Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Precious Children

My dear sweet film critic came back again today. Cheerily she returned the book I gave her and expressed much satisfaction over her new found understanding of World War II and the Holocaust. At least she said she understood everything. She must be either a true glutton for punishment or hellbent on becoming the most worldly, educated 16-year-old in Mongolia. For her next personal screening she chose 'Precious'. Like 'The Boy in the Striped Pajamas' I know the general storyline and even some specifics of the plot but have never seen it. I told her it would be another difficult movie, she nodded with steely resolve and away she went to hook up the equipment. I had to float off to teach a class but while supervising independent and pair work throughout the lesson, I caught glimpses of the film over my student's shoulder. It ignited my memory and stirred a wind.
 Many times being so far flung is a blessing, I am not pulling my hair out over Christmas carol overload, I don't have to deal with Twitter and I certainly don't miss being yelled at to buy cars first thing in the morning. But one tough thing about being in Mongolia is that you miss out on a lot of pop culture, which is frustrating when there are some good looking movies playing in the Sates. 'Precious' was one of those movies. It's on DVD now I know but I still haven't seen it. I think it would haunt me too much.
While in UB over the Thanksgiving holiday I picked up a copy of Push by Sapphire, the book that the movie 'Precious' is based on. It was hanging around my friends house where I was staying and I idly began to read. Precious's narrative voice struck me. Like cinematic flashbacks in which the protagonist finds himself a boy once again and the sound of his dead mother's voice rings through the air, the voice of Precious had a painfully recognizable tone. The way she narrated her life story invited a wind of similar voices telling similar stories that rushed through my head. It was a wind that stirred once again upon seeing clips of the film today and has borne me on it's back ever since.
For the last two years of college I volunteered with homeless youth. We saw everything ranging from sassy male hookers to titanically breasted country girls, from destitute divas to lost angles, even a mother-son pair- all under the age of 21. Once a week in either Baltimore or Atlanta I would devote my afternoon and evening to serving these young people, people who were no less than a handful of years younger than me but had found themselves homeless. My experiences with these youth marked me for life. I will always wonder about what happened to the kids and young adults I worked with; children who had seen too much too young and were eking out a life between the cracks.
In Atlanta I would do outreach, trawling the streets for homeless youth with a fellow volunteer, sometimes a really wonderful 30-something woman named Suzanne whom I admired for her nonchalance, grace and grit on the streets. In an attempt to connect with homeless youth, we would talk to people just chillin' on the sidewalk or playing chess or cards. I miss the bare reality of it all, just listening to the way different people felt about a life in which they had neither money nor stable shelter, a safety net-less population. For some weird reason I miss the way it smelled, the odor of dirt, raw sweat, fried, just fried, and gasoline mingling and growing rancid together. Somehow it smelled alive to me, almost like visiting some strange spice market. Perhaps it's terrible to see other people's problems as my escape. But it was an escape, worries about school, social drama, personal insecurities and family issues melted in comparison to the cards that been dealt to the people around me. It made me feel needed and I relished really rolling up my sleeves and working with people who could really use the help. I loved the job.
During my time volunteering with homeless youth, I saw some nasty, sad thing. But far more important than those horrors, I met some beautiful people. People who would never let life get them down; tenacious, confident, courageous people I will never forget. I think I wove into a previous blog entry one of my favorite interactions with a homeless teen. I asked him how he was doing that day and despite his lack of shoes, his grimy clothes and dirt streaked hair, he chirped 'blessed and highly favored, thank you!'. At the time he was living with his pimp.
I also heard some amazing stories. One of my favorites was from a girl who had just returned to our center after being away for a while. She told us about an ex-boyfriend recently out of prison who wanted her back so badly that he forwent his free bed at a homeless shelter to sleep on a cold, stone bench- just to be near the bench she slept on. He asked nothing more but to rid himself of all  the space between them save the few yards that separated their benches. Honestly I don't know many people who would sleep on a rock in downtown Atlanta for me.
So when Precious's voice dragged and raged through my head, it all came back, the people whose life stories weren't so different from hers. And when I glimpsed Gabourey Sidibe enacting struggles that I have seen in the form of very real scars, it was almost overwhelming. I longed to go back to the streets, to reconnect with those people. I felt so deeply and suddenly the memories of all the youths who had seen too much to be kids but were too young to be adults.
I hope one day I can roll up my sleeves again and continue working with the dirt-streaked favored like Jay. Flipping through Push made me really remember why I love the forgotten people, those society is repulsed by. I adore the broken ones,  the ones who are beautiful on the inside though their past may be cracked like the sidewalks they walk on. Teaching English is useful but it's nothing like strapping on my Converse All Stars and feeling them wear thin as I pound the pavement in search of a child in need. One day I will do so again. Until then Precious and her children will remain safe in my heart.

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