AND ‘T’ STANDS FOR TRUST

On Thursday, as part of my summer paralegal job, I got to attend depositions for a case with my boss (who remarkably doubles as my brother). Some of what was questioned of these men was the case law that hearsay is not sufficient by itself and must be corroborated by independent investigation or steps to prove the reliability of whomever the hearsay originated from. It is a protective law for citizens so that we are not harassed by mere happenstance, and that reason and cause are present in legal activity. That’s why there is so much emphasis on corroborating what is said.

At the center of the curriculum I wrote, last time I was in Ghana, was the acronym A.C.T. ‘A.C.T.’ was chosen because it spelled ‘act,’ which is a word that requires deliberate motions and movement. The acronym was supposed to teach the children about what they could do if something bad, particularly sexual abuse, was happening to them. The first letter ‘A’ stood for alert, signifying that the children should tell someone about the situation. ‘C’ stood for care, meaning that the students should take care and be cautious of their surroundings, avoiding those bad places and people that was possible to avoid within their power. And ‘T’ stood for trust, which meant that the children should trust that if they alert the proper person(s) and were as careful as they could be, that they should trust that someone would care and something would be done.

I always thought that ‘T’ was the most important letter of A.C.T. I thought that if the students did not believe that ‘T’ would happen—that something would be done to help them—then I had lost the odds of ‘A’ and ‘C.’ It was my romantic thoughts of good triumphing over evil that put so much emphasis on ‘T’ and needing those children to believe that people would care if something bad happened to them. I certainly cared—but then again, I was leaving. And that fact sometimes made me feel like I put so much emphasis on ‘T,’ but in reality, trust was much more complicated than my acronym. It readily defied the confines of my chalkboard lessons. For example, whenever I asked the students to name a few people that they could trust, the top three answers—parents, teachers, and police officers—were the top three groups of people perpetrating the crime.

I guess this rings true for many situations, but it still seems a cruel twist of life that the very people who we give our trust to, are sometimes the very people so quick to betray it. And when it’s the people who are supposed to be taking care of these children, it creates a web of fear in the community of voices revealing unspeakable crimes against a child, and a stigma for those who dare to unveil it. So these children are asked to give proof that what they say about someone who is seemingly trustworthy is true. Corroboration for their story is demanded, while their words become less sure of what they once knew to be their life’s horrible truth. And the ‘T’ I teach becomes nothing more than the letter after ‘s’ and an empty declaration that someone would care and something would get done. I saw the aftermath often. At one school, a girl asked me questions after the first lesson that were too specific to be hypothetical. She ended her line of questions by asking what happens if you tell someone that you were being hurt, they don’t do anything, and someone kept hurting you. I told her that we have to believe that our situation can change and that she should try and tell someone else. But then she replied that others had been told, and nothing had happened. I wish I had a response for her then, but at that moment, I could not think of anything to say to her. I tried to take her aside, but it probably is not so surprising that I could not find her after I was done teaching in other classrooms at school. I tried to follow up at the school, but nothing came of that. If I see that girl again, I can only pray that her voice reached the right ears, such as AMPCAN and other NGOs in Ghana that are trying to put an end to child abuse and neglect. If I see her again, I would tell her that sometimes to change our lives takes a complicated mixture of patience and perseverance, although those are often coupled with lessons no child her age should learn and situations they should never go through. But most importantly, I would tell her that when I say that ‘T’ stands for trust, I also mean that she should trust that if something bad is happening to her that she has it inside of her to hold on until the tide change, and in certain situations, aid herself as well. This is one of the main reasons why I developed my curriculum. These children will become their very own trusted line of defense when empowered with the right knowledge. And myself, along with all the other people working in this field, will stand right there on the front line beside them. Because ‘T’ isn’t just a letter—it stands for trust.

 

Telling a Different Story: Perspective in Life and Words

Job found contentment and even joy, outside the context of comfort, health or stability. He understood the story was not about him, and he cared more about the story than he did about himself.”
— Donald Miller (A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life)

Last week at church I went to speak to the pastor, since I am never home for very long anymore. He asked me what I planned on doing now that I was done with college, and I told him about my upcoming fellowship year in Ghana. As I told him with a smile on my face, excited to share the news with someone else, he watched me with a frown upon his own. When I was done chattering away, he told me to take care because he remembered how alone I had felt and how scared I was on my last trip. I was confused by his reaction, and later that day I asked my mom about it. She told me to recall the few weeks I was home between Ghana and Spain and a testimonial I had given one night during the church service.

During my testimonial, I scrapped the carefully written out words on a lined piece of paper in favor for words that came straight from my heart and onto the pulpit. I spoke about how scared I was that I had a serious case of the illness and the fearful days in the hospital. But I also spoke about how the relationships that I deepened and forged while I was ill, made me face more bravely the realities of our human mortality and to realize that the question was not if or when I would get better, but rather having the faith to know that it would pass. So while the pastor had been right in his assessment that I had been scared on my trip, it was only a natural fear that most would encounter. But I had never been alone, because the story I was unfolding in Ghana and the story I tell from my time there is one of community, relationships, and positive change. If I focused on the part of the story about my comforts and health, I would overshadow the real reason for the story:

 As we were leaving the hospital I realized the toll malaria had taken on my body in just three days. When I put a pair of my jeans on I realized I had lost a shocking amount of weight, my face looked a bit hollow, my hair was a bushy mess, and my arms and legs were thinner and weaker. My wrists were bruised from the IVs and my neck hurt from all the retching, with my throat feeling scraped and dry. But I had my life, and I am regaining strength and energy and health every day. And I have God and all the prayers of my loved ones to thank for that. And I have the choice of taking this unfortunate event and letting it mar my trip here to Ghana, or I can look at it as just another building block in my life and events that have happened to me that have led me to be a stronger person. I think I am going to do the latter. Malaria taught me that sometimes you have to go through the worst before you get better, and that holds true for life too. Sometimes life hands you the worst situations before you end up with the best. My parents asked me again today if I was sure I did not want to go home. I told them a decisive no. I told them no because my work here is not done. There’s still so much to do, and so little time. (Excerpt from Ghana journal entry dated 4 July 2009)

I didn’t go home when I left the hospital because the story wasn’t finished. I may not always be the narrator of my story, but I am the editor of my life. In one of my favorite books that I continue to re-read, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, the author Donald Miller subtitled it “what I learned while editing my life.” The premise of the book is that Miller is approached to have a movie made of his life and realizes that he does not like the story his life tells—so he sets out to write a new one. It was not a fake story that Miller sought, but rather working hard at the life he had in order to be able to tell a better story, a story worth telling. I believe that the parts we should share are the parts that deal with human motion. Not the stagnant stories, but the stories about change, like the ebb and flow of life or the transformation from conflict to peace and resolution. Miller writes:

 “If the point of life is the same as the point of a story, the point of life is character transformation. If I got any comfort as I set out on my first story, it was that in nearly every story, the protagonist is transformed. He’s a jerk at the beginning and nice at the end, or a coward at the beginning and brave at the end. If the character doesn’t change, the story hasn’t happened yet. And if story is derived from real life, if story is just condensed version of life then life itself may be designed to change us so that we evolve from one kind of person to another. ”

My story was not one of the suffering of a serious illness, but how it had opened me up to understanding my community in ways my work could not. And how in the depths of pain, I found an immeasurable source of strength within myself.

We have to know what stories to tell, how to tell them, and when to tell them. Everyone has a reason for the stories they share, when they share them, and whom they share them with. Black women during the years of slavery and the years immediately following shared their stories through mediums such as quilt making, in order to pass on family heritage and culture. Survivors of horrifying events such as the Holocaust share their stories in order to preserve their memories, the memories of those who did not survive, and as warnings to the global community to never let history repeat itself. Nicholas Kristof believes in the power of storytelling in order to encourage others to participate in alleviating the plight of others. For me personally, the story my life tells and the stories that I tell matter twofold. First, it matters because I believe that there is a higher power who reads it. Second, it is important to me because stories are how I reach out to others in the hope that in my own story, they might sometimes find a piece of their own. Then, we aren’t that different after all.

So while one might wish that I take care to avoid loneliness and fear, I wish for the kind of plot that the best stories are made from, because that’s the part I’m going to focus on and share. It’s not the story I have to tell, but it’s the story I choose to tell myself and others. Because for me, life is all about telling a different story from the positive perspective. I prefer the stories of optimism, success, healing, and transformation.

 

In a town where Time does not reside

When I make the turn from Highway 40 onto the narrow roads of State Road 39, before my feet hit the gravel of the driveway–I am home. The tall trees, bright green grass, blooming flowers, and red porch with its American flag. They are all so familiar, and so constant in my life of motion.

Belleville, Indiana is a town with one stoplight, two fresh fruit stands, two highway gas stations, no grocery stores, no clothing stores, and somewhere around 600 people. It’s hard to describe without being here, and it’s a tough life to enjoy for most, unless you’ve grown up to love it. And as I spend what will probably be the last long summer in this place called Home, I’ve come to recognize Belleville’s strongest influence on my life–it is a town in which Time does not reside.

Time is something I cannot escape. It’s on my mind more often than I would like to admit. I stressed about the time left to finish my thesis, I never think I have enough time in my day to do everything I set out to accomplish when I woke up, and I look at the clock all the time to know how much time I have left until my next appointment. Before I know it, it’s another minute, another hour, another day….a year. But not so here. Here, it’s as if I have stepped inside a capsule that freezes me within a moment. It’s as though every day were June 15 or July 16–any day is every day. But it’s not so much the feeling that things often take place in a similar pattern each day, but that there is a slower pace to life and a simplicity to it. There’s nothing fast paced, nothing to rush me or make me feel like I’m running out of time. Here, I have all the time I want, and all the time I need. Like Scout Finch described her town in To Kill a Mockingbird, Belleville is a tired, old town.

And although to stay like this forever would be to not have the experiences that lay beyond that stoplight, it has been a place of rest and a source of rejuvenation for me over the years. It reminds me that it’s okay to take a time out, take care of myself, and rest. Moreover, it reminds me that if I do those things–take that time out–even though time is something I cannot escape, I can not allow it to rule my life. I’ll only have until May in Ghana. What’s my 8 months of work to centuries of hardship? But if 8 months is all I have, it’s 8 months I don’t want Time to rule.  I’ll take my time out now.

Highway 40 and the stoplight as captured from my front yard

As I eagerly await a new beginning in a familiar land

If there is one look that I have recently become well acquainted with, it is the ‘why are you going to Ghana when you could be doing anything else and stay in America?’ look. It is often quickly covered up by the face it rapidly comes across, but other times it remains there for the rest of the conversation. I quickly assuage the looks by telling them of the wonderful project to build a community center through a child rights NGO that will create programs to empower girls and educate their families. However, I don’t disdain that look–I have given it to myself.

Moving to Ghana in the fall was always the right decision for me, but it wasn’t always the easiest decision to make. Flashback one year ago, and I was writing back and forth with my friend and mentor Roxanne about international opportunities and making a grand list of organizations I wanted to work for and jobs I wanted to do. Go back seven months, and I was paper deep in not just my thesis, but the fast approaching deadlines of multiple post-grad fellowships, that would allow me to spend a year abroad. Yet by the end of January of this year, I had signed on to be a high school English teacher in Miami through Teach for America.

Teach for America is a wonderful opportunity with a great goal. Education and youth and children are my passion. For me, education will always have a special place for what it has meant to me throughout my years. Education blurred the lines for me–made those artificial lines of class and color and geography nonexistent. And it transformed my life, and I want that chance to be awarded to anyone else out there who would dare to have it do the same thing. Teach for America gave me that opening. So then why did I keep applying for fellowships? Why almost four months after I sent in my ‘yes’ to TFA, did I say yes to a public service fellowship to go to Ghana?

TFA is going to be a great experience after this deferral period. But for right now in my life, I think I always knew that not only was TFA not the only answer to things that I could pursue after graduation, but that it would also not finish what I started two years ago in Ghana. The feeling of not being completely done with a task started is a strong one. And the decision to go to Ghana instead of Miami in the fall went on all spring in my head, and I kept forcing myself to answer why it was that I was going to steer away from a job with mostly certainties, to a job of almost all uncertainties. But one thing was always certain–I had to go back. I could write the usual reasons–that this is the best time in my life to do it, and when someone gave me the means by which to make it a reality, not even a day went by before I took that offer. But at the heart of it all was the pressing feeling on my heart that I needed to go back, that was only loosened once I finally found my ‘yes.’

The last time I was in Ghana in 2009, the first poem I wrote was entitled “For When the Earth Forgets the Smell of Rain.” It’s about my first rainfall in Ghana during their rainy season, and how it felt like a gift from God after days upon days of scorching heat and dry earth. I likened it to love after heartache or compassion after fatigue. The phrase “for when the earth forgets the smell of rain,” has become the summary of my greatest beliefs of life. It has become the metaphor for how even during the harshest and hardest times in life, and no matter how grave the conflict, in a world where goodness and optimism still reside, there will come a rainfall.

That’s what makes the uncertainty so tiny compared to the possibilities. That rainfall is indeed a promise that takes the lasting hope and durable faith that I have found on previous journeys, and eagerly await to renew again on this one. I write and I take note and I believe in the work that I do, so that when the earth does forget the smell of rain, it may always have reminders. And in the familiar red dirt of Ghana, I will once again begin my own small task of reminding.

And what will life bring this boy?
Deep in thought at school
One day he'll feel the rainfall