Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Watching a Bright Star Slowly Fade

Ruined for life. Solidarity with the poor. It’s phrases like these that become so common place in your vernacular at a Jesuit university. Hearing “ruined for life” is almost as frequent as “hey how ya doin?” “Solidarity with the poor” becomes as frequent place as “it sure is beautiful today” and like I say, before you know it, you cease to grasp the power of those phrases. Until something takes it out of the ivory halls and into your own little reality.

You aren’t supposed to have favorites as a teacher, but I’ve been pretty bad at that. Many of you saw the articles in America Magazine or on the Catholic News Service that featured my blog. The authors used a photo of me conversing with my favorite student- 11 year old Evelyn.

One week in October, Evelyn stopped coming to the center. For the weeks that followed, I hoped to run into her on the streets, to better understand what it was that made her family drop out of the center. And it wasn’t until February, I at last saw my favorite student. She was walking the streets, with a bag of candy in her hand. What you fear most usually happens: the candy wasn’t for her or her family. No, instead the ultimate symbol of childhood innocence came to symbolize another childhood destroyed by the cruelty of poverty. Eleven years old, an elementary school drop out whose life had brought her back to the streets, selling nickel candies to help the family get by. Suddenly ruined for life was neither cute nor cliché.

Not long after that day, another volunteer and I went and hung out with Evelyn, her seven brothers and sisters, and their mother. The entire family shares a one bedroom dwelling in a seedy part of Ecuador, so the family asked if we’d be able to meet at a park instead. We insisted it made no difference to us, but pride is a strong thing, and the family insisted we not see their living conditions. The day at the park was perfect. A rare sunny Day in Quito, shared with my favorite student and her trademark smile. But I couldn’t stop thinking about what the future held for her.

As my time slowly but surely draws to an end in South America poverty is no longer just a cause: it’s deeply personal. It’s plaguing people I love. It forced me to look into the eyes of an 11 year old child that was once my brightest student and not know if the future holds hope for her. Wrap your head around that for a moment. We come from a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” society. Everyone can make something of themselves if they just try hard enough, or so goes the American fairy tale. What happens when you look into the eyes of someone who is poor, and you can’t paint that rosy possibility on their future? You become ruined for life, and again, it’s neither as cute or cliché as you once naively envisioned it to be.

I ask God why a child must be born into a sufferable living situation not at all their own making? What’s a child do to deserve that I asked myself? What did I do to deserve my lifestyle other than be born on the right longitude and latitude? What makes her mom different from my own? The answer to all those questions is simple enough: nothing. And yet that neither comforts nor pacifies the emotions I am feeling right now. I asked God, with a tinge of anger in my voice. And now I ask you, pleading that you understand what this journey is all about. What’s it means to get ruined for life? It’s to ask life’s hardest questions and fail to find an answer that satisfies or comforts. 11 years old, once my brightest student and now relegated to hustling candy on the streets of Quito. Why?

Evelyn, center.

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