In January of 1999, I was a fifth form student at Jamaica College. I had just started my final semester in high school, and I was excited about graduating. I had dreamed about finishing high school ever since my first day, and now it was less than six months away. Back then, I thought to finish high school was synonymous to adulthood. I had my plans all laid out in my head; I would finish high school and go straight to university. That plan, however, was based on me passing at least five of the eight subjects I would be sitting. One of those subjects was Biology, It along with General Electricity were my favorite subjects. All in all, things were great; I had made the basketball team, and I was doing well okay in school. I was awarded fifth form prefect and a member of the student council and graduation committee (How? only God knows). The only dark cloud hanging over my final semester in high school was my School Based Assessments.
School Based Assessment or SBA, was a way of “assessing particular knowledge, skills and attitudes that are associated with the subjects and are not easily evaluated in external examinations.” Students had a chance to sit the final exams having already secured a percentage of the final grade and had an opportunity to improve upon that grade. The SBA was normally 20-25% of the final grade; students understood that it was hard to pass the subject if they failed the SBA. This form of evaluation resulted in a lot of stressed out students running around the school trying to maximize their SBA grades
They announced in biology class that as part of the SBA, we would be going on a field trip to Hellshire beach. There was a lot of excitement associated with this news; students were more than happy to leave school for a day, even if it was SBA related. The biology teacher gave all the students permission slips to take home to our parents. I took home my permission slip, but I never gave it to my mother. To this day I don’t know why I didn’t give my mom the permission slip. I kept that permission slip for over ten years as a reminder of what happened before my house flooded and destroyed it. (I accidentally left the facet on with a plate in the sink) For some reason I was not excited to go on this field trip. It was for one of my favourite subjects – biology, we were going to be on the beach and my friends were going to be there, but I still wasn’t looking forward to the trip.
The day of the field trip came, and I decided I wasn’t going to go. Even if I wanted to, at this point I wouldn’t have been able to go because I hadn’t given my mother the permission slip. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do all day, but I knew it wouldn’t be school work. I spent the day messing around with my neighborhood friends, who strangely were also not at school. I kept thinking how I was missing out by being at home, and I wanted to talk to my classmates to find out what was happening. Back then, cellular phones were not as prevalent as they are today. I was dreading going to back to school and hearing how much fun they had swimming and playing. That was not going to be the case, though.
It was now late evening, and I had forgotten about the field trip altogether. I remember receiving or making a call. I can’t be certain, but I remember speaking to Lamar over the telephone. Lamar was one of my closest friends at school. We had been friends since 1st form. It wasn’t the norm for us to speak on the phone, that and the tone of his voice told me that something bad had happened. I was kind of hoping that he would have said that they had a horrible time and that school work took up most of the day. Looking back at it, I guess he wasn’t sure how to break the news to me. I remember him saying something like “Di man dem drown yuh nuh!” I asked him to repeat as only a Jamaican could, and he obliged. As he went into the chilling details, I kept hoping it was just a sick joke. By the time I got off the phone, the news was everywhere. It was on the local news. “Tragedy on field trip.” “Four JC students drown at Hellshire.” I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing. I was supposed to be there with my classmates. I would have been in the water. One of the students that drowned was a friend of mine. We were on the basketball team together. This nightmare was not happening. How could four students drown from one school much less one class? But it did happen, up to news time they had only found one of the bodies. By the end of the week, they would find two more; they never found the fourth body.
For days, maybe weeks we were unable to have regular classes. The whole school was in mourning. The teachers and students were in a state of shock. Those who were present on that tragic day began to tell their stories. There were stories of lack of supervision, students given permission to swim even though it was supposed to be an educational trip, the area not being suitable for swimming and mysterious objects (including candles) being found on the beach the morning of the trip. There were also stories of how a brave student risked his life trying to save the drowning boys and how one of the boys died trying to rescue his classmates.
The Biology teacher blamed herself for what happened. I am not sure if she ever got over it. The hero student received an award for his bravery. The funerals came and went, I attended one of the funerals and it is the last funeral I have attended since. For the rest of the school year, we didn’t speak about the incident. In fact, in the years since the incident, it is hardly ever mentioned. Years later and I am still close friends with Lamar and we still don’t feel comfortable discussing the incident.
I saw the hero student about two years ago. It was evident that he was suffering from mental health issues or a drug problem. His father accompanied him, and his behavior was a little off-putting. I tried to have a conversation with him, but I was unable to. He was unresponsive and had a sad look about him. After awhile, he started getting boisterous, and it took his father to calm him down. I couldn’t help but wonder if his present condition was somehow related to the tragic events that occurred on Hellshire beach fifteen years ago. My concerns were confirmed when to calm him down; his father uttered words to the effect of “You are still a hero son.”
I still don’t know why I never gave my mother the permission slip and why I didn’t go on the field trip. Sometimes I wonder how different my life would have been if I had made that fateful trip.
Rest in Peace to those four boys.
Fervet Opus in Campis.
Newspaper stories on the incident