Would You Be Ashamed?

From Amber - Guyana intern
 Would You Be Ashamed?
That’s a question a 13 year old asked me on Wednesday at PAL. We were using a dictionary to look up the continent and equator when Lily began to softly cry. I asked her what was wrong and she could only shake her head in silence.  I gave her some space as the others graciously continued working around her.  Her silence was broken a long while later as the children transitioned to practice a skit from the book Billy Goat Gruff. 
As others rehearsed, Lily came to sit close to me on the step.  “Miss Amber,” she asked, “Would you be ashamed if you couldn’t read?”  She was broken.  I had to fight back tears of my own as I looked her in the eye.  “No, I would not be ashamed,” I said, “but, if I knew I was struggling I would ask for help.” 

Lily has only been coming to PAL four weeks.  And as I continue to reflect on this situation there are so many things that I still can’t believe took place within this one conversation.  

  1. Lily’s broken boldness - to actually admit to me that you can’t read and that you feel ashamed of it – is a big step.
  2. Lily’s trust. She actually felt comfortable enough with me for no longer than she has known me.  Wow!
  3. Lily’s educational gap.  She is in ninth grade and can’t read. It makes me wonder if her teacher even notices that she can’t read.
  4. My (Amber) Emotional Conflict.

I am shocked and frustrated, and in some ways disgusted, while at the same time seeking to understand life here.  In the states a teacher has a student for 180 days and the teacher is aware of what the student can and cannot do. I would think that the teachers in Guyana would also know what the students can and cannot do. My heart hurts for all teenagers who are so far behind and are falling through the cracks.

But for today Lily is that teenager. 

Lily is the oldest of three siblings and none of them share the same father.

Lily is an orphan.

She has a mother who does not read and has no idea how to encourage her child to reach for a better life.

Lily is in PAL today because a mother of one of our young leaders stayed on her until she finally gave permission for Lily to come.  Imagine our own PAL children would take what they had learned in PAL and sit on Lily’s step to teach her…that is how bad Lily wants to read.  One thing that has struck me is how Lily has only recently started coming to lessons, but her younger brother has been with us for a year.  Now that I know Lily I see the same issues in his young life. 

Her brother cannot read either and he is ashamed, but he handles his shame in a totally different way. If he feels uncomfortable or “stupid” as they say here, he will drop his head and literally freeze. If we are not quick enough or gentle enough to draw him back in we lose him – literally lose him.  One minute he will be with us and the next minute he will be gone.  Shame causes him to run away while Lily has reached through her shame to ask for help. 

“Miss Amber, I need help.” Lily said.  And in that moment I was able to explain to her that PAL is here to help her.  The teacher Nikki has noticed Lily as well and together we are developing a reading plan for her.  The plan will involve the same children who helped her before she came to PAL to partner with her now to review with her on the days when we do not have PAL.  The plan will involve summer one-on-one help when PAL finishes each day.  We will also tackle the esteem issues that affect her so deeply. 

Today Angie and I took Lily and another older girl out to eat chicken.  It only took Angie asking the other teenager how tests were going in school for Lily’s tears to start flowing.  Shock struck us both, once again.  Angie then turned this moment around with as she used a simple bottle of Sprite to get our girls talking about the issues of life.  She shook up an almost full bottle and pointed it at me as she asked the teens what would happen next.  They both answered that it would go all over me and mess up my clothes.  The tie-in came when she shook up the second bottle that was almost empty.  She explained how both have the same reaction, but the full one is the one that overflows.  Everyone knows what happens when you shake a soda up - it starts to spew out the top. In the same way, when life starts to overwhelm you, you either do two things. You either cry or get angry.  Angie explained to Lily that the more she was involved with PAL the less her bottle would be filled.  Her emotions would not be so much on the surface and uncontrollable.      

There is a saying that the Lord will never give you anything you cannot handle, but there is also another saying that says the Lord will never give you anything you cannot handle with his help. I think of that often when I think about Lily’s situation and what it must feel like for her. My mind can also easily wander to the places that are hard to talk about.  One thing I have seen that Lily can do well is clean the house and care for her younger siblings.  She is also petite, quiet and beautiful.  In a place like Plastic City where the innocence of children is stolen so quickly I worry about what will happen if Lily’s desire to read does not fulfilled.  Will she follow in her mother’s footsteps or worse….will she be trafficked. 

Lily has found her voice.  She has made her desire known and it’s obvious that she is embarrassed that she cannot read.  Teaching her to read is a big task, but nothing that we cannot overcome together.  To hear Lily one day read a book in PAL is possible.  To know that Lily can be the first one to read in her family and have her future re-written is a cause worth fighting for.