and then I realised that wasn't the right way. Be good examples, teach them to share, to be kind. Find time to spend with them, observe them, pop some popcorn, play some dominoes, and let them feel attached to you and vice versa. With each mistake they make, use it to teach them as a life lesson.”
The grandmother of six felt that a parenting policy could teach parents how to deal with their role. She said if people really understood what family was about, there would be no such entities as single-parent households as the extended family and community would step up and bolster such families.
A shirt here, some school books there, it was her own family that held her up, she recalled.
She also had praise for a long list of mentors and well-wishers who helped chart Marcelle's course, including his primary school teacher Mr Logan who took him to Trinity, the school's principal Llewellyn McIntosh, head of the Beetham Police Youth Club and retired police inspector Sheila Prince, Inspector Ian Charles an Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) officer of the Hearts and Minds community outreach programme and Beetham Youth Club, head of IATF Senior Superintendent Oswain Subero, former dean of the Holy Trinity Cathedral Canon Knolly Clarke, David Muhammad, the friend who told him about the scholarship attorney Jonathan Bhagan, UWI and his professors, and Pamela Elder and Associates.
Wilson also lamented the lack of safe places for women and children suffering abuse. It was to a cousin's house that she fled for a week when she had her first two children to escape the blows of their father. But having left her two boys behind as her cousin could not provide shelter for them, she returned home after a week. With her common-law husband's stern warnings for her not to start a new relationship, even after he had left for the States, she constantly lived in fear of him.
Fear drove her to accept a home in Central several years ago. She wanted Marcelle and his sister to leave with her, but with all his responsibilities in Beetham Gardens, he decided to stay.
On November 11 outside the Hall of Justice, a surprised Marcelle was swallowed in a sea of supporters clad in black and white. Their colour scheme represented his law robes. His mother said his sister and others wanted to make a big statement to him, but she was concerned that with the Hall of Justice being sacred grounds, people might have thought it to be a riot or protest. They informed the police and printed jerseys bearing tags like “Beetham Proud: Kareem Marcelle.”
She remembered having to take a while to process the towering figure of her son walking the steps of the building in his new robes.
“His achievement is the end of one chapter; he has more to accomplish,” she said.