Buenas noches, I write to you from Cusco. As the first half of my travels comes to a close, it is with sadness that I turn the page to this next chapter. Why? Because I fucking love my kids down here. I spent the last eleven weeks working at school with children 2-5 with congenital brain disorders, like Cerebral Palsy and Down’s Syndrome. At the dawn of the New Year, I had been considering switching positions to something more explicitly medically oriented. I couldn’t be happier to have stayed.
Two of the most important lessons I have begun to learn down here are empathy and patience. If I can summarize the nature of this work in a word, its repetition. Get to school at 8:00. Help them eat/ feed breakfast. Play time/ activity. Snack. Play time/ activity. Lunch. Clean dishes, clean feeding area. Clean children, as needed. Get out of there by 1:30 if I’m lucky. Home for lunch, then rest and recharge. I can’t imagine working until 5:00 every day with these kids. The “every day” is the hardest part; the repetition is wearing. It’s easy to show up for a few hours or days and put on a happy face and be silly. But as the sixth week bleeds into the seventh, and the seventh into the eighth, continuing on in the same fashion requires digging much deeper.
On Fridays, we would go to a horse park that specializes in animals therapy for children at schools similar to where I work. Watching the children find the confidence to pet and lead the horses around was always rewarding. Sometimes, we would see others with similar conditions, but in their teenage years. To see them struggling with the same basic tasks as my 2-5 year olds (e.g., eating, walking, talking) was sobering. This is hard work. It gets harder when the kids aren’t cute and cuddly. I remember that my time down here is but a snapshot of their development, and these children of mine might go on to be like the ones we’d see at the park. Some of them will depend on the assistance of others for the rest of their lives. After leaving, I will have been a part of these children, but only for eleven weeks. What difference have I really made?
I’d bring my guitar to work a day or two a week. Sometimes I’d play along to children’s songs and we’d sing, but other days I’d just play, making up chords and verses to everything from Radiohead to Blink-182. There are these two boys with Down’s Syndrome, Alex and Santiago, that were enchanted with the guitar and the sounds it was making. They’d come right up next to my strummin’ hand and place their faces against the guitar. They were loving it. So was I.
There’s a girl named Cameron, who’s five and has autism. She still doesn’t eat on her own, because she doesn’t eat anything besides chicken or cheese. When she eats, she sits in one of those baby-feeding-time seats. When she struggles, oh what a struggle! And everyday, for as long as I’d have strength in my arms, Cameron would bring a big blue ball to me and ask, “subo, subo?” (I jump, I jump?). When I’d bounce her, she was endlessly delighted. You should just see the girl and the way she bounces. Then its “subo, subo?” again. She’s not a little kid, and after the third or fourth or fifth time she asked, I’d tell her “no mas, mañana.” When mañana would come, you can bet that the big blue ball would come too. And every time it did, I would exhaust myself bouncing her. Sarah can’t walk on her own, but she loves to play catch. Justen has difficulty coordinating movement, and he gives the hardest hugs of anyone I know. Little Nicholas just cries and cries but when he smiles, oh what a smile! I taught Gabriel (or Gordito/ ~little fatty, as the ladies at work affectionately call him) how to touch someone on the noose and say “boop,” and then I’d get booped like ten times a day. These are the things that will stick with me, the small moments that made every single day, in all the endless repetition, special.
Towards the end of my time in Quito, I’d find that whereas I would normally look forward to returning home at the end of the day, I’d be missing my kids in the hours we were apart. Goodbyes slowly started trickling in, and those were sad and all, but the heartbreaking part for me is that these children had no comprehension that I was leaving. They would return to school on Monday and the thought of the silence and the empty space there just kills me. I have learned and enjoyed so much with these children. These are things that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t come down here. In our time together, I helped create happiness in their lives, and they greatly improved mine. I hope that they will remember me. I will never forget them. At the very least, they got to hear some good ole’ American music played with soul.
It has now been six days since I last saw them. On Friday, my last day with the children, we (including the mothers/ two fathers) went to a new park that specializes in dog therapy. I spent the afternoon with Santiago- whose grandfather works and thus couldn’t come- playing foster father for the day. Even after eleven weeks with these kids, the day was such a wonderful teacher, and I stepped even further into his world. What I saw there was pure and fun and simple. When I arrived, I couldn’t understand how much they’d understand, or how well they can communicate (if only you know how to listen!). As I leave, it is my world that has changed. I took pictures and pictures that afternoon, but at lunch, while the moms ate and the children ran around, I put the camera down and went and sat on a bench near where some kids were going down a slide, and I just watched them play. There are some things cameras can’t do.
With all the love,