Devon and Pearlene Clunis visited schools in Morden with their book "The Little Boy From Jamaica" as part of I Love To Read Month and Black History Month. (LAUREN MACGILL, Morden Times)
Former Winnipeg police chief Devon Clunis and his wife Pearlene visited Minnewasta School and Maple Leaf School to help celebrate both I Love To Read Month and Black History Month with the students.
“We want kids to be realizing the importance of reading,” Western School Division literacy coach Darlene Keith said. “It’s an important day with an important message. Not only the literacy message but also about [students’] future and how they can make a difference in the world around them and the people around them that make the difference for them.”
Keith said the school division tries to bring in guest readers every year. “It’s important to have an entire month dedicated to reading, however, I Love To Read Month is every month,” she said. “We take February as I Love To Read Month to have those special times to celebrate reading and for [students] to realize that reading does make a difference in their lives. Not just the reading, but the writing as well.”
Devon and Pearlene read their book “The Little Boy From Jamaica” and also shared their own struggles in school and how they overcame them.
“I think it’s a continual fulfillment of what we consider to be our purpose,” Devon said. “To share real positive messages with kids, letting them know they have potential and there are people within their community that will help them achieve that potential.”
Pearlene said the combination of I Love To Read and Black History Months was the perfect time to share their book. “There are so many immigrants coming in, there are people who can identify with this story,” she said. “Both of those months put together is real important for us to share the story.”
Devon struggled a lot in the early years of school, even failing grade 6. It wasn’t until a teacher named Ms. Hannah stepped in and helped him believe in himself that things turned around for him. Devon said Ms. Hannah urged him to come to school an hour early so she could tutor him.
Devon said one sentence from Ms. Hannah changed the way he looked at learning. “Devon, this is so easy for you,” she told him. After that, he said he started believing in himself and wanted to go on to do something really great.
Devon said he went on to graduate high school at the top of his class.
He also spoke about dealing with racial stigma growing up. “When I would watch television you know what I would see as a young black boy?” he said. “I would often see that the bad guys looked like me. I remember saying to myself, ‘One day I’m going to do something to set an example for all the kids that you don’t have to be a stereotype.’ Don’t believe what people are saying about you when they say negative things.”
Devon went on to be one of the few black police officers in Winnipeg and eventually was named the first black police chief not only in the city, but in the country.
When he had applied for the position and was waiting to hear if he would be named police chief, Devon decided to try to find Ms. Hannah and thank her for having faith in him. He went to the school board and was told she had passed away.
Then one day he got a call from one of his officers who told him Ms. Hannah hadn’t actually passed away, but was in the hospital with a terminal illness. He went to visit his teacher after 36 years and finally got a chance to thank her.
Ms. Hannah told him, “I’m praying that you become the next chief of police.”
She died three weeks later, and Clunis continues to credit her for getting him to where he is today.
Pearlene didn’t know how to read until she reached grade 3. She would memorize word cards so she could answer her teachers in class but didn’t actually learn how to read, which led to her needing to catch up when she should have already been able.
When her family moved in seventh grade and she ended up at a new school, she decided she was going to ‘fool’ everyone into thinking she was a smarty pants, and got herself on the honour roll. From that point, she was on the honour roll until she graduated.
Devon gives all the credit for creating the book to his wife. “I started writing an adult version and it was her idea that this would make such a good children’s story,” he said. “Because I’m a pretty wise husband I listened to my wife and she took it from there.”
The Clunises wrote the book in May of 2016 and found an illustrator from Winnipeg.
Devon said I Love To Read Month means everything to him. “I remember myself as a young child, I was a very avid reader,” he said. “I try to tell kids to read, because it really opens up your mind.”
Pearlene said the month is equally important being on the opposite end of the spectrum. “For me it was playing catch up and the stigma of not knowing how to read,” she said. “For me it’s important because of what I missed out on and how it made my self-esteem because I slipped through the cracks.”