Festive graduation ceremony in Pointe Blanche

POSTED: 09/16/15 9:47 PM

JPEG image-3492B480FC93-1Pointe Blanche students proudly show their certificates in the company of the chairman of the supervisory board, Mauritsz de Kort, Education Minister Rita Bourne-Gumbs and Pointe Blanche Prison Director Edward Rohan. Photo Today / Hilbert Haar

“If you study you will leave here a better person”

St. Maarten – The usually grim atmosphere in the Pointe Blanche prison turned festive yesterday morning when a group of 23 inmates gathered for a ceremony to receive the certificates that attest to the successful conclusion of their studies. Justice Minister Dennis Richardson, Education Minister Rita Bourne-Gumbs and the chairman of the prison’s supervisory board Mauritsz de Kort were all at hand to offer words of encouragement and respect to the students.

The students graduate from a string of different courses like English, Dutch, social skills, carpentry, welding and music. It is a step towards studying for their GED – the equivalent of a high school diploma.

Prison Director Edward Rohan congratulated teachers and students with “a wonderful job.” He noted that this graduation is not the end: “Please continue and encourage others to do something also with education in the prison.”

Justice Minister Dennis Richardson told the students about the challenges he had met as a young man. “I had a drive to learn as much as possible. I was one of the first members of the library and I wanted to become a doctor, but that was not possible. I was the offered the possibility to study public administration. It took me in a completely different direction. I never thought that one day I would be the minister of justice.”

There was of course a message in this story. “On your road in life you will meet challenges,” the minister said. “You are the one to determine the direction you are going to take. Never give up and put your life on the good road. I am glad that all of you have decided to study. St. Maarten needs all hands on deck.”

Education Minister Rita Bourne-Gumbs thanked the instructors for offering education in Pointe Blanche. “This is the first time in my life I have been here,” she said. For you,” she told the students, “this is a moment to reflect on the choices you have made in the past. You can break with those choices and look towards the future. The choices you make today determine that future. Don’t go back to your past choices.”

The Minister said that she had her qualms about going to prison. “But in the end, I decided this is a ceremony I did not want to miss.”

Mauritsz de Kort is not only the chairman of the prison’s supervisory board, he is also the Judge of Instruction and a judge on the bench in the Court in First Instance. “I am sure some of you will be mad at me,” he said with a reference to decisions he took about the detention of suspects. “I am here wearing another hat and as the chairman of the supervisory board I get all these complaints letters about the prison. Sometimes it looks like nothing is good here. But you have proven you wrong and you have proven me wrong.”

At their trials, De Kort said, “it turned out that you did something wrong. But you are all good people and I want you to remain that way. Let me continue being proud of you. And please, don’t let me down.”

“Whatever your mind can conceive and believe, your mind can achieve,” Oswald Francis, one of the instructors told the students, mistakenly attributing this quote to Marcus Garvey. Though appropriate, the quote is commonly attributed to Napoleon Hill an American author who pioneered in personal success of literature. His most famous book Think and Grow Rich had sold 20 million copies worldwide at the time of his death in 1970.

“You have achieved that,” Francis said. “We never saw you as inmates, we saw you as our sons. We are your parents and it is our role to make you disciplined, learning and achieving. When you achieve something, you are our sons.”

Francis asked the graduates to encourage their friends to get involved in the education program.

He told the students that he has visited other prisons in the region. “The way you are treated here is superior to what happens on other islands, but this is of course not a hotel.”

I have heard it said that studying is something for girls. Believe me, if you study you will leave here a better person.”

Turning to Justice Minister Richardson and Education Minister Bourne-Gumbs, Francis said, “We should make this program mandatory. That way we’ll produce better citizens.”

Francis went on to tell a parable. The story is about a 96-year-old man who lived in Middle Region – Uncle Joe. “Everyone came to him for advice under the tamarind tree. Tom wanted to know how wise he really was and he went up to him holding a bird in his hand behind his back.”

He asked Uncle Joe whether the bird was dead or alive. If the wise man answered that the bird was dead, Tom would let him fly away. If he said he was alive, he would squeeze it to death. “Uncle Joe said: whether the bird is dead or alive depends on you.”

Prison Director Edward Rohan said goodbye to Ginette Artsen who taught at the prison for more than eight years.

“I taught math and science since 2007,” Artsen said in a brief address. “This is preparation for the GED-program. Do it here because if you leave and you have to do it on the outside, it will cost you more than $1,000. Here, all you have to do is get up and come to class.”

Artsen said that the class of 2015 had a 100 percent graduation rate. “We had one student with the highest grades in math of all time,” she added.

The teachers – Elfreda Lake, Edward Hollis, Ginette Artsen, Oswald Francis, Joan Sharplis, Vernon Illidge, Sheena Romney, Leo de Windt and Les Brown  – all received a certificate of appreciation.

Master of ceremonies Selvin Williams also received such a certificate, having been the mentor of the students for more than five years.

Williams thanked the St. Maarten Hospitality and Trade Association and the St. Maarten Timeshare Association for supporting the program by providing study materials. “I guess my computer is on the way,” he joked.

That the education program appeals to the students became clear when some of them received certificates for the completion of as many as four different courses. Every grad received a warm applause from fellow-students and invited guests, while some of the grads found themselves on the receiving end of a humorous description of their development from their teachers.

At the end of the ceremonies, this newspaper invited students for a group picture. While not all grads wanted to have their picture in the newspaper, more than half of them were eager enough to show the outside world that they are now on a positive path.



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