“Dear lil Brother, You are fairly new to the world, and I want to tell you a few little things so you can be ahead of the game.”
So begins a poetic short essay by Jalany, 14, whose compelling letter to his unborn brother was shared with the school community this week.
The ninth grader modeled his piece after Girl, an essay by acclaimed author Jamaica Kincaid, which was originally published in the New Yorker during her 20 years as staff writer for the magazine. He and his English class studied the essay during a recent unit on short stories.
“I liked how she was so… on it,” Jalany said about his first read of Kincaid’s essay. “She really wanted this girl to know her stuff.”
In the work, Jalany found parallels to the pressures he has faced to live up to his community’s expectations of him as teenage boy. At his prior school, Jalany found himself surrounded by a large group of peers, and recalls that all too often their influence silenced his voice and steered him toward some bad decisions.
“I’ve fallen into peer pressure,” Jalany said. “I’ve done some things I wish I didn’t do, but I did it in the moment.”
A “wise woman” — his mom — told him to be sure to select his friends carefully, using a monetary metaphor that, he says, he thinks about “all the time.” In his written response to Kincaid’s piece, Jalany shared the wisdom with his soon-to-be-born little brother.
“I don’t want him ever to feel like he gotta do this because somebody wants him to do it, or somebody will like him better,” he explained.
“I’m used to being in a big crowd,” he added, which sometimes meant that at his former school there were “so many opportunities to do the wrong thing.”
Kincaid, who severed ties with her family in Antigua at 17 to move to an affluent New York suburb, emerged as a writer whose work offered a blunt and authentic perspective on cultural and gender norms at the height of the Women’s Liberation movement.
Kincaid’s 1978 essay reads as a stream-of-consciousness instruction set that both highlights and critiques socio-cultural expectations of young women.
In his own essay to his future little brother, Jalany focused on positive activities that he uses to promote his own success, including producing electronic music with Logic software, and participating in track and field (he’s a record-holding sprinter).
The assignment culminated a unit in LLA English teacher Ely González’s class, during which the students read short stories by Langston Hughes, Octavia Butler, and other celebrated American authors.
González prompted the class to use the Kincaid essay as a stylistic template for their final essay in part because her narrative explores societal expectations.
“I thought it was really interesting for the class,” she said, noting that her roster coincidentally contained almost all boys.
“It raised the question of how do we treat women, and what are the differences between the kind of guidance that you as a male received versus what girls receive.”
These questions, Jalany said, felt relevant because he finds that as a young man his peers and the world around him create pressure to hide how he feels. In reflecting on his writing, Jalany expressed hope that his new sibling will learn to combat these beliefs that could cause him to not be his true self.
“Everybody got emotions. It can’t just be a woman thing,” Jalany said, acknowledging that his new brother will likely experience some of the same challenges he has faced, and hoping that his influence can help.
“He might come back to it, later on in life,” he said, “and figure out some of the stuff I was telling him. He’ll like that. He’s gonna need it.”
With a confidence that echoed Kincaid’s resonant voice in Girl, Jalany added “I’m gonna be me, no matter if you want me to, or you don’t.”
Above: Jalany’s annotated text of Girl by Jamaica Kincaid. Top: Jalany in his english classroom. Photos by Justin Warren
Dear lil brother,
You are fairly new to the world, and I want to tell you a few little things so you can be ahead of the game. Keep your circle small. A wise woman once told me it is always better to have 4 solid quarters than 100 pennies. Never feel bad about saying no to someone because you will find yourself in a world where you have nothing for yourself. Learn to do things for yourself because there’s not always gonna be people there to help you. Never join a gang. I know it seems cool in the media and the way today’s rappers try to make it seem but it’s really not cool at all. If you ever feel like you need to join something like that join a fraternity aka a brotherhood. Instead of being part of destruction you can be a part of something positive, like play sports, join a club, make music, study for a test, and volunteer your time for a good cause. Never cry in public because then people are going to label you as weak or or soft and try to push you around because they think you won’t do anything about it. Always stay clean because people don’t like to be around a dirty person. Always be respectful to your elders and really listen and take advantage of the opportunity to learn the thing that they are telling you because you just might need that info one day. Always make sure you stay yourself never try to change who you are for anyone but yourself. Make sure to do well in school because the better you do in school the more money you can make in the future. Never cry in public because people are going to think you’re soft and then they will try to push you around. Like I said, I don’t expect you to understand all of this stuff right now. But one day, you will think about this conversation and be glad I told you this stuff early, because trust me, you’re gonna need it.