Their brush strokes are careful and measured, especially when they are using the thinnest brushes to gently dip into the black paint on the palette of one of the older girls, the only child at the table to have made black one of her three choices of color. She doesn’t mind that everyone is using her black. Although she nods each time a hand reaches into her palette accompanied by a request to do so, she probably doesn’t even really notice what is happening outside the bubble she’s in, as she most carefully paints stripes on her bunny’s ears, perfectly symmetrical on either side. Only the ears are now painted. She has yet to touch the rest of the bunny perched up in anticipation of the colors for which it had been eager atop a shelf until this birthday party, the day it graduates from white clay to a work of art. And what a work it is becoming, as the girl who is giving it life frowns and sighs over each brush stroke, as if fully aware that each stroke will define exactly the kind of bunny this will be.
My own daughter has chosen a pony, which she has painted purple, lilac, and pink, eyes dotted with the black from the palette of the girl across the table. She does well with the right eye, placing the black dot precisely where the pony has a pore-sized hole to mark her eye, which had been purple like the face only seconds before. But for a left eye the pony gets something that looks more like a black eye. My daughter slouches the way she does each time she feels the weight of her own expectations, mammoth as they tend to be, given her slight, five-year-old frame. But she quickly sits up and tears off a small piece of the paper towel underneath the pony, now ready for its third and final coat of paint. She folds it into as small a piece as she can, and begins to wipe off the black eye. This time, she slouches the way she does when she has run out of patience to fight frustration. So I reach over and help her restore the left side of the pony’s face to a shade of purple that matches the right. She exhales in relief, and quickly applies the final coat of paint, rushing, because in this moment, unlike the girl across the table, she is more interested in pizza and cake than the kind of pony she will get to take home from the pottery studio next week, when the paint has dried, and the pony has been baked in the oven. A week is too far away a time to worry about what it will look like.
An older boy at the table, who is pouring meticulous labor over a Ninja Turtle he is intent on making an exact replica of the original, shares that he plays the saxophone, the drums, the keyboard, and the trumpet. The youngest, a four-year-old girl with cheeks that proclaim her still a toddler, rejoices in the perfection of the round monster she has chosen to paint. The birthday girl is silent and focused, painting a rainbow colored unicorn that looks much like her unicorn hat.
I am suddenly aware of the glory of this moment–its peace, its hopeful promise, the way it lifts up the parents in the room. Should all things remain equal, our children will grow into resolute, adventurous, confident people who will claim all that is rightfully theirs in life. Because they read. They are read to. Because they are celebrated and encouraged to celebrate. Because they are expected to soar, and are given the wings to do so. Because they paint pottery, and blow out birthday candles. Because they are fiercely loved, and have roofs over their heads. Because they are taught that they matter, that they are everything. I am reassured. But only for a moment.
Just then, my mind decides to change roads, as it often does when I put down the reins for so long as a moment. I am suddenly shaken out of the harmony of the children’s painting, jolted by the treacherous course my mind has taken.
That could have been Jordan.
This could have been Lena.
That could have been Shaquasia.
This could have been Jamila.
But Jordan was killed with a machete four years ago in Washington Heights by a member of a rivaling gang, another teenager, whose initiation had involved my student’s murder, a prerequisite to his acceptance into a family for which he had yearned all his life.
Lena left high school and decided that she didn’t have the time and money anyway to put herself through college, all while raising her daughter and taking care of her ailing mother, the only other person she called family.
Shaquasia just moved to her seventeenth foster home in half as many years, and doesn’t trust this one to be any less unsafe and threatening than the sixteen that had come before.
And Jamila is back home, where she serves at the mercy of her husband, a man three decades her senior, who resents and still punishes her for having made him wait for three years, while she learned to read and write in the South Bronx.
Once on this course, my mind has no way of being reined back into a place of peace and hopeful promise. Because I know Jordan, Lena, Shaquasia, and Jamila. Because I loved them, and love them still. Because no amount of my own children’s joy can negate the suffering and injustice of these children’s lives. And because I refuse, mostly out of shame, to chase them away when they come at me in waves of memories and sorrow.
These children are here.
Berhane, whom I met on the side of a road late one night in Addis Ababa. We were returning from another night of drinking and dancing after a long day of building democracy. She came out of a car just as we were passing the corner. She sat down on the bench, waiting for her next customer, most of whom, she told us, were from America and Europe. She was nine years old. Her parents had died of AIDS, and she was one of three older siblings supporting the six ones still too young to fend for themselves. The youngest, a two-year-old girl, was already dying in her parents’ footsteps. Berhane, my light, in Amharic.
Joni, who escaped Haiti and was taken into the home of a distant great uncle, who treated her like an unwanted temporary guest, while she lost herself in the grief over the parents who had stayed under the rubble, and the little brother who had ended up in an orphanage in Haiti, and whom she had no way of saving from an apartment in East New York, where she slept on the floor, and was fed once a day.
Jacob, whose father punished him with a knife for the most minute of transgressions. He had stab wounds all over his six-year-old body, and awoke every night, violently shaken by nightmares of another stabbing. His only relative, an aunt who had settled most comfortably in a quaint town in Florida, refused to adopt him because “the devil was trapped in his body.”
Flaca, who wouldn’t be called by any other name, lest she be known by the name her own mother bore and gave to her. Her uncle raped her, many times, all her life, under the mother’s roof, and never once did the mother respond in any way other than by shaming her for telling lies, and beating her until she no longer cared to speak of the rape that had become her life. Once, I found her cutting her wrists around the corner from the school. Many days since then, I have wondered if someone will be there each time she decides to stop living.
Trayvon, who will serve the majority of the decades of his life in a maximum security prison. He was charged with the murder of the ring leader who had ordered his death. He had cried the way only a child can, when I had visited him shortly after his nineteenth birthday. His lips had quivered, and although his face had remained stoic, tears had streamed down his cheeks, as he had finally told me the story of how he had ventured into the streets when his father had left and his mother had suddenly become homeless, moving from couch to couch, favor to favor, week after week. “No matter how much you care and try to understand,” he had told me, “you’ll never know what it’s like to eat bread for two weeks and not know if you’re gonna have a roof over your head that night.” He couldn’t let his mother live this way, so he had begun, at ten, to make money the way the world around him had always shown him it was to be done. He was good at it. So good that he’d had to go.
Genesis, who was brought into a children’s home at the age of eleven months. She had been found outside the gate, wrapped in a blanket, just on the edge of the narrow sidewalk. She was never adopted, and ended up being moved to an orphanage for older children. This one had a wire gate with a gaping hole. The guards charged men lined up at the gate to enter the girls’ rooms, every night into dawn. How will she ever be whole again, Genesis?
Solomon, who had lived his entire life in refugee camps and hadn’t spoken for several years before he arrived in America, where he felt just safe enough to begin to speak. He never learned what had happened to his parents and sisters. He had survived because of his older brother, who had refused to leave him behind. Although the principal fought hard to allow him to stay in high school past the age of twenty-one, the state of New York refused to give him the time he needed to learn enough English to pass the state tests. Last time I saw him, he was delivering packages and envelopes, treading the streets of New York in wind and sleet. His face was much thinner than it had been when I had known him as a teenager. His body was more frail now than it had been when he had come to America from years in refugee camps. His brother had gone back home, he told me, so he was all alone.
These children are here.
They stand before us, their lives shattering at our feet, as we fumble, look away, busy ourselves with things we claim to be important. But what is more important than children? All the children of the world. Whoever they may be. And wherever. We must muster the wisdom and courage to accept that these children are here. These children are ours. These children need love. They need safety. They need families. They need true, actual opportunity that extends beyond the treacherous idea to which we cling collectively, and of which we should be deeply ashamed–that making it in life depends on the will of the individual. That anyone can make it if they try hard enough. As if any individual might ever will a life of suffering upon herself, or upon her own children.
We don’t love whom we don’t know. The first step to healing people is coming to meet them, getting to know them. This means making the time and space in our lives where these children can at least begin to tell their stories. Another step is for us to acknowledge that their lives make up an enormous part of the quilt that is the story of our collective humanity.
How can these children be forgotten when they are here still? How can we forget children who are suffering? What does this say about how we choose to live?