Guatemala: “This is where we buried the children we once were.”

(Quote: The Town At The Time)

Walking around the classroom, something red catches my eye.

“What happened?” I reach out and touch the tip of my finger to one of the children’s — for the sake of this blog post, we’ll call him Hunter — knees, right next to a short, but raw cut. (I trust pointing more than I do my mediocre Spanish.) He shrugs and shows me his palm, where a similar cut resides on the bottom left corner, and the insides of his index and middle fingers have reddish-purple, angry bruises on the bottommost parts. “I fell,” he explains, in his little raspy voice, as his legs swing under the table, “Playing. Just this afternoon.” Typical. He’s actually my favorite, not that I have favorites, but it makes me smile. “Do they hurt?” I ask, and he nods. “Do you want to go to the clinic?” “Okay.” Within a couple minutes I’m taking him to the nurse’s office, hand in hand.

shamzulmohdnasir @ flickr

We’re waiting outside the nurse’s office when it happens. A woman passes by; I assume she is Hunter’s social worker. She greets him and he puts out his hand for her inspection. Her eyes flicker over the cuts on his knee and palm and she says, “You fell?” And she doesn’t even have to wait for his response before she moves on to the bruises on his fingers; she doesn’t miss a beat before she asks, “Your mom did this? You didn’t finish your homework?” He says, “Yeah.”

Suddenly, I feel very dizzy.

“Your mom?” I ask for confirmation, once the other woman leaves. He nods rapidly, looking at his hand.

“When?”

“Last night.”

“How?” I feel bad for asking the question, but I need to know.

Así.” He mimics the rough action of a hand twisting his finger. God. I can’t decide if I want to pull him over and possibly tie him to myself so he can never go home, or get up and go find a quiet corner to be alone in.

“Does it hurt?”

“A lot.”

I’m speechless. My tongue feels gross and heavy; it sticks to the roof of my mouth. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t say what I wanted to at that crucial moment. What I would have wanted to say — the most accurate, most honest descriptor of what I was thinking — would be something along the lines of I hate this, I hate that this happened to you when I wasn’t there, I hate that this happened to you, period, this shouldn’t happen to you, this shouldn’t happen to anyone but it shouldn’t happen to you.

What I actually say is, “I don’t like it.”

I get another shrug for my efforts (his shrugs look more like copies of something seen on someone else than a natural movement; his shoulders practically touch his ears in the movement), and then he turns to lie down on my lap, his head resting on my leg as he looks up at me. Over the edge of his chair, his feet are swinging again. “Te quiero mucho,” he says. “Yo también te quiero mucho,” I reply, but my thoughts are elsewhere. When he goes into the clinic I’m sitting by myself and those thoughts begin to consume me. I actually feel like I might cry, which is a huge deal, because crying is not a thing that I do.

And it doesn’t matter that I’ve heard stories about more extreme cases of abuse. This is different. This is different because I am, like so many others, desensitized by modern society, by big cities and multitudes of strangers, to the plight of others. I pass by people who are missing their legs every day and I don’t even give them my change. I walk quickly in the opposite direction when I see scarred children trying to beg for scraps. I’ve absolutely perfected the act of putting on my sunglasses and pretending to fiddle with my iPod when I drive off the highway and a homeless person is on the side of the street with a sign. If I had heard this story about someone else, I’d be upset for all of five seconds and then move on with my dinner and start surfing Wikipedia. (Some people, I think, really do care, all the time, about every person they meet. They are incredible and unique and if you ever find one you should probably kidnap them.)

But I love eleven-year-old Hunter like I can remember loving no one else. He greets me with a tight hug every afternoon and reaches up to give me a kiss on the cheek with every adios. (I am actually the perfect person to work with attention-starved children. Somehow, I’m pretty sure I still come off as needy. Why are you doing your homework?! I’m not done with you yet!! Just give me another hug, dammit!) So this matters. I think about it for much longer than five seconds. I’m thinking about it for all of Thursday night and most of Friday and Saturday too and I don’t think I’ll forget that moment (Así.” He mimics the rough action of a hand twisting his finger) for a very long time. It was a kick in the face, but for bruises that I needed. I hope they stay for a while.

Have you ever had a similar experience? What do you think about the desensitization and apathy that seem to be so prevalent among people today? Is it a phenomenon that is restricted to the modern day, to residents of the big city, to Americans, or something more descriptive of human nature? Thoughts or references would be welcomed.

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3 comments
  1. Desensitizing ourselves is how we live with ourselves. I wish I could cry for every homeless person I met, but we have to live our lives, too. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t have compassion, but I have more questions than answers about where our compassion should lie and how we should exercise it.

    Your blog is honestly one of the most compelling things I’ve read this summer.

    • That’s a really good point. I suppose that in that case no one would ever get anything done. Thank you so much, Radhika! I’m glad it’s been interesting.

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