Often I find myself asking the kids, sometimes out loud, this question of “what are you doing?” I’m sure this is very cliché content to parents, but hey, as Solomon says, nothing is new under the sun. So here’s my take.
Sometimes I find myself, just, here. Sometimes I get a little epiphany of third-person perspective and I have to stop and think, “what am I doing here??” I think this happens to everyone. Every once in a while we get to take a step back and read our lives like a story.
I was walking back from one of the other houses when I found myself in one of these situations. It was one of the few times I’d stepped more than a few feet outside of the house that week. My co-house parent had left for five days to get his extended visa in La Paz, along with the older Harding boys who were going back to Canada to work. So I had been alone in the house with between two and eight boys. Thankfully, it had been relatively tranquil. But as I stumbled through the grass, remembering how to walk in straight lines for more than the length of a room, I actually paused and stood in the middle of the field for a moment. What was I doing there!? I was mildly suspicious I might be a fictional character and this was the moment at the beginning of the story where the character is supposed to say, “so, you’re probably wondering how I got here.”
How did I get here? I was gripped with memories of scuba diving with sea turtles last summer, of building forts in a forest with my middle-school friends, of laughing over the hopelessness of chemistry homework in a university library, of struggling up a volcanic Chilean mountain, of haggling prices in a dingy of a pawn shop, of wandering around abandoned mini-golf courses during a pandemic in Florida. None of these memories were related. But if they had been, they would have been a whole different species than those of where I was now. Of where I have been for the last eleven months. If someone on a different plane of existence was about to read my life story, I wasn’t sure it was going to make any sense. Especially if you only strung together the exciting parts. It at least didn’t make any sense to me.
Joel is a sweet kid. He’s a very soft and tender soul, and can often be found crying for attention because of a misunderstanding or because a mild injury can be an excuse to be babied or escape a responsibility. His favorite thing to say is “Zaqueo! Bájate de allí!” (Zacheus, get down from there!) anytime he sees someone in a tree, stairway, on top of a piece of furniture, or me who is three times his height. One time he came to ask for toilet paper (entering the bathroom is a soggy death sentence for any complete roll of toilet paper). This time, I looked up at him from my bed and said "of course", and asked if he had finished eating his food from lunch. With a blank expression, he stiffly marched away before I could hand him the paper and was later found shedding large crocodile tears upstairs.
“What are you doing buddy?”
Another time it was my house’s turn to do song service for church. This ritual involves picking out some well-known hymns, dragging three to thirteen unsuspecting Guerreros up front, and blasting the audio track from a tinny speaker to drown out our tone-deaf screeching. Talent, willingness, or complicity are not required.
This weekend, I found myself up front with only the five little kids. Everyone was still shuffling back from Bible class, so I was a little more relaxed with a smaller audience. I found time between verses to look behind me, drag Cristian up off the floor, turn Dixon around to face the audience, fix Adrian’s shirt collar, and keep Alvaro from shout-arguing about whether the wall was white or gray with the other kids. Joel was more or less placidly standing, his only infraction talking with the other kids instead of singing. I did however notice his face was completely smudged with chocolate or… charcoal? Definitely had not been there this morning before Bible class.
I leaned down and asked what he’d eaten. He gave a characteristic shrug and a slurred, incomprehensible explanation. I also shrugged and decided it was probably not worth the commotion. Alvaro did not think so. A few lines of verse later and he was shouting at me over the obstreperous melody, furiously waving around a piece of plastic scooped off the tile.
“T-T-T-TEACHER, TH-THI-THIS JO-JOEL,” long pause, Alvaro's mouth open and posture frozen while his Broca’s area buffered, “ATE,” long pause, during which I decided this stuttered sentence was getting interesting enough to let the man keep shouting, “TH-THIS PH-PH-PH-PHO-PHOTO!!!” he finished his full-on declaration of war with a triumphant little jerk of the plastic. The plastic scrap did, in fact, turn out to be the brutally dissected and desecrated remnants of a Polaroid which had fallen out of one of the older boys’ Bibles earlier in the morning. Now my Broca’s area was buffering.
“What are you doing!?”
“Did you... eat this??”
For the urgency in my voice I received an unresponsive stare of pursed lips and squinted eyes from Joel, who slowly turned to face the audience and attempted to fade me out of existence, the hymn still blasting behind us. The song finished, I hit play on the longest one I could find, and led one of God’s most blessed-of-heart little sheep to go find some charcoal. At least he’d only licked out all the ink. That sounded non-toxic. And charcoal fixes everything.
If Joel was exhibiting symptoms of thinking like a sheep, he was channeling Dixson. Dixson is one of the seven-year-old twins. His internal experience is about three inches to the right and two feet down from baseline reality.
One time I told him he needed to finish the popcorn he was eating so he could go to bed (popcorn which he’d expertly incinerated into unsalted charcoal pellets and was happily ravaging with the other little kids with standards matching their statures).
“There’s popcorn!?” he excitedly exclaimed. Popcorn is a rare treat here.
“Um yes, the popcorn that you’re currently eating, that literally spewed out of your mouth when you asked that question?” I replied.
“Here…??” I pointed to the bowl in front of him, full of hands arguing over how to share the diminishing stockpile, one of which was in fact his own hand. He tipped it towards him with a finger and peered into the basin. “Ah, yeah, that popcorn. Hmm,” and drifted out of contact with the noosphere.
Yes or no questions can also be especially confusing for him. When I ask him if he’s done his chore he often squints up at me and peels back his lips in what might be a grin but also might just be because his teeth don’t really fit in his mouth. He kind of shakes his head yes and then decides halfway through he should maybe be shaking his head no... wait, maybe yes, but by then he’s maybe forgotten the question. Then he just kind of gives up and slides around the nearest corner while making eye contact before trying to disappear.
One of his hobbies is loudly, aggressively, and therefore non-characteristically yet very genuinely accusing other lunch-goers of stealing his labeled spoon. His accusations are instantiated with a wild jab of the hand, which flings food in the direction of the defendant, and which, coincidentally, is usually holding said spoon. This sometimes happens twice in one meal.
Don’t let this description fool you into thinking that his spoon is actually utilized for transporting food from plate to palate. Nothing so banal. Trivial. Commonplace. He eats like a herald of tomorrow’s zeitgeist, the oppressive norms and standards of the modern-day rolling off his back like the juice dribbling down the Spiderman printed in plastic on his shirt. Like a raccoon raised by wolves, he carefully yet wildly pinches morsels of mashed potatoes, spaghetti, bread, beans, salad, soup, or what-have-you between all five fingers and frantically sticks all five fingers toward the direction of his mouth. Sometimes the fingers make it into his mouth (his face is a bit like an innate statistical graph), and sometimes the food actually stays in his mouth. Presumably it eventually all falls down his gullet by the end of the day after we’ve all cleaned up and gone home for the night.
“What are you doing?” is a question I find myself asking in English in his direction when I take the time to sit back and marvel at the little creature.
One particular day I sat on our doorstep, trying to understand Alvaro and Joel’s mad ravings, when Dixson came agitatedly gurgling up behind me. I say gurgling because he seemed about to vomit, which he did promptly on the doorstep next to me. This happens to be a somewhat regular occurrence with him. Usually, it’s because he eats too much or licks his fingers after playing in the septic-tank puddles. I patted him on the back and told him it would be ok. This time was less ok because it seemed he was also choking. Yikes. I don’t know the Heimlich. But it became evident air was passing to his lungs.
Maybe the OSHA-forbidden concentrations of bleach fumes from Luis cleaning the bathroom had made him sick? Alvaro helpfully stepped in with a thoughtfully brief but brutally stuttered explanation yet again.
“T-T-T-TEA-TEACHER, D-DI-DIXSON,” long pause to point at the victim, “H-HE DR-DR-DRANK TH-THE BL-BL-BLEACH!!!” Another triumphant, accusatory jerk of his grubby finger towards the victim.
Sure enough, his vomit was potent enough to burn the eyes. One of the kids had left a small cup of bleach on the edge of the laundry sink while collecting more dirty clothes from upstairs, and Dixson had been thirsty, and Dixson had grabbed the first cup with something liquid inside.
“You drank BLEACH??” was my first thought of confirmation.
“WHAT are you DOING??”
Fortunately, Melissa’s dad was around to rush him to the hospital on his moto. An afternoon later of IV fluids and a pumped stomach and he was good to go. I say good to go because he was not good as new. Ever since then, and I say this with support from every other Guerrero who has pointed this out to me, Dixson has been more “loco.” A little bit less in phase with society, a little more likely to accuse people of ghost crimes, a little less likely to respond with more than eye contact when spoken to. I learned a valuable lesson: seven-year-olds are capable of consuming multiple gulps of bleach without first considering if it smells or tastes like something remotely edible.
That night I asked him what happened. He said he didn’t smell it. It tasted funny. After a few gulps, it started to burn. I told him it seemed he’d learned his lesson about never drinking bleach again. Then he asked what bleach was.
Loss of Appetite
DISCLAIMER this story is gross. Quite possibly vile. Really written for all the morbidly curious nurses and doctors I know. You've been warned, twice if you count the subtitle.
Alvaro can't help it, but he just can't stay clean. He's moving too fast through the world to worry about films, plagues, fluids, stains, or odors. Normally we can give each kid shampoo and they scrub themselves down. Not so with Alvaro. We manually lather up his hair, which is always crusty by the end of the day, just to make sure he doesn't just roll around on the floor under the shower and come out dirty and wet. He still rolls around on the shower floor, but at least he smells like shampoo afterwards?
One day during this ritual I discovered the giant bruise on his head from a few days ago (who knows where it came from; again, he moves too fast for him to really stop and care) was officially Gross and Not Healing. I peeled back the hardened ooze while he shrieked in protest at someone pulling on his hair (and making him hold still for consecutive seconds). Lo and behold, it was as I feared. The grossest and most horrifying affliction of Beni Bolivia, which I had been warned of long before leaving America. I had been anticipating it with morbid curiosity, and was actually getting mildly disappointed I might leave the tropics without encountering it. But here it was: the dreaded boro.
Many accounts exist about what type of insect causes the phenomenon referred to as “a boro.” I was told by previous SMs it’s a giant moth. Hermana Emi swears it’s a tiny iridescent fly. Most children call just about anything butterfly-shaped a boro. I'm very skeptical of the giant moth theory (how do you not notice those!?), but I do know they occur when there's a break in the skin that doesn't get cleaned regularly. I’m actually not sure exactly how you would go about confirming such a creature's life cycle without a genetic analysis. Either way, at this stage of life the boro exists as a tiny worm buried in the skin of its victim, causing huge amounts of inflammation and fluid production, and characterized by a tiny hole in the skin used for respiration. Vile. Worst fear material.
And of course, it would be Alvaro, the Baron of Dirt. Solemnly I collected my surgical instruments: cosmetic tweezers, a sewing needle, Vaseline, and a lighter for sterilization. The other boys gathered around, each with their own second opinion on treatment, and all willing to pin Alvaro to the table while I worked. It involved trying to suffocate the creature with Vaseline, forcing it to exit slightly and expose itself to the waiting tweezers. Painful minute after disgusting minute drug by, Alvaro whimpering in the background.
What was I doing? Exactly what I had been looking forward to with cosmic dread since the moment I decided to be a “jungle missionary.”
In the end, I had to give up. Alvaro’s discomfort finally tipped over into absolute intolerance, and my medical tools were proving to be not designed for the job. So instead, we killed it with a powerful insecticide that will probably make Alvaro bald in twenty years or have deformed kids and definitely causes cancer in the state of California.
Now his head is healed up, and everytime I see him literally rubbing his hair around in the mud or grime under the sink, I ask:
“What are you doing? Do you want another boro??”
Without warning, about a week before vacation started, Leonel was moved from the Guerreros across the field to the Leones to be with his barely four-year-old brother. His social work case is still being processed, and for some reason, social services wanted him and his tiny brother under the same roof. On top of that, he had to review some traumatic parts of his story with the social worker, was sick with dengue, and suddenly became responsible for his truly helpless sibling. It was overwhelming for him. So the next week I took Leonel and Ricardo to town with me to spoil them. My goal is to do this with each Guerrero before I leave.
Three weeks this month have been a vacation for the Bolivian school system. It’s a midterm break, which means families come to bring their kids home, feed and spoil them, and pretend to be good parents. This left Daniel and I with very few kids in our house. Only four, in fact. The house was peaceful, clean, and quiet, and the fridge was full of leftovers because I forgot how to cook for less than a dozen people.
Late one night, deep into our REM cycles, I awoke to someone banging on the front door and Daniel, my co-house parent, getting out of bed to restore silence. On the sidewalk outside stood two teenagers, who greeted Daniel, marched inside, and fell asleep on some unoccupied beds upstairs. Daniel, fresh out of ideas on how to react, decided, understandably, he would be going back to bed and thinking about that in the morning.
It turned out, our new guests were none other than Marco and Salvador, two of the Guerreros from last year who outgrew Familia Feliz and now attended a small boarding school a day’s journey away. With nowhere that wanted them or nowhere they wanted to be over vacation, they would apparently be staying with us.
A few weeks after they arrived, I found myself in a very tense confrontation with fifteen-year-old Salvador. Again, I had to ask myself, what was I doing!? Charlie had told me from the very first: “Teacher, you have to watch out. Marco and Salvador stayed here while you were away in December and they were terrible! The first few days they were fine, but then they got lazy and wouldn’t do anything except sleep and eat our food.” I tried my best not to spoil them, to keep them busy, and to not let them get away with too much. But now here we stood, and being very well acquainted with the adamantine streak of obstinacy running through Salvador and his four younger brothers, I knew this wasn’t going to end quickly or neatly.
Witnesses testify that when I told him to stop arguing, shut his mouth, and come downstairs for worship, he replied by saying, “come up here and shut it yourself.” I didn’t happen to be one of these witnesses, but I also happened to know the witnesses to be reliable enough to take action. With the dread of confrontation sinking in my stomach as fast as I flew up the stairs, we were now standing face-to-face.
Problematically, we were face-to-face. Normally I confront children face-to-navel or face-to-thigh, but I realized Salvador had grown to an unusually towering Bolivian stature. His hands were bigger than mine and he had been working carpentry and masonry jobs at school while I had been washing dishes and being malnourished. This wasn’t going to be a demonstration of authority, this was actually just going to be a fight. I realized I had unlocked a new stage of parenthood.
What was I doing!? Thousands of miles from home, in a place that took me three days of travel to get to in the age of globalization, about to fight a fifteen-year-old in our only shared language: fists.
But I also realized Salvador was intelligent enough to not be the first to throw hands, and that the most either of us would get out of a fight was scars and blood, since he certainly was not in a “teachable mood.” I didn’t have years of trust and relationships to back me up. So instead I reminded him of his negotiation with Melissa: if he wanted to live here for free and aprovechar our generosity, he was going to have to obey. And since he didn’t want to uphold his end of the bargain, I started helping him move his stuff right back to the sidewalk where Daniel had found him a few weeks ago.
The scene finally reached the apparently omniscient ears of Melissa, and soon she was at our house chewing them out with more elegant and effective grammar than I could muster. He was forced to apologize in the end, and we went to bed peacefully.
I thought about the message I’d always received from my parents, the same message that every successful person has received at some special moment in their lives that gives them hope and power to transform themselves. “I believe in you.”
My whole purpose here was to give that message of hope to each and every kid. But now I wasn’t so sure I could lie to his face. Because I wasn’t so sure he was going to make it in life if he physically couldn’t admit to being wrong. Because I am very sure you can’t change if you can’t be wrong. I knew no one was in his life to teach him how to be wrong. Just injustice after injustice that finally taught him it was just him against the world, and that meant he would always be right. So I wasn’t sure if I could lie and tell him I believed he would change.
When talking about God around the denizens of Familia Feliz, I usually try to avoid talking about God like a father. It sounds strange, especially considering how many times God uses that title and analogy. But it can really give God a bad name around here: to compare him to their parents.
When I got back from my day off a few weeks ago, I found Dixson and Cristian dragging an overflowing reusable grocery bag down our dirt road, a trail of clothes in various stages of existence tumbling out behind them. The midterm break was just starting, and most of the kids were going home to be with their families, akin to Christmas time in the States. The only problem was, the twins were dragging my grocery bag down the road.
It’s strange how a lack of access to so many things we call “basic” can change your habits and thoughts. It was only an obscenely large, reusable grocery bag. But it was mine. And I knew I would never be able to replace it, and I knew if they left with it I would never see it again. And it was the only object that could contain the little kids’ tri-weekly deposit of dirty clothes that hadn’t been broken, destroyed, or lost. It filled a very specific niche in our flow of life and couldn't be replaced, and that made it ridiculously valuable. So I quickly redirected their attention to their grandma (their guardian) and swapped the bag. It was obvious from the contents of the bag that the joy of seeing their grandmother had overwritten what little common sense they may have started with. Sopping rags used to mop the floor, clothes torn beyond repair, a hefty collection of garments pilfered from completely unrelated children, blankets, mosquito nets, what-have-you.
When they left, I felt strange. I was glad they were with their grandma. I was glad they were happy and had something to look forward to. I was glad they weren’t going home with their mom who I knew would just treat them like pet dogs that had wandered off the street. Honestly, I was glad I wouldn't have to listen to their bleating for a few weeks. But at the same time, I felt… selfish. I’d just spent five months raising these kids. I’d spent five months teaching them how to react when someone speaks to them. I’d spent five months teaching them about chores and following instructions and consequences and not throwing their blankets in the puddles and washing the dirt off themselves and not rolling in the mud and at least the concept of forks and spoons. And now someone was just plucking them out of my responsibility. I was deliciously free. But human nature was telling me I deserved credit for my suffering.
That’s not the way it works. That’s not the way any of it works. I’m not their parent. I never will be. No one will ever be what they need.
This was dropped right back into my mind when I came back to the house from saying goodbye. Because now I was with the kids whose families hadn’t come. I was with the kids whose families didn’t come the next day, either. I was with the kids whose families came at the last minute. I was with the kids whose families didn’t arrive. With the kids whose families promised to come yesterday and didn’t show up until days or weeks later. I was with the kids who can’t go home for vacation because their families can’t ... won’t even show up to court to regain custody. I was with the kids who got brought back early. With those whose families never came at all. From the hungering maws in their souls, it was pathetically obvious how powerless I am in the face of that longing. I will never be their parent. I will never be enough.
And maybe that makes me a little angry. Because if not me, who? I want to say a lot of angry things to their parents. I’ve written a lot of them down. But I’ll save you the details. I mostly want to ask them:
What are you doing? Do you know why I’m here? I’m here because you aren’t.
I think every decent person can get angry at the injustice towards children. Everyone wants to be angry, and it’s deliciously easy to justify that anger when it’s directed toward evil. But I feel like I should get extra-special justification because
I’m not complaining on the internet (ok, now I am). I’m not complaining about poorly-handled donations or misguided philanthropy. I’m not donating money, going about my day, and expecting a miracle. I’m here. I’m trying to be the hands and feet that fix the problem. I'm trying to be a miracle. I’m still here. And guess what. I’m still angry. Because it’s not enough.
I have healed no hearts. I have resolved no fundamental traumas. I have filled zero voids. I have ensured a stable, complete childhood for no one. I have converted nor baptized not a single soul. I will be forgotten soon, and it will be for the better. My chance to change these statistics is gone in twenty-four days. Marvel at my accomplishments.
What. Am. I. Doing. Here.
Who Are You
It’s easy to be angry. It’s easy to be a human being and act on emotion and impulse. I had had a long day. I had had no help for a week. Daniel had been in La Paz for five days and had come back sick with altitude and tainted food. Every whiny plea for nonexistent cookies, every filthy toe tenderly smeared across my ankle, every cockroach evicted from the kitchen, every broken appliance, every unimplementable project, was gnawing away at my extrovert facade.
So when (child) Daniel told me “no, I don’t wanna” instead of doing his chore that I politely had been reminding him in advance all day that he would need to do, I snapped. I hunted him down and shamelessly yelled in his face. It was the loudest I’ve ever yelled at anyone.
But God doesn't ask us to do what's easy. But by the grace of God I took a breath to look him in his teary, defiant eyes, and they were asking me:
What are you doing here.
Did I really come across the planet to shout at kids? To make them sweep? I might as well pack up and leave now. He hadn’t just beaten me in terms of stubbornness, he’d beaten me at my own game. I’d seen my reflection in his eyes, and I was angry at what I saw. This wasn’t who I wanted to be. But I didn’t know how to change myself any more than I knew how to change Daniel’s force of will.
One day I sat outside. I tried to appreciate the watercolor sky. I tried to mesh myself with the perfect spring breeze. I tried to tune into the chorus of weaver birds. But my head was full of angry, hopeless thoughts. I was bored out of my mind, I was irritable, I was stuck. I wanted God to show His power. I wanted to yell at Him and I wanted Him to yell back, just for fun. But He didn’t yell back. No colorful palate of tornado and fire, smoke and lighting.
Instead, Joel was singing about Zacheus, and giggling. He was singing a hymn he’d heard a hundred times and understood not once. It was rolling off his tongue like a breezy afternoon rain shower.
But it was a song he didn’t know before he got here. It was coming from a part of his brain that should have been stimulated to develop years ago. That part of his brain was finally waking up. He could make eye contact now. He could respond to questions. He could find pride in his work and play without fear. He wandered over to show me a very exciting twig he’d found and squirmed into my lap. I was too stricken by how incredibly puppy-like this child was for my heart to keep rending itself apart.
The day after my confrontation with Salvador, without any sort of warning, he sat down across the table and said that he wanted to apologize again because yesterday he’d done a bad job. He apologized for what he’d done and for how he responded. I wasn’t sure what angle he was working, but I also wasn’t sure I would need to lie to him. Because now I did believe. And I realized sometimes it's ok to lie about what you think.
When I remind Dixson to use his fork instead of his fingers, he knows which end of the utensil to pick up, and he knows to put the other hand under the table. Luis is still a kleptomaniac, but at least he doesn’t get beaten when he steals. Daniel and his brothers are the most stubborn people I’ve ever encountered, but at least they have someone here who can be proud of them when they do finally finish their chores. When I’m having a bad day, when I come back from helping someone else right as I was sitting down to lunch and all the food is gone, Leo asks if I’ve eaten. He offers me the snacks his dad has been promising for weeks. It reminds me that if he can give, I can keep giving. I can let go of a coveted snack or a special pocket knife or a favorite shirt. I can give up one more blanket on a cold night, one more minute with a crying child while my chores go unfinished.
And maybe that’s enough.
A spring afternoon in the sun.
If this was a story, and I was the main character, it would be confusing. I’m not really sure how I got here. I’m not really sure why I’m here. In those moments when I find myself asking how I got here, it’s a joyto know that I don’t have to know. Because I don’t have to be the main character. I don’t have to be on a fun little adventure in South America that’s neatly wrapped up with an easily digestible object lesson at the end. Because in the end, it’s not about what I’m doing. I’m not important. I’m just the hand. I’m just the fingernail. The weightless mote. I will never be enough for them. A drop will not fill the desert. I will never be enough for me.
What a relief.
If I’m going to be prideful, if I’m going to count my accomplishments, I should boast about my weakness. I should tell you that God hasn’t given up on me, even though I'm hopelessly stubborn and by all accounts will never be a success. I should tell you I still get to be a thread in His story, Someone still believes in me. I should tell you I get second chances. I get to gaze upon glory without a veil of shame or fear, and I get to be changed. I get to see these kids grow, ever so slightly. I get to have hope that they will one day be brought into the Light, and they will be the most beautiful thing anyone has ever seen. What am I doing? Most days I have no idea. What a relief that my story doesn't really matter. Because I do know what God's doing. He's weaving and working together a bunch of broken stories, and I can trust His faithfulness to finish the good thing He started in me and in each little heart around me.
We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. It was like being dead. But this happened so we could rely on God instead of ourselves. So we could rely on the One who smiles with hope in the face of death.
2 Corinthians 1:8 – 9; paraphrased.
We have this treasure in fragile broken vessels, so we can be absolutely sure that the power of transformation is from God and not from us. We are under pressure on all sides, but not crushed. We are confused, but not in despair. Persecuted, but not forgotten. Injured, but not destroyed. We have the reminder of Christ's death always in our minds, so that the life of resurrection can grow in us and through us. We are delivered to death for His sake, so that His life can be demonstrated through our fragile broken hearts.
2 Corinthians 4:7 - 11; paraphrased.
Enter a Heading
This is a paragraph. Click edit and enter your own text. You can make changes like making the text bold, underline or italic. This is a great place for you to tell your clients more about your story and to describe the type of photographer you are. You can come back at any time to make more changes.