[written in Enugu, Nigeria, while living there as a full-time volunteer]
A boy—my favorite of them here—ordered on his knees on the concrete floor. I had thought (or maybe just hoped) the terror in his eyes would diminish after he turned his back to me.
“I’m not going to flog you.” The teacher’s words contradicted the bamboo stick in her hand, but I believed them. Did he?
Meanwhile, his classmates somehow knew to form a line. They stood single file in front of him, one friend before and after another. In hindsight, I see that they knew. They all must have: the teacher, the classmates, and worst yet, the boy on his knees. Ritual perhaps to them, but brutal to me, the boy—my favorite of them here, I want to reiterate—was not, in fact, flogged by his teacher. He was instead slapped. Kicked. Pushed.
By his classmates.
One-by-one, each seven-, eight-, at the oldest nine-, year old administered their own disciplinary action against their fellow student, punishing him for I know not what crime. The girl who has permanent crinkles around her eyes from smiling her sweet smile (the same smile I randomly and merrily saw when we excitedly ran into each other in town the other day) resolutely smacked him on the side of his head. I thought it a substantial strike, but the teacher instructed her to try again, this time punching him on the back of his leg. The girl obliged easily.
A good friend of the boy, another one of the students who I have been tutoring, moved forward in his characteristic large strides. He roughly pulled at the boy’s forearm, causing him to fall facedown on the floor amidst laughter of their peers. The fact that this friend maintained his also-characteristic toothy grin the whole time still haunts me.
I left. I left abruptly and without a word.
I don’t know if I left too soon or too late, but watching just wasn’t an option anymore. Although I felt immediate relief in no longer witnessing this wonderful boy be beaten, I remained weak with crushing emotions. Too angry to cry but too nauseous to stand, the guilt I had felt as I sat andsimply watched continued ravenously ripping at my heart. I sat outside, sick at the thought of him on his knees, enduring over two dozen forms of assault, and looking up only to see my back as I hurried out the door.
I left. I left him alone and without an ally.
But not anymore.
I am committed to this child. It’s as if he wriggled his way into my heart when I wasn’t looking. Not just any place in my heart, though (the amount of people there number so high that it is standing room only)—this boy has found a spot in the VIP section. It was a place that I know has always been reserved for him; I have just been waiting to meet him so he could fill it.
Yesterday’s raw incident that wounded us both (though unfortunately him much, much more than me) has only solidified my dedication to him. Already this morning, actually, we both learned a valuable lesson (though unfortunately me much, much more than him) about cocoons while reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
“Auntie, the caterpillar eats too much, then goes in the cocoon and comes out a butterfly?” he asked, confused.
I tried to clarify. “Well, there’s a little bit more to it than that. The caterpillar eats enough so he’s not hungry when he is in the cocoon because he has to stay there for a while. He goes into the cocoon, where he’s safe and where he can grow, and when he’s ready, then he comes out as a butterfly,” I told him. “And see? Look what a beautiful butterfly he is!”
It was while explaining this process that I realized that this is exactly how I hope my time with this boy will be. I want our friendship to become a cocoon, an opportunity for him to feel safe and to grow. I thought back to a question my dear friend Catherine asked of a caterpillar we saw along the canal in Nottingham last spring—“I wonder what kind of butterfly you’ll be?”—and I smiled at this boy, pondering the very same thing.