From adversity to triumph: Akini Gill lives the impossible dream
Akini Gill with his book 'From Behind the Bridge to the Impossible Dream'
Akini Gill’s story is the stuff of a Hollywood tearjerker.
Gill was born in Laventille to a teenage mother, scorned by the school system because he couldn’t read, talk or write properly and is today a teacher with a Master’s degree.
His entire life story is chronicled in his book: “From Behind the Bridge to The Impossible Dream”, which was officially launched on Tuesday.
“This book is to inspire hope to teachers, students and everyone who plays a role in children’s lives especially those with learning challenges and disabilities. This to give them hope that they can achieve and reach their fullest academic potential even those who we call typically developed students,” Gill told Loop.
His story is one of determination. Determination on the part of his mother, Elizabeth Ann St Clair, and his own internal drive to overcome his challenges.
St Clair, who the book is dedicated to, gave birth to Gill at the age of 19. Two years after, she gave birth to her second son. St Clair could not read when she became a mother but at the age of 25, when Gill was six, she learned.
Though she noticed that her eldest was developing a lot slower than her youngest son, St Clair realised something was wrong when she read to her boys at night and only the youngest, Afiba, would answer questions that she asked.
In the book, Gill wrote that his mother removed him from his first pre-school in the belief that his inability was somehow the teacher’s fault.
“In the second preschool there were similar complaints about my academic performance but they were more understanding. In primary school they complained too about my handwriting, speech, and ability to understand basic concepts,” said Gill.
“My mum was always determined. She would tell the teachers that her child could learn, she was never afraid to ask for help. People referred to her as boldfaced but she was just determined."
Throughout his school life, he was met with nasty comments. One teacher, he said, told his mother she was better off planting peas in Tobago than having him. Teachers would refuse to mark his papers because of his handwriting and others passed him off as lazy.
His mother refused to be deterred and reached out to Anna Lucie Smith at the Adult Literacy Tutors Association (ALTA), who referred her to Catherine Kelshall. This introduction, Gill wrote, was the miraculous turning point in his life.
Akini Gill addresses the audience at his book launch on Tuesday
Through Kelshall, Gill was evaluated and was told his speech was in the “retarded range”. He was also diagnosed with dyslexia and dyspraxia, a neurological disorder throughout the brain that results in life-long impaired motor, memory, judgment, processing, and other cognitive skills.
Gill enrolled at Eshe’s Learning Centre, a school dedicated to children with learning disabilities. In the two years he spent there, he got individual attention and therapy which helped him to improve.
“Our conversations (about special needs) are about resources and needs but do not match the reality in the system. The system has to become like my mother…not every challenged student will have a determined mother, not every challenged student will meet Catherine Kelshall to contribute. I benefited a lot from personal time. A lot of us help with cash but in my case, a lot of people spent time in getting to me to improve on my weak areas,” he said.
At the then Belmont Boys Secondary School, Gill still struggled but managed to gain three passes at O’levels. One of them was in music.
Thanks to his father, Steve Anthony Gill, who passed away recently, Gill was introduced to music. His father, a fan of the famous steel band Desperadoes, used to take him to the pan yard.
Gill fell in love with the steelpan and as a teen joined the Trinity All Generations Steel School of the Arts (TAGS). Due to the Dyspraxia, he could not hold the pan sticks and was relegated to playing the chac-chac. It took him seven years of constant practice to learn to hold the sticks so he could play.
At TAGS, he passed his exams up to Grade six in Theory and Tenor Pan practical and decided to pursue a career in music through a certificate course at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine.
Desperadoes pan side was the furl for Akini Gill's love of music
“I tried other things. I tried football but the coordination wasn’t there. I tried cricket but I used to run from the ball. I tried doing things around the house but I would hit my fingers instead of the nail with the hammer. Music was the only thing I passed in secondary school. It was the only thing that had some sunshine. Music chose me.”
After completing the certificate course, Gill got accepted to UWI to do a Bachelor’s degree in Musical Arts in the Department of Festival Arts. Despite challenges like not being able to sing, he graduated with honours and found employment as a primary school music teacher in the then Pan in the Classroom initiative.
He said the first time he wrote on the board the children laughed at him.
“I had to learn to write on the board. I had to learn to speak to the parents and the teachers. My learning challenges will never go away, there is no medicine, it will never go away but I have learned how to deal with it,” said Gill.
In his book, Gill wrote that people always say that every generation should do better than the one before.
“As a child I would imagine myself being praised for good work. My head was always in the sky. My parents never had a proper education. I wanted to do something remarkable, even great,” he wrote.
Driven by that desire, he applied and got accepted to NYU to do his Master’s degree.
Gill applied for a Government scholarship for Differently Abled people, which was granted and then rescinded because it is restricted to studies within Trinidad and Tobago only.
“The scholarship selection committee recommended two reasons for the policy to be waived: the Masters in Music Education was not offered here and Trinidad and Tobago do not have the resources to accommodate me and my learning challenges. It was alleged that it was said if they waive it for me they will have to do it for others in the future but to me that policy is discriminatory. The issue is that people do not believe that students with learning disabilities can learn and that it is a waste of taxpayers’ money,” said Gill.
Gill said at NYU everyone made him feel accepted.
His oral thesis: ‘Teaching Music to Children with Learning Disabilities in Trinidad and Tobago” was described as one of the best ever in the music education department, he said.
Today, Gill works as a teaching instructor at the Centre for Education Programmes in the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT). There he teaches future primary school teachers in the fundamentals of running their classrooms such as writing up their lesson plans.
His real desire is to become a Special Music Educator, teaching music to children with special needs.
He has conducted workshops on the topic with music teachers in Antigua and Barbuda and presented a paper in Montserrat. He is looking forward to doing more work in the wider region.
Looking at the education system in T&T as it relates to children with special needs, Gill said he hopes his book provides some impetus for change.
“I am hoping it influences change in some of these policies. Change is happening but it is like molasses. It is too slow and a lot of people are falling through the cracks. While we are waiting for improvements we have to find ways to help but the system can’t wait on private groups alone to help because the needs are too many,” he said, recommending a Ministry dedicated to special needs students for meaningful changes to take effect.
'From Behind the Bridge to The Impossible Dream' is available from Akini Gill at 705-3380 or email him at email@example.com
Follow Akini on Instagram at akinigill1986