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Reunited…and it Feels so Good

Educators don’t play favorites. At least, we’re not supposed to. But, we’re also human and we connect with our students in vastly different ways. These children have all become like my own family, but there is one particular student, Santiago, who I can’t help but absolutely adore. He and I got off to a bit of a rough start, but, after sitting him down for a conversation about respect, we have developed a very close relationship. After that, he visited me in my office every day last year (sometimes twice), and it always made my day to see him. He can be a tough kid. But, the tough kids are usually the ones that aren’t getting the right kind of support, and I often find that they are the ones that have the most potential if their energy is channeled properly. That is definitely true in his case.

Santiago has a mountain of potential. He is madly in love with computers and wants to work in IT after finishing school. Santiago loves computers so much, in fact, that he even plays with a computer mouse fashioned out of cardboard and string. He drags that thing around like a 2-year-old with her or his safety blanket. For a long time, Santiago didn’t have a single sponsor, and I think that weighed on him a lot. Happily, in recent months, Santiago has actually come to full sponsorship. One of his sponsors even owns an internet cafe not far from the project. The sponsorship department at Safe Passage is working hard to help get Santiago some opportunities to go over there and get one-on-one support. A few other technology-related ideas are in works, and as soon as anything is solidified, he’ll likely be at the top of the sign up list. Lately, I’ve seen some of that weight appear to be lifted off of his shoulders. It seemed like everything was heading in all the right directions for him.

Santiago is fiercely dedicated to the project. After the end of last school year, he would hang out outside of the project. It was remarkable to step outside at the end of the day and see him standing there waiting every day without fail. His teacher and I got in the habit of going outside 5 or 10 minutes early so we could chat with him. On some days another of our students would be with him. One day, the other boy grabbed my water bottle (the hippy, eco-friendly, reusable kind that you can’t get in Guatemala), and ran off with it – in part to be funny and partly to get under my skin, since he knew I wasn’t allowed to go chase him down the street and around the corner. Santiago went and got it back for me after the cat and mouse game wore off on my end. That’s the kind of kid he is – he pushes limits but he has an incredible sense for someone his age of how far is too far. I’m often very impressed by how grown up he is for someone so young.

A lot of that “grown up” quality comes from the things he’s seen and experienced in his lifetime. Santiago’s home life is really tough. Sadly, his mom tends to concentrate a lot of her anger and frustration on him, an issue that has had the silver lining of allowing him to develop such amazing people smarts. At times, she hasn’t allowed Santiago into the house. As I said, he knows how to push buttons when he wants to, and I think he and his mom have gotten into the cycle of setting each other off. That’s a big part of why he continued to come and hang out by the project just waiting: he didn’t want to be at home, and he needed some positive attention. This isn’t just him; the things that he’s gone through can serve as something of a generalization for what kids in this neighborhood see and experience all the time. I have a feeling a number of the other students in the project would hang out at the project, too, if they weren’t working or taking care of siblings during their break.

The truth is that the drug trade through Guatemala is getting worse every week, and some of that is affecting this neighborhood. The sad news is they can get the kids quite young, with the promise of maybe a few years of money and excitement before an inevitable end. In this neighborhood, there’s not always a lot to want to aspire to a ripe old age for, so the deal the cartels offer doesn’t sound so bad. When juxtaposed against working in the dump, it may even sound positively attractive. Sadly, youth all over Guatemala are falling prey at alarming rates as the cartels take further hold.

So, a week or so before the holiday break, I was pretty alarmed when Santi showed up with brand new clothes and even a nice new phone. Those are the kids of things used to lure these kids in. Give them something fancy, promise them more and watch them crumble. I asked the social worker to keep an eye out for him. She told me everything would be fine.

But, I was about to spend a month outside of the project, and he would spend even more time away from it. Was that too long for him? Would something happen? I was extremely worried about Santi, so much so that I spent my entire winter break preoccupying about him. I would literally lie awake at night wondering whether or not he was safe. I was anxious and fidgety, and just couldn’t wait to get back. He was at the top of my worry list, but I couldn’t stand the thought of all 550 of them going without their square meals and making sure their teeth are brushed. I just wanted project to be back. I was ready and raring at 6:30 a.m. waiting for the bus on our first day.

I spent a couple of days back, anxiously waiting for him to be outside of the project at the end of the day. He never appeared. Then one day, walking down the street at lunchtime, Santi was right there out of nowhere. I gasped and my heart skipped a beat. He looked completely happy and healthy. Most importantly, he was safe. Sheer relief took over and I lost all sense of anything else. I grabbed him and embraced him, rocking him back and forth and absolutely sobbing. In all of my 28 years on this planet, I can honestly say I have never been so overcome to see someone. Santi hugged me back for several minutes as I tried to explain that my tears were because I was so happy to see him, that I’d missed him and that I was glad that he was doing okay. After a few moments he said, “Teacher, tengo que ir a la escuela.” Those words, “I have to go to school,” were music to my ears. Not only was he okay, he was in school and more motivated than ever. “Have a great day! I’ll see you soon!” I said as he scampered off. It was then that I put two and two together: he wasn’t waiting outside of the project because he had started school and his session had changed. He was now in school in the afternoons instead of the morning as he had the previous year.

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