Tuesday, March 6, 2012
The Kid in the Back
Smaller than the other boys, J kept a low profile in class, but often stayed after the lunch bell to hang out with the students who preferred to stay indoors and out of trouble in my room during the lunch period. Sometimes he'd chat with me, telling me all about his passion for the Highlander TV show, which I had never watched, and describe some of the show-related gear he'd managed to acquire.
Just before the two-month break for our "track" at this large, inner-city, year-round school, he came to tell me that a close family member had passed away, and that the family was going to be leaving early for El Salvador, to attend the funeral and to visit relatives they had not seen for many years. I wished him a good trip, and he promised to be back when the track returned from break in March.
March arrived, as did J, but he seemed even quieter and more subdued than before the break. His passion for Highlander had morphed into an obsession. At the end of April, we began to read Elie Wiesel's account of the Holocaust, Night, reading it in class, sometimes in small groups, sometimes together, discussing it as we read. One day we read a part where the Nazis are throwing babies up in the air and using them for target practice.
When the lunch bell rang, the students filed out somberly, finding it difficult and painful to read of such evil. J remained. "Something like that happened to me."
All I could think of to say was, "Do you want to talk about it?" He did, so I sat and listened.
When he was eight, he lived with his parents and his three year old sister in their village in El Salvador. Civil war raged in the country, but until that day, his life and his innocence had not been poisoned by that war. Then, on that day, soldiers came looking for his uncle. Because his uncle was not there, and to send a "message" to all in the village, the soldiers took J's three year old sister, held her up in front of the house, and squashed her with their jeep. J smashed his fist into his other hand to illustrate. The family fled to the US soon after.
Yes, he'd had lots of counseling when they first arrived. No, he did not want to be referred for additional help. After all, how does one "recover" from exposure to pure evil, especially when one is a child when that happens?
That afternoon, I went through the TV guide, hunting for reruns of Highlander, and over the next few weeks watched a number of episodes. What was it about the show that held such fascination for this young man? My best guess would be that in a world where evil can destroy innocence, J needed to believe that in the end good would triumph, as the good character always seemed to do on the show. It gave him hope.
Why do I tell these stories? I'm a witness. How can I be silent?