By Lara Pickford-Gordon
From Akini’s childhood, his father nurtured a love of steel pan music and took him to band practice in the Desperados’ pan yard, and to J’Ouvert when the band played.
He joined the Trinity All Generations Steel (TAGS) at eight years as his mother took him and his brother to church at Trinity Cathedral. He ended up with the chac chac and tambourine and watched in disappointment as peers moved on. It took him seven years to be able to hold the pan sticks properly.
Gill said he improved “bit by bit” being in TAGS. He fondly mentioned the influence of his music teacher at Belmont Boys’ Secondary, George Sambrano; Avis Bruce who patiently worked with him at TAGS and the late Jacqueline Commissiong ‘Aunty Jacki’ for mentorship and encouragement.
Commissiong was instrumental in his getting into The University of the West Indies, St Augustine, (UWI) 2004 to do a two-year Certificate in Music (pan).
“I tried cricket. I did ‘fraid the cork ball. I tried football and my coordination wasn’t up to par. I tried to make bench and table because I learned woodwork at Eshe’s, but I used to pound my finger instead of the nail, so I resorted to music,” Gill said.
At UWI, he had to adjust since the Creative and Festival Arts department did not have resources to assist him. UWI’s Disability Unit was familiar with physical disabilities but did not know about dyspraxia.
Gill had to learn to sing sol-fa – a pedagogical technique to teach music in which the notes do, re, mi….are used to represent the tones of a scale, and improve his “rolling”- playing sustained notes on the pan and hitting the smaller notes on the middle of the tenor pan.
He said the challenges of this time were continuous but “bit by bit” so were the improvements.
Gill moved on from a certificate to BA in Music and upon completion in 2009 thought he could be a music teacher because music had given him hope. He taught at TAGS, then at primary schools in the Education Ministry’s Pan in the Classroom Unit under the now called Multicultural Unit.
Gill’s mother always supported and motivated. One of her sayings was “faith is something you cannot see but it is always there”. She always wanted the positive and believed he could learn.
The Catholic News was told St Clair attended PTA meetings and sought what was needed for her son. “… no one would feel sorry for a Laventille boy with disabilities and give him any handouts…so she gave him, through example and encouragement, the tools he needed to fight for what he wanted”.
Gill said his self-determination came from her, faith in God and a feeling inside. “Various players have their roles in the child’s education. However, the child also must have the drive to progress and do well…you have to want it, to be hungry for it…”
Gill said there is no cure for his learning disabilities but he could not make them an excuse for not performing. He added, “At university, I was not ease up, because you have to maintain the university standard. So at university level all over the world, persons with disabilities, it is either you can make it or you cannot make it, and there are those who will not reach as far as I did and those who will reach even further.”
Off to New York
By further he is referring to the Master of Arts he earned at New York University (NYU). His thesis was ‘Teaching Music to Children with Learning Disabilities in Trinidad and Tobago’, a topic close to his heart. The introduction was about him, but it focused on “how to teach music, the actual music content”. Gill said his oral defence of the thesis was called “one of the best ever” by the thesis committee of NYU’s music education department.
It was not an easy road to NYU. The scholarship he was awarded in 2011 was rescinded because of an “administrative error”. It exposed a policy which did not recognise academic achievement by persons with disabilities. “Citizens with learning disabilities are not allowed to go away and study,” he said.
He is passionate that children with disabilities need appropriate accommodation and resources to help them reach their highest academic performance. He commented, “There is a culture in our country among some people that students with learning abilities cannot learn so it is a waste of resources; it is a waste of taxpayers’ money to spend on students with learning challenges.”
His lobby to keep his scholarship was highlighted in the media and eventually he could go.
The NYU experience was “one of the best experiences” he ever had at an educational institution. He returned home later in 2013, taught a few months at Mucurapo West Secondary before joining the University of Trinidad and Tobago Centre for Education Programmes, Valsayn.
For the past four years Gill has been teaching a general music course and practicum courses to Early Childhood Care and Education, primary and special education teachers. Gill relates his story, encouraging them to keep hope and faith.
What is his message to a teacher today? “Have patience and do not give up; go the extra mile with the child. I am the product of some of my teachers who went the extra mile, who gave me their time, their personal time, outside the classroom.”
Gill said he wrote Behind the Bridge to the Impossible Dream to document his journey and provide hope to education stakeholders that students with disabilities can learn and can “sometimes on occasion even outperform those who are typically developed”.
And Gill continues to dream. In two years, he intends to pursue his doctorate in Special Education.
His book is available at RIK and Charran’s bookstores and The UWI bookstore or call 705-3380 or firstname.lastname@example.org.