I was twenty-four and I knew everything. I knew about justice; I knew about respect. I knew everyone in the world had it in them. And I knew that everyone deserved a chance.
I spent my first year as a teacher teaching a split 6/7 late French Immersion on Saltspring Island, British Columbia, five thousand kilometers from my home on the east coast. It was 2004, and I had seventeen of the most expectant kids in my class, little blond boys with long hair and others with quiet charms and stripes. They were creative and ingenuous. They were coupled with a group of Grade Seven girls that terrified me with the power of their clique. They were snarling, brutal girls, about seven of them, and they took me to the Guidance Counselor’s office more than once. My ten-year-old boys, they were my angels.
I signed a contract for a six-month position, from September to March, but I prayed that it would end sooner. As it is with most first teaching assignments, my student to teacher transition bumped and creaked along with unexpected turns. The job exhausted and possessed me, as I churned out lesson plans in six subjects night after night, not yet having the wisdom of experience or the lesson bank to lean against in times of strife.
It was hardly a surprise then, that I was so wildly prepared to journey long and far the moment that the contract ended. Saltspring is an island full of prophecy in some ways, settlers from other lands, and my dream to travel was aptly supported. I planned a trip to Guatemala and spent the first six weeks in Mexico. In the mountains of Chiapas I began to dream in Spanish, and funneled my intensity for education into language learning, sitting in the streets and speaking with whoever would listen, and dangling my feet from rooftop hostels with Argentinian men with guitars and cigarettes. In the meantime I poured over dictionaries and newspapers, circling words in green ink and adding my own pictograms in the margins.
My month in Mexico rapidly turned into two once I crossed the border to Guatemala. By this time my Spanish was in fair shape, and I finally had some negotiating power in the marketplace. This helped me participate more easily in the commerce of the everyday, and allowed me to ask the questions to the answers I sought: environmental action, rates of illiteracy, and a thorough retelling of the history of the country.
I spent the most time with children. Men flirted insatiably and women seemed to disregard me completely, so the kids and the elderly seemed the most nonthreatening groups. Children were willing to engage, to interrupt me when I made mistakes and correct me through fits of laughter. It was a complete role reversal coming from teaching late French Immersion, where I was the one who encouraged those young voices to make their first honest mistakes. You need mistakes, I would tell them, that’s how you learn. I trusted them: a young teacher, naïve, filled with un espoir, or una esperenza—a hope for the world. The foolishness of invigorated youth, maybe.
I drank in the simplicity of my life there, for a while uncomplicated by boyfriends, contracts, and major life decisions.
The mountains of Guatemala wooed me, even when the bus broke down on the one long twisting valley road, long curling smoke bellowing from under her hood. She was a hip red roadster with the slug Dios es mi Piloto, a befitting adage. I piled out the narrow doors as if on an unplanned field trip, with all the Mayan women who spoke K’iche’, their babies attached to them in long swaths of fabric in brilliant hues of pinks, greens, and blues—the same Guatemalan textiles which had begun to saturate my pack. We would become friends before the night’s end, which concluded in a nearby village that thankfully had one pension, a room I could rent inexpensively for the night.
But by late summer my mother’s voice on the phone had changed. My nana, who Mom had sat with and prayed with in her final hours and days, had died after a life that gave her ninety-one years. I had just crossed into Belize, the nation bordered on the north by Mexico and on the south and west by Guatemala, and on the east by the Caribbean Sea.
My first stop was a small town called Punta Gorda, a seaside village of about five thousand people. Made up of Maya, Garifuna, Latino, and Kriol, P.G. brought with it a rich sense of its cultural history, fishers and craftspeople, with an agricultural swell on market day of farmers with the backs of their pickup trucks full of bananas, coconuts, or corn. The main street in Punta Gorda was wide and dusty and there were plenty of side roads to explore. I checked in a local guesthouse with an innkeeper who was sometimes there and sometimes not, and for about ten Belize dollars a night (about five American) which I negotiated.
I met a medicine healer whose shelves were full of elixirs, dried flowers and herbs, and who told me she would teach me everything she knew. I dipped my toes in the inviting warmth of the Caribbean Sea. I met a young man who gave me a ride on his bicycle back to his farm where I spent the day running with turkeys, discovering scorpions, and learning the variances of Belizean Kriol. I wanted to stay forever.
There was in my midst a gang of kids with faded t-shirts who ran around from shop to shop and who were occasionally scolded by adults. They herded little ones and I was never sure exactly who they belonged to. Mom had a saying for us when we tried to get away with going to church on Sunday without our hair brushed or with stains on our shirts. She used to say, “It looks like nobody owns you.” I was always vaguely offended, not because she was suggesting I was her property, but because the saying evinced a sense of inadequacy; I needed to go get cleaned up or organized because I wasn’t being a “good enough daughter.” Today I use it with my own kids, as one of those carryover sayings my parents used with me, knowing now exactly what it means.
These kids hung out on the main street just outside the guesthouse, and as I had walked past them a few times, they had tried their hand at English with me. They were just about the ages of the boys in my Grade Six class back on Saltspring, the same garish high fives, the same star-gazed straggler possessed by a soccer ball, the same timid glances towards a girl who pretended not to notice.
I don’t know if it was the bedbugs or the cockroaches, but the time soon came for me to go north. As was my routine for a morning departure, the evening before I crammed my backpack tightly, pulled the strings tight, fastened my blanket to the side, and lined up my belongings in preparation. It was getting late and I headed down the hall to the communal bathroom, toothbrush in hand. When I opened the door, a flash of grey t-shirt slipped behind an open door, one of the kids from the street. Even though I saw him in the corner of my eye, my sensibilities jumped to their own conclusions. I thought, I didn’t see that boy’s family. I didn’t notice someone else had checked in.
I walked briskly back to my room and checked my bag, hoping that nothing was taken, but by the time I unzipped my purse my wallet was already gone. For a few minutes, my heart beat out of my chest, I started to sweat and I checked the rest of the pack to see if anything else was missing. Then, I went to look for the boy.
I had taken him by surprise when I came out of the bathroom and he had fled into an empty bedroom, as fast as his skinny legs could carry him.
My wallet was a Guatemalan change purse that I never kept more than ten bucks local currency in. But I had called Mom that morning, and the only way I could call was by using a credit card. I didn’t need the purse. I didn’t need the ten bucks. But I needed the credit card.
The boy was still in the room he’d ducked for cover in, an old single with a twin mattress with a sheet and a dull lamp that lit up the plaster that peeled round the window. He was twelve, maybe.
“You staying here?” I asked him in my finest Spanish. No accusations. No hostility.
“Yes.” His hands rubbed his knuckles and his eyes shifted like a terrified cat.
“Where are you from?” I inquired.
“Belmopan,” the boy said, quoting the capital. He couldn’t have been alone though, even if his story checked out.
“With your family?”
“My cousins,” he said.
We went on like this for sometime, with me pretending like nothing had happened. Finally, my tone became stern. The kid was scared. I could use that.
“Now that we’re friends, could I have my wallet back, please? You can keep the cash, my friend. It’s yours. But I need the credit card back.”
He shook his head. “No, I didn’t take.”
“It’s okay if you did, I’m not mad. You can do the right thing here, just give the card back.”
He shook his head, no.
I had spent hours in classes studying the structures of positive discipline. Don’t intimidate. Don’t threaten. Don’t bribe. I advanced on him, spreading my fingers to take control. “You can keep the cash,” I repeated. Time slowed as I paused to figure out who should be in the principal’s office, me or the kid. Why did I deserve a life of plenty, with parents and stuff and jobs and opportunities, while this poor kid was forced to take the risk of stealing ten bucks off some stupid tourist? Who was guilty? Who was innocent?
The kid ran when we heard the thud, thud, thud of the owner’s footsteps coming up the stairs. The kid tried to escape but when the owner saw him, he pinched him by the ear and shouted at him a long line of heated words in Spanish, ending with ‘voy a llamar a la policía’.
“No, no, no, por favor,” I begged, imagining the trouble he would be in with his parents. The owner hit him upside the head and the kid took off. I was relieved the whole altercation was over, and the owner went downstairs after him. I stood there stunned for a minute and tilted my head when saw the flash of silver on the floor. The kid had thrown the credit card on the floor before he flew the coop.
I was still shaken up on the bus north, to the Mayan ruins of San Ignacio. I finally talked to my seatmate, who spoke pretty good English, and told him what happened. He couldn’t understand why I hadn’t wanted the boy to get in trouble, why I tried to reason with him, why I hadn’t called the owner from the beginning. I didn’t know why.
But I kept thinking about that kid, when I scaled the country’s elaborate cave systems and when I gazed from the peaks down to the orange groves below, when I was carried away unsuspectingly by the mighty pull of the great Belize River. And I still think about him, the guilt of the innocent, poverty and power, and the undulation of all the invisible strings in between. And sometimes I wonder if he remembers me.
Rumpus original art by Max Winter.