“I had come to Jamaica for a quick adventure, a fun interlude between college and law school,” reads an excerpt from Raising Gentle Men, a memoir by Jay Sullivan, BC ’84. “I hadn’t planned to stay a second year. Now, only a month into living at Alpha, my life didn’t make practical sense. At times I had considered becoming a priest-but I never anticipated I would live in a convent. I had come from a loving and stable home-and now lived among orphans. I had grown up in a community where the one black family in town had almost celebrity status-and now I was the minority. And the ironies were only beginning.”
In the summer after graduating, Sullivan went from being an English major at Boston College to an English teacher at St. George’s College, a Jesuit high school in Kingston, Jamaica. He traveled to Kingston as part of BC’s International Volunteers Program (IVP), which has since become integrated with the Jesuit Volunteers Corps.
“I had a wonderful time at BC. I was an English major-so English majors do eventually write books,” Sullivan said jokingly. “I had always planned on going right into law school. A number of my friends were applying to go into the IVP, and I really-I would love to say that I had this burning desire to go serve the poor, but I honestly don’t recall thinking about it.” He said that he went through the application and interview process for the volunteer program, but didn’t recall thinking about what he was doing until he boarded the plane to Jamaica. “I really didn’t think about it-in the book I refer to it as being ‘duped by God,’ because I really think that God knew that if I thought about it, I would’ve said, ‘There’s no way I’m doing that.'”
Almost 30 years after that flight, Sullivan has published a book about his experiences teaching at St. George’s and volunteering at Alpha Boys School, a home for troubled youth run by the Catholic Sisters of Mercy. Raising Gentle Men, which was released on Feb. 15, details not only his time in Kingston, but also the stories of two boys-Morris Mathers and Desmond Plunkett-as they passed through Alpha. Also included in the memoir are Irene DeGroot, BC ’85, and various amalgam characters based on the other boys and BC volunteers in Jamaica at the time.
“Being a teacher right out of college is just a fantastic experience,” Sullivan said. “You spend the first 21 years of your life on one side of a classroom-and to walk in the door the next day, and you’re on the other side looking back at all the seats-it changes your perspective about everything you’ve just done for the last 21 years.”
Sullivan found perspective not only in the role of teacher, but also in his interactions with the students. He recalled thinking at first that he was looking out at 40 black faces, but realizing over time that Jamaica has significant Chinese and Indian heritage. “The diversity wasn’t in the classroom-the diversity was in every kid,” Sullivan said. “Every kid looked like the map of the world, because their backgrounds were so different. Some of them were very, very wealthy, and some of them were extremely poor-but at a Jesuit high school, no matter where it is in the world, everybody has to go do volunteer work.”
That volunteer work ended up being at Alpha Boys School, which was around the corner from the high school. “I would bring my students there in the afternoon, and then-because I lived with other BC students a couple blocks away-at night I would walk back to the orphanage and I would read bedtime stories,” he said. Sullivan volunteered at Alpha so frequently that, instead of living with BC students during his second year in Jamaica, he asked the nuns if he could move into the convent. “The book is about how these three amazing women tried to help these 250 boys,” he added. “They wanted to do more than just provide a hot meal and a place to sleep-they wanted to provide a home. And it’s about what they do to raise gentle men.”
After Sullivan returned to the U.S., he attended law school at Fordham University. Every Spring Break, however, he returned to Jamaica to work with the children. He also stayed in touch with the nuns and some of the boys. Desmond, who is now an evangelical minister in Jamaica, reviewed the book before it went to publication.
After law school, Sullivan worked as an in-house counsel at Covenant House, a shelter for runaway and homeless youth in New York. He subsequently practiced corporate law for seven years, and now runs a communications firm called ExecComm. “Mostly what we teach people to do is to be less focused on themselves and more focused on other people, because that’s how you communicate,” Sullivan said. “It is, in many ways, coming full-circle-there aren’t many jobs where your job is to teach people to be less wrapped up in themselves.”
Any proceeds that Sullivan receives from the book, which is currently available for purchase on Amazon and will be stocked in the BC Bookstore after Spring Break, go to support the Alpha Boys Home and St. George’s College.