I am a firm believer that it’s not too late for the world to be a better place, especially with help from all the people in it.
While I was living abroad, I became friends with a very special young lady, (although she wouldn’t agree that she is a “lady”). Officially, I was just her after school program teacher until one afternoon, once she decided she that approved of me, I heard her calling on the other side of my fence.
“Hi! What can I do for ya?”
“You like sweets?”
“Of course I do.”
Thus, began our professional relationship, where she would come to my apartment once a week with a sack bigger than she was to sell me junk food. All of the snacks were pretending to be American but had wacky names and tasted like they were made out of rice and cane sugar instead of corn and white sugar- subtle but you could tell.
As time wore on, she stopped by more and more often- a few times a week, at least. Sometimes, she would bring her two little siblings who would stare at me silently and gratefully receive my business. We began to talking about her life and my life, our likes and dislikes, etc. We never talked about money or things she wanted to buy even though she knew I had more than her. Eventually, I showed her some of my favorite things that either I had brought with me or that had been mailed to me. She especially liked my books and magazines; she called the magazines “books” as well. I remember the day I offered to let her borrow one with the agreement that she bring it back when she’s finished with it, otherwise I couldn’t trust her to borrow another one. She flitted wide-eyed through the pages, clutched it to her chest and promised.
A few days later she returned to my apartment and held an ominous silence between us.
“Hey, what’s wrong?”
And the words came spilling out: “MISS. I read the book and liked it so much that I was talking about it and this boy heard me and asked if he could borrow it and I gave it to him but told him that if he didn’t give it back I would find him and beat him up.”
“Uh huh… He didn’t give it back did he?”
“No Miss, I went and found him the next day and I beat him up but he said he lost it and can’t find it.”
“You beat him up??”
“Yes, Miss. He is the second biggest kid in the grade.”
This fighter is quite small for her age both in height and weight. She is now 14 years old, stands around 5 ft and can’t weigh more than 90 lbs (excluding her marvelous head of hair). The thought of her beating someone up, let alone one of the largest kids is funny and unnerving all at the same time.
“Alright. First off, promise me you will try to avoid beating kids up in the future?”
“Yes, Miss. But that book was really nice, Miss. And also, that boy stole my pen this year, too.”
“Did you let him borrow it?”
“So, what can you learn from that?”
I continue, “You should learn that you can’t trust him to return the things you let him borrow, right?”
“What is it?”, I ask.
“This means no more books?”
“… You’ll just have to earn the next one,” I decided, “it’s getting dark, do you want me to walk you home?”
“No, Miss! I’ll be fine!” she said gleefully as she walked toward the gate.
That was the moment I realized that I loved this girl. She has such charisma! As time passed she let me learn more about her little by little. Her walls finally came down enough to illuminate a defining aspect of her life.
On Mother’s Day weekend of this past year, our after school program put on a fundraiser and sold holiday-themed cupcakes. It was a huge success among the students, my guess is that most of the kids bought the cupcakes and gobbled them up before they left school for the day, which is fine, too. The cupcakes cost the equivalent of $1 USD.
At the end of the day, Ruth approached me with her best businesswoman persona and requested matter-of-factly:
“Miss, I would like a cupcake credit, please.”
“A cupcake credit?”
“Yes, Mother’s Day is this weekend so I need the cupcake now, but I don’t have the money for it on me now, so I can pay you back when I get the money.”
“Oh,” I say, “well, of course you can have a cupcake credit. I won’t forget so neither can you!”
I watched as she chose a cupcake to her liking and told her to have a good walk home. As she walked away, so proud to be giving her mother that tiny pastry, I realized how much respect I had for her, as well as how much she and her family must struggle financially. I thought of her two little siblings staring quietly up at me. The most infuriating thing about it is that it’s obviously not her fault, but being the eldest sibling she visibly carries a lot of responsibilities for her brother and sister.
Throughout our friendship, I discovered that she and her family live down a hill, behind a wall of trees and out of sight. Their home is just not good enough for what they deserve and what I desperately want for them. And, there is a significant number of men, women, and children on the surrounding hills that live in similar arrangements. There are houses all around that are concrete structures either with multiple floors or on massive stilts that will keep you dry and shaded during the two main seasons. Yet, where she is standing, none of these comfortable houses could be hers. She’s just stuck with what she’s got and I’m stuck knowing that she could have better.
The moral of this story is that we have so much to give each other. I sit here on my laptop in my own bedroom, with a college degree and a promising future while she sits there in the country I left waiting for life to continue rolling along. She taught me so much about tenacity, passion, and unknowingly, perspective, just by allowing me to get to know her. In return, I gave her learning materials and with luck, hope that the future will be brighter than the past.
Living in a developed country, I go through the motions of life with these constant reminders of how much I have to give and how much I have to learn. I wish everybody realized how much they have to give, how much they have to learn, and acted on it to- little by little- help save the world.