“The system made me feel like I was nothing,” James said, and for years she underperformed. No encouragement came from her teachers and James was often the child sitting at the back of the class who was never asked a question or called upon to do anything. School, she recalled, was “a dark and lonely place” and not being able to read made the environment more difficult to survive in. But James internalised all the rejection she felt from teachers and set her own goals. She decided that her success was tied to how much she wanted an education and ignored what teachers wrote on her report card.
“It took me 12 years to finish secondary school if you count the years I spent writing examinations after I left. I was slow, but not incapable of graduating. The teachers didn’t believe in me and I struggled until the day I met one who did,” she observed during a recent interview at Newsday Head Office, Chacon Street, Port-of-Spain.
James, who grew up in Couva and is now working as a senior education consultant in London, learnt how to read after she left secondary school and has since excelled beyond expectations. James disclosed that she could not spell her own name while in secondary school and settled on calling herself, “Paula,” which was easier to remember.
Paula stayed with her and today she goes by the name Michaellee Paula James. In addition to working as a consultant, James is an attorney and is qualified to practise in England and Wales. But her passion is helping students who are struggling to cope in school. In October this year, NALIS invited James to Trinidad and Tobago to lecture in schools during Literary Week. The sessions have been so popular that James is still here talking to students, and she is also working along with the Adult Literacy Tutors Association of Trinidad and Tobago (ALTA).
She said of her visit: “I love being afforded the opportunity to be home and to talk to students about my struggles and achievements. My message is to the teachers, parents and students, especially the students. I tell them to scrap the negative things teachers say and write their own destiny because that’s what I did.”
The road to an education was paved with rejection and pain for James and every time a teacher looked at her and said she couldn’t cope with the curriculum, she worked to prove them wrong. But as she puts its, “It wasn’t easy proving them wrong.”
James failed the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) twice and was denied entry into a secondary school. She was written off as someone who couldn’t cope with academics and placed at a post-primary institution to learn how to read, cook and sew.
She also failed O’Levels when she made it to secondary school, but was determined to get six passes so she wrote the examinations eight times – twice in secondary school and five times after she left.
“I didn’t have a foundation like most children, I went from home to primary school and I found it hard to cope, ” James explained. She had health scares as a child and was kept at home to avoid falling ill, but her mother could not read and was therefore not in a position to teach the young James.
Despite all her struggles when James left secondary school she signed up for Teacher’s Training College and was later awarded a teacher’s diploma. She then moved to England to attend the University of Westminster where she obtained a postgraduate degree in psychology and a graduate membership with The British Psychological Society. She was later appointed as a visiting lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the London Metropolitan University.
Subsequent to this, James studied law at the University of North London where she obtained a Bachelor (Hons) Degree in Education and also completed her postgraduate law degree.
She said of her success: “I wrote my own destiny. I meet students who are right where I was and I encourage them to keep going, and to give some consideration to strategies that will take them forward.”
James now resides in London but she frequents Trinidad and Tobago to hold motivational sessions with students. These talks, she said, are important for the students who are slipping through the cracks and those who are contemplating dropping out. She stressed that options are limited for students who drop out, adding that crime and the related perils still count as an alternative for students without an education.
Commenting on the local education system, James praised the focus on special education saying that the students who move at a slower pace benefit from this. “There were no such provisions in my time so I’m happy to see it now, but we still have the problem of students at the primary level who are going over to secondary unable to read.”
She suggested that a learning support network could be set up in schools to provide assistance to slow learners. “Speaking from personal experience, when you cannot read you feel ashamed, excluded and you have very little self-esteem. We need some system in place to catch these children.”
James is also a published author and poet, and in February this year she travelled home to launch her book of poetry titled, I’m Thinking. She is working on a second book which is set for release in 2015.