May 21, 2015
When Hillary Clinton published her book It Takes a Village to Raise a Child, my classroom and the walls of the school were adorned with this African proverb. It helped to cement the idea that teachers, counselors, social workers, et al, were important in the lives of the children we encountered. Children are the world’s greatest asset. They are the future, and what we teach them will guide their way. Children learn to trust the world if their needs are met, their homes are safe, and they are loved. They develop strategies to cope with their environment when they witness the coping skills of others, especially the primary caregivers in their lives. Part of the purpose for putting the posters around the school was a reminder to all the adults in the building that everyone a child comes in contact with will impact his/her life. What we give them, what they witness, they will take into adulthood. It is with these beliefs that I wondered at a set of parents I had the displeasure to meet while attending my son’s graduation.
My first encounter with this family was at the hotel desk as they were checking in. I needed towels for the pool and had to wait in line behind them. At first glance, it looked like a middle-aged man with his three children. The middle child, a girl of about nine, had on a full face of makeup, but not the kind one would wear if she was in some sort of a show or competition. This was garish, applied haphazardly, yet the little girl primped and preened, twirling and looking coquettishly at the crowd, until the oldest girl, who I figured to be in her early 20’s, pulled her aside and spoke into her ear. I assumed it was a reprimand by the way she squeezed the younger one’s arm and shoved it aside when she finished talking to her. The dad raised his eyebrows at them but said nothing. Soon another attendant came to the counter and I collected our towels and headed out to the pool.
The breeze off the ocean, the rustling of the palm trees, the live band playing calypso music created a feeling of paradise. Within minutes, the hotel door opened and the family from the front desk sauntered out, shattering the illusion. The little boy shoved his sister hard and she stumbled on the pavement. The dad and the oldest sister stepped over her and the boy stuck out his tongue at his sister on the ground. Two seconds later I realized the oldest daughter wasn’t the daughter but the wife when I saw the kiss exchanged between her and who I mistakenly thought was her father.
My husband and I did a double take and tried hard not to let our jaws fall. Looking at her body and skin tone, there was no way she was past her late 20s. Looking at him, there was no way he was younger than 45, and that was being generous. Normally, that kind of thing doesn’t bother me, but what I’d witnessed so far with their kids made me feel uneasy about their family dynamics. As the afternoon progressed, the parents started drinking and the kids started diving into the pool even though there no diving signs hung everywhere. The parents ignored them and the kids ignored the couple who explained to them what the no diving signs meant. The kids grew tired of diving and the boy began trying to drown his sister. This wasn’t your normal kids playing and dunking each other, this was holding her under until someone intervened and pulled him off of her. The girl surfaced, sobbing and gagging, and had to be dragged to the side of the pool by a grandfatherly gentleman, and the parents continued to drink and ignore the kids.
The atmosphere at the pool changed. The entire crowd, and there were at least 40 people milling about, went on high alert while the parents remained oblivious and intent on meeting new people who ordered drinks as rapidly as they did. I moved out of the jacuzzi to the side of the pool to keep an eye on the boy who seemed intent on hurting his sister and the sister seemed intent to remain the victim. Another family came out on deck and their kids jumped into the pool. It took the boy seconds to make friends with the newcomers and minutes to get them to start chasing his sister. When she left, sobbing, to sit next to her mother, who ignored her, he started pushing the other kids into the pool. Those parents yelled at him to stop. The boy’s father stumbled over to the side of the pool, warned his son to behave, and promptly left. The rest of the afternoon continued with screaming kids, not fun screams, but hurt and angry kids, and kind strangers coming to the rescue.
I sat on the edge of the pool thinking these are the children who have graced my classroom. Wounded, distrustful, angry children who have no respect for authority. Why would they have respect when no one has kept them safe? Why would they value education when they have bigger concerns? Speaking with the parents has no positive effect. Most often if something was said to the parent about the child’s behavior, the child earned a beating, compounding the problem. Now, the child has learned not to trust the teacher. At this point, it is the village who raises that child. The teachers, friends, parents of other kids, social workers, counselors, anybody who can offer this child hope, help them see possibilities, and most importantly help them believe they deserve love.
It takes a village to raise a child, and in this instance, it took a village of strangers to keep these children safe. I witnessed fifteen adults come to the aid of this brother and sister duo. People who guided, stepped in, and took care of them because the parents were disinterested. People who cared enough about these kids to try and have a positive impact on them, or at least not idly stand by and watch them get hurt or kill each other.
The next day, there was no sign of the family. While part of me experienced a rush of relief because I could relax and not feel responsible for the kids welfare, the other part of me worried that one day, there wouldn’t be a village to keep them safe. Children are this world’s greatest asset. We need to guide, support, protect and love these children, even when the parents don’t or are unable. Sometimes it is the word of a caring stranger that makes the difference. It takes a village to raise a child, and we need to be that village.
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