Monday, August 16, 2010

Slippers for a Dream: Is poverty a dead end?

“What are you looking at? Give me some money", he demanded. This is perhaps one of the most unforgettable statements I have ever heard. It would never make sense unless you realize it was from someone you would view as an innocent, pathetic child living on the streets downtown. He had dirt on his face, his clothes stinks as it was soaked in an unidentifiable combination of wastes, his entire palm covered with grime, and wearing not even the simplest form of slippers possible. When I looked at his face, all I can see were his fierce eyes that never seem to know fear. I was so terrified for when I looked around, there are a dozen more approaching. As every eye nailed to us, all I did was fish my pocket for some coins, and without thinking much, handed him the money.

It happened nine years ago. We were on a hunt for street children photos for our freshman class in journalism. Heading home for a quite unsuccessful day, we saw a child sitting against the concrete pillar of a mall. I was awakened with great enthusiasm that I quickly snapped the camera from a teammate and had a perfect angle of him. It was past nine in the evening when the dim area saw sudden flickers from the automatic flash. The next seconds, we were surrounded by a group of teens looking so delighted to have a late catch. I was having dreadful imaginations at that moment. These are junior criminals; future snatchers, robbers, kidnappers, all sorts of people I could think of. Some delinquents would resort to violence trying to cash in for some valuables. Fortunately, few loose changes from the five of us made a deal. Few seconds of silence had passed, and I finally gathered courage to ask the child, “Where are your slippers?” Hearing this, one of them said, sarcastically, “He doesn’t have any, will you buy for him?”

The museum ground was peaceful that Sunday. We waited for “Eddie” (the name we gave him) to surface as to the other night’s agreement. He arrived some time later with two others who we eventually discovered to be his younger siblings. We gave him the slippers and felt happy seeing the smile on his face. He didn’t look as grim as he was last night, and his appearance gave a hint- this boy has a home, but why was he on the street asking for money?

As the talk prospered, we discovered that they were abandoned by their mother. Their father was imprisoned for drug cases, and they had never heard of him for years. Eddie was eleven, but had only been to the second grade. The only thing he can read and write with confidence was his name and some words in our dialect. Worse, with no one to oversee them, the younger siblings never saw the walls of a formal classroom. Living with other families under the bridge, they were lucky to have a serving of rice a day to share among themselves. At most times, he has to beg at the nearby mall with other children to help his aging grandmother who seldom comes home with enough money from scavenging. The day ended with my heart feeling heavy.

Eddie’s story was a hit in class. After the presentation, I was approached by my professor if I should be willing to volunteer for the university community program. I didn’t have second thoughts. The next weekends of the entire academic year was spent teaching poor children in the neighboring island. Doing this, I was thinking I had helped lessen the possibility of having more Eddies. What can a poor college freshman do, anyway? It was such a rewarding experience, but my desire to make a name for myself in the media had seized me. Towards the end of that year, I volunteered for a local radio station, and eventually lost the time for my school volunteer program.

Radio had opened more doors for me, and I eventually grabbed every great opportunity that came along. It was more than I expected. I had had a taste of the limelight, and I had in some moments thought never to cease being in it. The story of the boy, however, never kept me astray. One day, while on the way to an interview appointment for my newspaper article, I happened to pass by the museum and spotted a familiar face. It was almost two years, but how can I ever forget Eddie? He was sitting on the bench checking the area, probably getting ready for the entire day to beg. There was a flashback; a story of painful childhood that pleased the entire class. His tale put the group on the top of the presentation. I was sleepless that night.

I didn’t let my little glories bar my intention, so I decided to be in a juggling challenge. I returned to my school volunteer program, and in my senior year landed an assignment in the city. Our group was tasked to provide weekly lectures on children’s rights and responsibilities to both community teens and their parents. The year was spent on community education and thus helping the establishment of two children’s groups in both communities I worked with. The days with the media, on the other hand, was spent in voter’s education program.

After I graduated from my mass communication degree, I realized that I was unhappy with the life in the press. That limelight isn’t exactly where I want my life to be. I had done a couple of documentaries about street children, and I was deeply inspired by the stories of those who chose to keep their lives on track despite their experiences. Unfortunately, since I didn’t have the finances, I couldn’t devote time to volunteer. Working with groups outside educational institutions could mean spending my own money. I decided to work in a language school, and struggled to earn my units in education. Now as a licensed teacher, it breaks my heart to realize I am teaching foreigners, but can’t even do that favor to the youth in my city. This feeling was made even stronger when our school had a community outreach program at an orphanage lately. When I saw the children’s happy faces, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Eddie’s words, his face, gestures, and his source of happiness. All through the program, I had constant thoughts; did he survive the challenges of his life? Is he still on the streets? How could I ever forget the boy who taught me what love-for-the-job means?

In a society where education is viewed as a privilege rather than a right, and a prospective commercial activity rather than service to the young, I would love to be an educator for the less privileged. Poverty, negligence, and other social ills can keep them out of schools, but bringing education to them has always been my dream. Learning doesn’t always have to be in an air-conditioned room. At some point, having the heart to educate is well enough to make a difference. I would never want my children to meet just another Eddie; neglected, hopeless, but never had a helping hand.

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