Jamie held a somewhat defeated look on her face returning from the batey on Friday. The project, one for which she and another volunteer were so excited, was to have the kids make their own sandwiches. A single slice of white bread, cut in half. Smear some butter. Smear some jam. Put them together. Tactile learning, yes?
“It nearly became a riot,” Jamie says, no laughter in her eyes.
Jamie would have to tell you the full story – the breakdown in order, an unauthorized adult insinuating herself into the sandwich preparation process and ultimately circumventing the system of control – but the point is, it was another heartbreaking example of that cliché we all think of when we think of helping “the poor.” You can’t give them nice things; they become animals.
For a college-educated liberal-leaning type like myself, I don’t want to hear stories like that — stories of children stealing pencils, or of volunteers “losing” cell phones. But the pragmatic guy in me – the journalist, the one that tries not to deny “reality” – slumps his shoulders, defeated. The bigoted assholes win, for now.
“I suspect the kids are going to swarm when I go to teach English tomorrow,” Jamie says later that afternoon. She agreed to do a one-on-one tutoring session. I volunteered myself to go along and wrangle the kids into a communist-style drawing session: one paper, one pencil–step out of line, and you lose your pencil privileges.
Mamushka, one of the sweet, regular girls of the community center, is sitting outside as we approach the center. Jamie chose not to even unlock the doors until the student, an adult, appeared. We stand outside of the center, making idle, volunteer-related small talk. An adorable Chihuahua arrives, and as we reach down to pet her, Wilson shows up.
My own daughter would get a stern warning to stand far away, yet here I am supervising an under-10 glass cleanup crew.
Wilson is like the flag bearer—at about three years old, he charges, undaunted, into the heart of the volunteer corps armed with little more than a large smile; the remainder of the regiment is never far behind. Sure enough, the crowd of mingling children grows. Jamie’s student still hasn’t arrived, so they’ll have to continue mingling.
As we stand uncomfortably, the barefooted Wilson steps dangerously close to a large shard of glass. As we look around, we realize that someone must have had an exciting Friday at the neighboring disco. A beer bottle has been obliterated on the ground outside the community center; the place where children do the majority of the center’s activities.
We tell Wilson to watch out for the glass in the language of some-Spanish-words-with-some-English-words-and-various-gestures. He responds by handing us the glass shard. We proceed to fill the time by picking up the glittering brown mess.
“Amigo!” I hear behind me. God, not now—oh. He’s handing me a broom. “Gracias.”
Another child borrows a broken truck toy from his baby brother and drags it over. He indicates towards the “bed” of the truck, placing pieces of glass there. Oh, okay. Good idea.
Before long, the whole mingling crowd of children is scanning the ground, picking up the broken bits and placing them in the truck. I feel terrible, unable to tell them about the dangers of sharp glass. My own daughter would get a stern warning to stand far away, yet here I am supervising an under-10 glass cleanup crew. The boy who originally offered me the broom politely takes it from my hand, continues sweeping.
Rapidly feeling useless, I dig in my pocket for something to clear the mess and perhaps protect these kids a little bit. A Ziploc bag becomes our new collection point and we clear the broken mess from the baby toy. Another boy takes the bag, assuming glass aggregation duties.
Barely five minutes have passed and the mess of the previous night’s excesses is cleared. The only casualty, a boy maybe six years old with a small shard that we bloodlessly plucked from his palm.
Jamie’s student never shows. We buy a yucca root and six mangoes on the way home, but my load feels lighter.