Sunday, September 09, 2007

Marquita on the train

Her mother was gigantic and glared at me after she kicked my foot while boarding the bus. Waiting for the train, Marquita sat next to me on the bench. She was about 8 years old and as I sat there knitting, I realized that she smelled bad. Not horrible to the point of repelling but she definitely hadn't showered in a couple of days. She asked me about my knitting. I did not realize at that point who her mother was since her mother was standing all the way on the other side of the platform; I thought she was traveling alone. I answered her question about what I was making and when she asked about the 5 sticks I was using, I explained about knitting in a circle, also pointing out how a rectangle (like most people knit) can easily be made into a circle. She asked me who had taught me to knit and I told her that my grandmother had when I was her age but then I forgot how until recently and then I learned from a book and the internet.

When the train pulled up, I gathered up my stuff and got on. She and her mother got on the same car and even though it was totally empty except for us, her mother moved to the opposite side of the car and Marquita sat right next to me. I was vibrantly aware of the fact that it was possible that the adults in her life don't engage her questions with satsfying answers, if her mother's behavior was any indicator. We've all seen and been adults who answer questions with, "Why do you need to know that?" "I'll tell you when you're older." "Stop bothering me." "Pay attention to your food." At best, this is because the adults don't know the answer and don't realize that out-loud speculation of what the answer could be is just as valuable for the development of kids. At worst, the kids are unwanted annoyances in the adults' life.

Engaging didn't feel like a burden, but it certainly felt like a responsibility. Nothing in my life at that moment was more important than making this little neglected girl feel valued. Even the fact that I'm not usually very good at interacting with kids this age. Even the fact that I would always rather put my nose in my book on the train to make the time go by faster.

So, I began asking her questions. How was the start of school? Did she like her teacher? I didn't ask what her name was at first because I didn't want her mother to feel like I was being inappropriate. However, her mother never looked at us for the entire 45 minute trip.

We talked about all sorts of things. She asked me what stop I was getting off at and figured out the implications of who was going to get off the train first. Since she was getting off at Pulaski, we talked a little about Casmir Pulaski and how kids in Chicago are the only kids in the country who get a day off from school to honor him since we have so many people that live here that used to live in Poland. She was going to the public aid office with her mother. It was 1:00 in the afternoon and she told me that her mother had pulled her out of school early in order to go to the public aid office. My heart sank when she told me this. When I told her that I was going to pick up my car, she told me her mother was about to buy a car because she finally took lessons, so the car was free. I didn't want to ask a follow-up question for fear of what the answer would be. Full of responsiblity, I told her that even though I have a car, I ride the train because it's better for the environment. She asked if she could try knitting. I let her practice and she did passably well for a kid with a kid's fine motor skills. I used the cadence my grandma used. Over, under, around and through. When we passed by a construction site, I asked ehr what she thought was beng built there. She asnwered with confidence, "an office building with papers and stuff." So, I asked her what other kinds of things went in an office building. Between the two of us, we came up with papers, chairs, file cabinets, deskes [sic], computers, pencils, and pens. Then, she asked me if I could speak Spanish. I expressed regret that I hadn't learned when I was her age because it was easier to learn other languages when you're younger. Always feeling the responsibility to be the turning point in this kid's life, right? Fortunately, I snapped out of it enough to ask her if she knew Spanish. Her face lit up and turned shy in the smae moment, so I prompted her to ola me and to count. I learned that she and I are both the only girls in our families. She has 4 brothers; I have 3. I learned my first year teaching African American kids that they were always amazed to look at my family pictures and notice that my older brothers don't look like me, my younger brother or my dad. They had never considered that white families might have half-siblings in them. (Although technically, my brothers are a quarter Philipino, so they're not all white. I used to get street cred from my students for that, too.) So, feeling the responsiblity for showing this girl that our races were not all that different, I confided in her about my brothers. It took her a minute to process, but she responded in the same way my students had. She asked to try my knitting again and I let her. She wanted my phone number so that I could keep teaching her. I explained that I didn't live in her neighborhood but I bet that one of the old ladies that live by her would know how. I asked if she went to church to see if there would be old ladies there to direct her to and her facial expression of disappointment that she had to tell me she didn't, with her eyes flicking toward her mother broke my heart a little more.

Then, she asked me for change.

In the moment, I played it off as funny, asking in mock indignation, "Now, why would I give you change?" She smiled, thought about and said, "I don't know. So, I can get something for myself?" Later, when I told this story to my mother, I began sobbing as soon as I described the way she smelled. As my mother came over to where I was sitting and held me, the climax of episode came when I told her about the change.

I grieve powerfully that this little girl has grown up in a world - my world - that taught her to beg simply out of habit. How will she ever regain dignity that she never had?

Because dignity is where it all starts. Without believing that we are worth something better, we will never attempt to obtain something better for ourselves. For all her inquisitiveness and imagination, the only thing Marquita is being taught is dependence. That is a poverty that no amount of stuff can redeem.

Now, I have had a tough couple of weeks. I quit my job, started school, picked up my car from the shop 4 times only to take it back again 4 times, helped my best friend move away from our neighborhood, got a new roommate, and the man I've been seeing and I broke up our relationship. I am heartbroken and liminal and very, very tender. Maybe if I met Marquita in another week of my life, she wouldn't affect me like this. Maybe if I were still working in non-profit administration, I would simply see her as another recipient of the work I was doing and so I would see her need as necessary to my ability to fulfill Christ's commandment to clothe the naked and visit the prisoner. But this week, all I can do is grieve for her and do my best to give her 45 minutes of sunshine.

At church tonight, we sang Taize vespers and in the repetition of one of the prayers, I found resonance in this poetry:
By night we hasten in darkness to seek for the living water.
Only our thirst lights us onwards.
Only our thirst lights us onwards.

Notice that I said that I found resonance in the poetry, not inspiration. It is the middle of the night for me right now. The only thing that keeps me moving forward is my thirst for something better. Otherwise, I would take muchmuch easier paths or sleep through the darkness by being emotionally lazy. So, I suppose I thank God for my thirst. I am happier every time I come across a stream and I can only find new streams by continuing to hasten onward.

My prayer is that Marquita keeps feeling the thirst that caused her to be bold by sitting down next to a stranger and asking for love. I pray that she does not sleep through the night, sinking into apathy, drugs, despair, unhealthy sex, bitterness, or dysfunctional relationships to mask her thirst. Like the woman at the well, I hope Jesus shows up at sometime in her life, in some guise, and tells her the truth about herself so that she feels valuable for more than just 45 minutes. I hope she continues to seek for living water. She will find it even in the darkness if she lets her thirst guide her. At least, I hope that's true, for both hers and my sake.

1 comment:

Al said...

Amen to your prayer for Marquita.

And for you:

"We are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are we free to abandon it." Pirkei Avot 2:21

“If you save one life, it is as if you have saved the world.”

Rebecca, from what I have read on your blog, you are doing that all the time in your interactions with people.

Be well,

Al